Lucille told me not to come in the kitchen. In my young days when I wanted to watch her slice vegetables and pluck chickens, she warned: “This is no place for the likes of you. I’m telling you, standing next to me at this counter won’t get you nowhere at all. As good as looking a blind cat in the eye. And you know you don’t want to do that.”
But I did. I wanted to see that blind cat all the way through, into her milky eyes and beyond. Sacred it was, that kitchen: the shiny surface near the sink covered in blood, the gizzards and neck put aside to be fried later and eaten—Lucille’s special delicacy—and her tidying up after the mess of flour and butter, her thick batter where she rolled chicken breasts and thighs before frying them in the skillet at dinnertime for the “white folks.” That’s what she used to say, with a grin and a nod, adding: “But we get the good parts.”
Lucille and I, we ate in the den, watching the television. Gunfights where white men duked it out at the corral and in the streets, while I imagined my mother out on the town with her lascivious ways, the smell of her perfume, and the whisky on her breath. What Lucille did for us was to clean those chickens down to their innards. “White feathers make for clean picking.” Once the entrails were dragged out, she put her hand inside and took out anything red or loose. While she worked, she reminded me not to feel too much, since evil was just waiting to fall across my path as surely as my foot would slip.
My mother stood on the porch with a drink. She grabbed me by my arm and pulled me inside. “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet/The best is yet to come and babe, won’t it be fine?” I hear Sinatra. Nothing was good ever. Even the best meant the worst. “I’m gonna teach you to fly.” I see my chickens as the yardman chases them with the ax. Chickens clucking on the bloodstained dirt, human eyes rolling in rapture or mockery, the jewels my mother wore. No man could kiss me without my feeling the soil in my throat.
Did you ever make a wish on a chicken’s breastbone by cracking it in two? No, that’s not it exactly, and I want to get it right. With the wishbone, like the rabbit foot, humans take a part of a dead animal and turn it into a talisman, a promise or proof of good luck. We always dug the forked bone between the chicken neck and breast out of the meat and left it on the windowsill to dry. Then, we stood facing each other, Lucille and I. We pulled it apart, each taking one end of the divided bone. We both made wishes silently to ourselves. But I knew that the only wish that would come true was the one made by the person who ended up with the long end of the wishbone. I can’t remember anything except the sound of the snap.
Even if Lucille told me not to watch her in the kitchen, she didn’t mind when she looked around and saw me by her side. Anytime could be a learning moment, what she called “studying.” She wanted to put me right, get my “head turned on straight,” since the South was “bad enough to hurt you too.” Her words return to me now. Hate was in the eyes of the white men who were tall and proud. Hate caused fires to start, glass to break, guns to kill, clubs to hit, dogs to chase and bite. The dogs were big. They were German Shepherds not the Blue Tick or Red Bone hounds. The eyes of the white men tracked me, and not just their eyes, their mouths too. They grinned as they beat up people kneeling in prayer. They smirked as they circled around reporters whose cameras they smashed.
Lucille and I stood in the kitchen. But when my mother came home, she screamed at me. I remember her polished nails and slender fingers clamped down on the scruff of my neck or the collar of my shirt as she dragged me away from Lucille and her cooking. Maybe I’m wrong. But I’m sure that I grew up sensing that the kitchen was off limits. The only time my mother looked at me with eyes that did not go hard and a touch that did not hurt was when I stood in our living room in front of a gilded mirror dressed up like a trussed animal, uncomfortable and distressed.
My mother never cooked, as far as I knew. Only later in her life, when I came home to visit, did I see her standing around midnight in the kitchen, feet bare and in her nightgown or robe, baking Mandel Bread or what her friends called “Mandelbrot” along with Baklawa. By then, she was alone in Atlanta. I watched her, adrift like a woman lost in time, chopping pistachios, rolling out dough on a floured board, back and forth, pulling and flattening it out until it was tissue-thin. In the large freezer downstairs, she piled up shoeboxes filled with deserts, stacked and set out on wax paper.
With most of her friends dead and my father gone—except when he hovered, as she used to tell me, up on the ceiling by the light in her bedroom—my mother remained alone. She seemed so out of character, no longer the woman of glamor—either out on the town or lying in bed. I knew that she had grown old, just like the house that was falling into ruin around her. Even before the final illness that ate away at her mind and memory, she lived in ever-intensifying reminders of what had gone dead around her.
But once in the kitchen, she lived again, as if all her life had come down to making what could be frozen or given away to friends. I am aware now of the significance of her cooking when I remember my early life and look forward to whatever might happen in Nashville. The oven burns my hand and knives cut my fingers. Standing by the sink, I see my mother who never completed one of her late-in-life baking stints without blisters and blood. She died, and boxes of her clothes came to Nashville. What is home? Isn’t it where no escape is possible? I arrived here in her wake. Then she followed me and let me know what she felt when she married my father.
Along with photos I had never seen and these boxes came another box filled with silk underwear, bras, panties, and slips. As I removed this lingerie, I found a denim-covered, old-fashioned ring notebook, the kind I grew up using in elementary school. Of all the things recovered after my mother’s death, nothing shocked me like this relic. It contains the gist of her life: the spirit that lived all the while without my recognition. On its cover, I see my writing. I must have been very young. The words strike me hard like her laughter. I loved her to death. And this is the haunt: not dolls that I found in her basement with their heads torn off or the fur coats covered in mold just like skinned animals, once adorning a human body and now cast off, forgotten. This is the book of her life. I wrote across the front of it:
Sophie Edmond Joan
Dayan Dayan Dayan
Or did my mother write these words? In the center of the cover is the word “Recipes,” and then, further down: “Food: yum, yum.” A grimoire, this book of spells holds the secret to her hopes; and it overwhelms me like nothing else that remained after she died. There are scribbles in pencil all over, along with in very small letters, fading now, words that look like a child’s writing, copying what was already written out but now in a straight line: “Sophie Dayan Edmond Dayan,” and then below them, faint, tiny, and without a last name: “Joanie.”
The notebook is filled with handwritten notes for all kinds of food, clippings of recipes or of photos –“Pig in Blanket, “ “Southern Fried Chicken,” or “Red Noodles and Beef”– lists of vegetables, with instructions about cooking things as simple as string beans. A testimonial to her reading, it was also the way she learned to speak English. “Savory meat balls.” “Hattie’s Steaks.” “Onion and Pickle Sauce.” I imagine her writing down these words onto the sheet of lined paper, with three ring holes, that lies in front of me on my desk.
- Cut string beans and wash
- Pieces of veal muscles
- Pieces of bones
Put meat on bottom of pan and string beans on top.
Put in a little oil and cook on slow fire.
A witch’s brew too simple not to be ritual. Is this a ritual of domestic life, or more likely an incantation, a litany of fortune in the lineaments of beans, muscles, and bones?
In the same box, I also found two spiral notebooks, with double pocket dividers stuffed with clippings. Each notebook with slick yellow covers had 152 sheets of wide-ruled paper, and each is three quarters full of pages covered in her handwriting. But these came later in her life, after she left Nashville for Atlanta. I can tell from the clippings and from the sureness of her writing. All these remnants of her life, discovered only after her death, reveal someone I never knew. Not the cold beauty who never lifted a finger or the half-awake woman who rang a bell for Lucille in the morning and drank herself silly with friends at night.
Instead, here she comes, right out of the pages enveloped in denim, as if her soul lives fully again, buoyant in anticipation. A clipping, quite worn, describes how to make hamburgers, and I’ve come across a page that reads like a narrative about a character she calls “Hamburg”— and on another piece of paper, “Ham Burg” — who comes forth as chopped meat, “browned in hot fat in skillet,” or “Hamburg bean pot,” with salt and pepper. So young and just married, she seems to believe that if she could just make those beans or get that hamburger right, all would be well.
In Nashville, she set about shaping herself into that thing called “wife,” a Southern wife whose very presence took hold in what she could cook. She seemed to realize her identity through her persistence in the kitchen. Amassing recipes and notes before me, I see that they correspond to her special style of magical thinking. Not one Haitian dish or anything that resembled what she might have eaten growing up in Port-au-Prince, and only a few Syrian dishes, but they are crowded out by everything American. In these pages and scrambled newspaper and magazine clippings, I see how my mother willed herself to be the housewife I never knew until now.
Her life comes full circle as I sit on the porch on a November day, heavy with heat in the high seventies. Before I came into her life, she cooked; and long after that, when I was much older, she baked. Whatever lay in between, the parties and the lust, the laughter and the dirt, was all I had ever granted her. I had been mistaken all along. One photo remains from the unknown land of kitchen days—she stands, a young bride, in what I bet is Nashville with her hair pulled back in a style that I never knew, holding a shish kebab, her face serene and grave in the glare of the window. My mother took herself seriously then. She had the chance to matter.
Blood is on the kitchen ceiling. The red flecks appeared about a year ago. I knew my mother wouldn’t stay long under the ground.
I remember what Thomas our yardman used to tell me about the dead who come back. They just can’t stay still. “They’ll be looking at you like they’re in the movies. That’s the way they come out. They don’t come on real. They come out like a show or something. Sometimes, they come back like steam going over you. And that steam’s going to be the ghost. They don’t come out natural. That’s why it hurts so bad.” But my mother comes back with a fleshly message from above. No steam or shadow for her, just blood and gore. She carries her world with her: a new recipe, another meal.
I wanted to see my friend Freddie, who had been hit by a train walking across the tracks early one morning. Thomas warned me I wouldn’t want to see him now. “He’ll just stand there looking like a post, and he won’t say nothing. It will scare you. You’ll go into spasms.” I kept asking him how I could see Freddie again. Thomas said that Freddie would return with the suit he was buried in not quite tacked on him. It would not fit him. “You don’t want to see no one you can’t touch, do you? See someone you talk to, and they don’t answer, do you?” Because I felt so strongly that it was Freddie I wanted to see, I was told, “That’s why you won’t see him.”
One day after I’d been out of Nashville and away from home for a month or so, I walked in the kitchen and saw maggots on the stove. They squirmed. As soon as I sponged them off, more fell. Something had died, I thought, up in the attic, so it became food for maggots. Lyle Brim, the “wildlife removal” man, climbed a ladder, removed one of the light fixtures and shined his flashlight up into the opening. “You can’t have maggots without a host,” he said. “These are maggots, but there’s no flesh for them to feed on.” He sawed about so much round the hole that insulation came down, along with more maggots. “It’s like poltergeists,” he mumbled, as he watched some falling, others diving onto the gas burners on the range. “It stinks like hell, even if it ain’t nothing up there,” he concluded. But I knew there was.
“Nobody’s going to cook in this kitchen but me,” I hear my mother telling me, now that she has found bearings in my Tudor house with a magnolia out front and a dogwood tree and pink and white azaleas just as I remembered them from our backyard in Atlanta. My friends can’t understand how I stay in the house, and I admit I’m hard put to explain it. Why don’t windows shutting and feet walking “scare the living daylights out of me,” as Lucille used to say? The funeral trains keep coming down the tracks, along with the cries of orphans in the night. I hear them: the whistle blows. “I hear the train a comin’/It’s rolling round the bend/And I ain’t seen the sunshine since I don’t know when.”
Johnny Cash is here, along with Lucille, Thomas, my mother, and all the other spirits that live in the heavy blowing trees and the rank smelling flowers. It’s a good crowd. I’m never lonely, and I’m glad my father won’t have anything to do with all of us, since his heroes of suffering—Jeremiah and Spinoza—sure would put a damper on things.
Someone’s in the kitchen with Dinah
Someone’s in the kitchen I know
Someone’s in the kitchen with Dinah
Strummin’ on the old banjo!
“Now don’t you tell me you can’t hear me tell you about that railroad,” Lucille said one night in Atlanta. “You better hide like a snake in the grass, if you don’t want to fall under the ghost whip. Death’s little black train is coming.” But I also heard the laughter of white friends, as we sang “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” on the way to camp up in the mountains of Asheville, North Carolina. We hooted and we hollered, yelling out the words: “Dinah, won’t you blow,/ Dinah won’t you blow,/Dinah won’t you blow your horn?” I smile now when I remember how the boys used to get nasty, and look girls in the eyes while they pursed their lips like they were going to blow on a trumpet. But we knew what they meant.
When it came to “Someone’s in the kitchen with Dinah,” Lucille had no truck with sex or the high romance that masked it. “You know as sure as the day is long how much she suffered, pulled at and ripped into by the man.” The lash in the prison camps, that she knew, too, and the splintered wood of the tracks; and over it all, the white man on horseback in the broad-brimmed hat, with a shotgun slung over his shoulder. Sensing how real and present memory always becomes, she was steeped in her bones with the bad history of the South. Only whites could rollick with that song, thinking about a woman named Dinah, who might or might not be a black woman, who might be free or maybe still a slave.
But Lucille made sure I understood how blood mixed with dirt when the violence came. As late as the sixties, I saw black men, shackled at the ankles, linked together by chain, and dressed in what we knew as “zebra stripes,” working their time along the highways of Fulton County on the chain gang. My father told me not to look at the men chained up, but he told me that his favorite actor was Paul Muni. His performance in “I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang” changed his life. I never knew how.
Lucille had already made me see what my parents hoped I would disregard. She took me by the arm and said: “Don’t you ever not pay attention to those men who walk in chains.” Everything that mattered to me came from Lucille. But I didn’t know that until now, until I felt how ghosts kept step with me here in Nashville, standing in the kitchen where maggots make their home.
Lucille taught me how convicts were leased out to work on the railroads, in the mines, and even in the fields. “You have that Negro blood in your veins, I know it,” she exclaimed. Standing next to her while she concentrated on her job at the stove, I learned how the police were known as “the laws.” I grew up hearing about “meat that takes directions from someone.” She threw raw steak on the skillet and told me about the paterollers who would get me if I walked outdoors in the dark. “With their white cone hoods and their white capes,” they’ll come at you like “ghosts in the night.”
I grew up in that kitchen. I learned why my mother didn’t want me there. Overtly white and graced with laughter, she didn’t want me to be where “the help” was supposed to be. But since she never stayed home, Lucille and I shared old stories of intimacy and threat. “It comes on like a flash of white in the darkness to steal your soul and thieve your mind, but it feels so good,” Lucille warned. Then she sang, “I ain’t got long to stay here, I’m just gonna’ steal away.” But my mother was never honest. How could she be? When my father had turned her into a mannequin of his heart’s desire? She had to run from the past she longed for.
Fie, fi, fiddly i o
Fie, fi, fiddly i o
Fie, fi, fiddly i o
Strumming on the old banjo
Nothing is lost, mother. What you left behind when you married my father comes back through me in ways you would never have liked. But I like to think my undone hair, un-manicured nails and elephant-tough feet, along with books and politics—everything you despised—have sown the soil for your return. You come back with mango juice on your hands, your feet naked on the kitchen floor, all the feeling you held back and sweetness you destroyed as you got the knack of a life that would only hurt you.