When I came home from Vietnam in nineteen sixty-eight my mother took me to see the foundation of the house she grew up in in Hickman, Kentucky. It was a railroad design, long and narrow, standing alone on the Mississippi bluffs. There were two rooms; one the kitchen, and the other where two parents and three children slept. There was a rust stain of a wood stove on the concrete floor of the kitchen where my grandmother cooked three meals a day. They ate mostly beans, potatoes and vegetables, and if they were lucky, acquired a chicken or a lamb roast.
My grandfather worked as a coal miner and later, a letter carrier, and during the depression he was frequently unemployed. The family shared a garden with the black family down the hill and the children of both families played with each other. It was one of those rare moments of history when poor whites and blacks shared equal destitution.
My father’s side of the family were middle class and I didn’t know them well. My father’s mother was haughty and judgmental. In those few times I saw her she usually condescended to say something unkind about me, although she couldn’t possibly have known me well enough for it to be true. I neither understood nor remembered what she said but I remember her cold and imperious face. But it’s my mother’s mother I want to talk about: Birdie Bradberry Wiseman.
My father left when I was six and the Wiseman house became my daycare center. I was born two years before the end of World War II and remember the celebratory years after. The men were home from the war and animated with whiskey, barbecuing in the back yard, me turning the crank of the ice cream maker. My grandmother’s barbecued lamb would bring people from miles around. I have never since tasted anything like it. When people asked her for the recipe she’d always leave one or two ingredients out so that it could not be replicated. It was accompanied by turnips, yams, collards, corn bread, mashed potatoes, black-eyed peas, and finally apple or pumpkin pie. Alternately, there was chicken or turkey. She’d go into the back yard, snatch a chicken by its head, wring its neck, pluck it, cook it and have it on the table for dinner. I remember her with a chicken’s pin-feather stuck to her sweaty cheek and an unfiltered chesterfield with a long ash hanging from her lips, she managing somehow to not let the ash fall in the food. And of course, she cooked the giblets. She’d cook the liver, gizzard, heart and lungs and drop them into a delicious, salty gravy that could be spooned on to the mashed potatoes. I remember always competing for the chewy tough gizzard and gobbling it down. My more refined friends are shocked at my recounting of the giblets, but she’d come from poverty, and everything was eaten; the carcass boiled for soup. I’m getting hungry as I write this. She was good.
In the morning there were fresh eggs from the hens out behind the garage, bacon or breakfast ham, and grits. There were eggs and calf-brains, toast and jelly. I don’t remember the lunches well, but I do remember soup and sandwiches. She was used to feeding men who worked hard. This was the working class division of labor in those days. It was about survival in the truest sense.
Early on, the family did not have a refrigerator; they had an ice box, and to this day I refer to the fridge as the ice box. It looked like the old Coca Cola cooler you’d find in gas stations with the door on top. The men in the family would go to the ice house, buy a large block of ice and bring it home. I forget how long that block lasted, but in the summer heat in Memphis it couldn’t have lasted long.
My grandmother could read but not well. She read the newspaper and the King James Bible. She moved her lips when she read. My mother, who was always trying to escape her working class origins, found this shameful. In retrospect I think my grandmother was also deeply traumatized from something but never talked about it. She would have “spells” where she’d lose it momentarily. She’d bang pots and pans in the kitchen or go on furious cleaning binges, her eyes wild. She’d lost her first daughter to leukemia and would go up in the attic, go through the little girl’s things, and cry. But we were pre-psychological in those days and seeking help was not even a thought; talking about feelings would bring a feeding frenzy of sarcasm. Suffering was a private thing, softened with booze. Yes, there was alcoholism, and later I would find I’d inherited the gene. When I was first learning to talk and couldn’t pronounce grandmother I called her “nanummer.” This name stuck and I referred to her as such long into my youth.
Hurts aside, these were comparatively good days. The depression and the war were over, and everyone had a job. For my grandmother, in a family that had trouble expressing affection and emotion generally, food was love. I never told my grandmother how much I loved her cooking. She died of breast cancer when I was at Camp Pendleton, waiting to ship out to Vietnam.