She took baths in water so hot you could poach a salmon in it. The steam rose from the tub in big clouds, like from a cartoon cauldron.
“You’re gonna get in that tub?” I asked. “The water is smoking.”
“Yes, child, that’s how a bath is supposed to be,” Gram assured me. I watched her ease into the scalding bath, and then she did the unthinkable.
“Hand me the bleach, gal.”
“Hand me the bleach.”
“You’re going to put bleach in your bath water, Grandma? That’s poison.”
“It’s the good kind of poison. Now hand me the bleach.”
Who was I to tell Gram no? I watched in amazement as she poured two capfuls of bleach into the boiling water. She lay back and shut her eyes.
Years later, with wide eyes and mouth agape, I told my mother what I had witnessed.
My mother said, “Yeah, that’s how some women did it back then.”
I said to myself, “Well, holy shit.”
∗ ∗ ∗
While my mom was out making business deals, I was at Gram’s, learning what would one day become my life’s work. I’d wake up to the smell of bacon frying in her kitchen. Even if you don’t do breakfast, the smell of bacon frying makes you want to. I’d walk into the kitchen in all my morning glory: T-shirt, Wonder Woman Underoos. I’d sit across from Gram, in front of a hot plate — there was bacon, grits, and the gravy from a smothered-chicken dish Gram had made the night before, plus my favorite accompaniment, a cup of Maxwell House coffee, lots of cream, lots of sugar.
Now, my mother would forbid such a drink for a seven-year-old; Gram, however, was my mother’s mother, so I got that cup of coffee every time. Then it would begin, a symphony of sips, forks scraping the plates, spoons rattling inside of coffee mugs or mason jars. I’d look up at my Gram with wonderment, and she’d say, “Eat, gal.”
In that moment, I knew I was loved.
Gram spent days in her kitchen during the holidays, blending, mixing, and kneading. She had all the focus of a brain surgeon. She would not take a break. She wouldn’t even sit down until everything was complete.
With no culinary training — no concept of brunoise over small dice, or cross-contamination — she had not only her friends and family running to her dining table, but all the neighbors, and the community, too.
Like waving some kind of gastronomic magic wand, people appeared on her doorstep: family you hadn’t seen all year, friends you hadn’t seen in months. They’d gather on the front porch, laughing and smiling, waiting to come inside. Then they’d step into all kinds of sweet and savory smells. They’d look with wonderment at the spread laid out before them. They’d know they were loved. That was the kind of power my grandmother had.
As a little girl with no brothers or sisters and a busy mom, I often felt alone. I’d say to myself, If I could cook like Gram, I’d always have the people I care about around me. When we are bound by food, we are also bound with love and laughter.
I would eventually study culinary arts at Le Cordon Bleu in San Francisco, many years after my grandmother’s death.
But it was Gram who taught me to cook — I am one hell of a chef because of Gram’s lessons. But she also taught me to be proud. She taught me to be fearless. I carried those lessons with me and practiced them throughout Gram’s life. I still do today, and they have served me well. I, too, have sometimes relied on the kindness of strangers, and they have depended on my kindness.
Anytime I’m home, and my friends or family know I’m cooking, people appear at my doorstep like magic. They step inside, look at the spread laid out before them, and know they are loved. I spread love with my gourmet butter, flavors as diverse as San Diego. I prepare it at home, and also as part of my new job as a chef.
People say, “Oh, this is dangerous.” Then they eat it and forget it’s butter.
∗ ∗ ∗
“Can I have some gum, Gram?” I’d ask.
“Yeah,” she’d say, pulling a wilted pack from her bosom.
She was what black folks called “light-skinned.” But her sisters Katherine and Ethel and her brother Ezra Junior were a lot lighter than she was. I remember meeting them for the first time in South Carolina, surprised by how high-yellow they were. Ethel even had bluish-green eyes.
Ezra Cannon Senior was Gram’s father. He was a full-blooded Cherokee Indian. “Oh, yes, he was a light thing, with yellows and reds in his complexion,” Aunt Ethel said. “Hell, he was so pretty, he looked like a woman. If you saw him now, you’d think he had a little sugar in his tank.”
Was my great-grandfather a gay man and still married to my great-grandmother? I don’t know, but it wouldn’t be the first time something like that happened in the anti-gay South.
Gay or straight, my great-grandfather was no sissy.
As the story goes, sometime in the 1920s, Great-grandpa took a disliking to a certain white man who trespassed on his property. Ezra Senior didn’t appreciate how the man was staring at his daughters. He told the man to get off his land, but the man refused to leave. A fight began. Ezra drew his pistol, and the white man left. He never came back again. After that day, Great-grandpa kept his gun close.
As I became more educated about African-American history, my family made more sense to me. Many slave-owners raped their black women, and the women had Massa’s babies.
My mother has several university degrees. She’s never missed an opportunity to school me on issues she deems relevant.
“Mom, can I ax you something,” I’d say.
“No, you can’t ax me anything, but you can ask me.”