Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Pass the Cornbread, Ya'll

As fall settles upon us, I find myself thinking more and more of my grandmother, Gladys McCalvin Greenfield, who would have turned 91 this week.

The nights are cooler, so I sleep under the heavy butterfly quilt she stitched by hand. The garden needs to be put to bed for winter, so I work the soil with her garden tools. And as the days get shorter and darker, I crave comfort food -- the kind my grandmother so lovingly prepared for her family every weekend.

I lost my grandmother in 2003, and there isn't a day that goes by that I don't miss her. I would give anything to once again sit at the maple kitchen table in her cozy, warm kitchen, and fill my plate with pinto beans, potatoes, green beans, corn, macaroni and cheese and her delicious buttery cornbread.

To keep my grandmother in my life, I have tried to prepare all of her "special" foods, the ones that remind me most of her. I'm no chef, but through trial and error, I've learned to bake homemade pies and biscuits and prepare her savory vegetable soup and country vegetables. I miss all of her treats, but I miss her cornbread most of all...and that's how the following essay was born.


(c) 2007 By Jennifer Jenkins Reese

My grandmother was dying.

She had been slipping away from us the past few years, each ragged breath one closer to her last as she wearily battled chronic emphysema and congestive heart failure. Age and disease had shrunk her from a statuesque, silver-topped Southern queen, to the skeleton on the hospital bed before me.

Her hair, once coiffed weekly at Poggy's Beauty Salon, blew in thin, white wisps about her from the fan on the bedrail. Her face­--not unlike mine with deep-set eyes and sharp angles--was covered with an oxygen mask, the mechanically produced air pumping into failing lungs.

Her hands, so strong they could open a sealed Mason jar with half a twist, shook as they tried to find mine. I clasped her long, bone-thin fingers between my palms and gently rubbed them back and forth, back and forth.

Though baby-soft now, her hands were "working hands", every wrinkle marking a groove worn in the road of life. These were the hands that labored on a farm in the hills of Appalachia to raise younger siblings after losing both parents when she was only 11. Hands that survived the Great Depression and great wars. Hands that toiled for 32 years in a hosiery mill, stretching cotton into socks. Hands that buried two husbands, one in the dawn of her life, the other in the dusk. Hands that comforted children, grandchildren, great, and even great-great grandbabies. Hands that could grow anything in a pile of dirt and made legendary cornbread, biscuits and banana pudding.

Hands I could have held forever.

I needed to tell my grandmother how deeply she had impacted my life, how childhood memories of her little gray brick house comforted me on sleepless nights.

On my two-hour drive to the hospital, I braced myself for this farewell. I would tell her she was part of me--the part that found joy in simple pleasures, like fresh-baked bread, a robin's nest and azalea blooms.

But as I looked at her, seemingly transparent on the sterile white sheets, words were lost.

Her "story", The Bold and the Beautiful, played on the TV above me. A nurse entered the room, white shoes squeaking, and adjusted IVs. My mom, so weary from long days in the hospital, patiently removed an oxygen mask to apply balm to my grandmother's lips. I watched silently as the lines between mother and child blurred.

I glanced at the clock above the bed and wished it away. I needed to go soon, to return to my husband and young children in a town miles away, but I couldn't find the strength to approach the hospital door: to open it would close a part of my life forever.

My grandmother sensed my apprehension. We only half-heartedly joked that there was a psychic, visceral connection between the women of my family. Mom Greenfield, who had an uncanny ability to read minds and forecast the future from dreams, was raised in the mountains to believe in the signs. If her nose itched, company was coming. If the woolly worms were black, a hard winter was in store. If she dreamed of water, or if a bird tapped at the window, death was close at hand.

In past weeks, I had dreamed of my grandmother, standing with my late grandfather, by a moss-green lake, gazing longingly at the water. As she struggled for breath now in the hospital, I searched for the words to tell her it was all right to go to the cool, green pool that beckoned her.

Instead, all I could say was seemingly menial: "I've always wished I could make cornbread like you."

Surprisingly, my grandmother waved off her oxygen mask and spoke for the first time since I'd entered the room, her voice so hoarse I leaned in to catch her words.

"A cup and a half of cornmeal, the white kind," she said.

I wasn't sure I'd heard her correctly, but she continued.

"One egg slightly beaten, and stir in about two tablespoons of flour."

I motioned frantically for my mother to fetch a pen and paper.

"I put a good teaspoon of sugar in there, too," my grandmother said, smiling ever so slightly as she revealed her secret. "Get your oven good and hot and melt you a big spoonful of Crisco in an old iron skillet."

Mom and I looked at each other in disbelief as I took notes on the back of a deposit slip fished from her purse. In this, the final moments of her life, my grandmother was sharing her cornbread recipe.

Golden, buttery, perfectly crisp on the edge and moist in the middle, Mom Greenfield's cornbread was heaven in a skillet. A staple in her kitchen, it was served with every meal.

Family members tried for years to get her recipe but gave up in exasperation, as she'd shrewdly guard it with phrases like "Oh, I just put in a bit of this and a tad of that." She kept her recipe close to her heart, rising at dawn to make the bread (partly to have it ready when someone arrived, but mostly to keep her ingredients hidden.)

My grandmother's food was her lure. We were drawn to her house to visit, sure, but also to eat. Soup beans. Stewed potatoes. Macaroni and cheese. The sweet chocolate and pecan confection my Papaw had dubbed "honey squirrel cake." And cornbread. Oh, sweet Jesus, the cornbread.

I blinked back tears as Mom Greenfield continued to tell me--each breath a chore--how much buttermilk she used and how she poured melted shortening into her batter just before baking.

My grandmother wasn't the most demonstrative woman emotionally. She grew up in hard times, when food on the table was a great blessing, a gift. So she celebrated her family by cooking. If you loved chocolate meringue pies, and she had one cooling on her counter when you arrived, it said everything.

She couldn't have told me more now if she'd quoted great philosophers. Cornmeal, Crisco, and cast-iron skillets were all I needed to know.

At last, finished with her recipe and out-of-breath, Mom Greenfield motioned for her oxygen mask and leaned back against the pillow, exhausted. Her eyes sought mine, and they spoke volumes. I clutched the deposit slip with the scribbled ingredients tightly in my palm. It was my treasure.

I took Mom Greenfield's hand, kissed her forehead, told her I loved her.

I promised to bake her cornbread and serve it often.

And I found the strength to walk out the door.


  1. I miss her so much, but I have a sister so imbued with her spirit, I know I'll never forget her -- or find myself unable to tell my children what she was like.

    If I can carry on my grandfather's legacy half as well as you do hers, I'll die a happy man.

  2. i'm not going to lie... i wanted to read this when you posted it on blogger months ago; but, i couldn't bring myself to do so, jenn. i knew it would make me miss my grandmothers even more than i already did, and i was not in the frame of mind to go "there" then.
    today i read this, and it made me miss my grandmothers, yes. but, today it made me smile at the gift of memories... memories of innocent times, good food, and the feel of my grandmothers' hands.
    we were blessed weren't we:)
    much love,
    dani xxxx

  3. Josh, that means so much to me. Now if you really want to be like Pappaw, please give me $5 to go splurge on candy at the corner store.

    Love you, bro. Thanks.

    And Dani, we were blessed indeed. I'm glad you could smile when you remembered your grandmothers. Thanks so much for reading along.