There are various times throughout a woman’s life when she gets nostalgic. Like around the holidays or at the birth of a new baby or with the passing of a loved one. She can’t help it. She’s just wired that way. (I should know, I’m a Neurosurgeon).
For me, the nostalgia is strongest when I smell cornbread.
The savory-sweet perfume carries me home. Back to Savannah-- to nights at Gram Lenn’s house, sweet tea on the wrap-around porch, cousins laughing and racing around the yard, and her famous cornbread in the oven.
I spent most of my childhood at Gram Lenn’s house.
Mama wasn’t ready to have a kid like me. I was reading the phone book for fun when I was still in diapers. Mama wasn’t a bad person, she just couldn’t cope with raising a gifted child. But Gram, she’d raised seven kids on her own after Gramps died. And she had sixteen grandbabies who all preferred her house over their own. I don’t think there was ever a night growing up when it was only me and Gram alone in her big old house. There was always a cousin or Auntie or someone sleeping over.
Family was everything to her.
And it felt good when she bragged about me to her friends.
Gram said I was the easiest child to raise. Always behaving. Never causing trouble. Probably because my nose was buried in a book. If the house got too quiet, Gram would find me under her bed with a flashlight or in the front coat closet with my books piled high like a mighty fortress. If it wasn’t for Gram Lenn, I would have stayed in that book fortress my entire life letting the world pass me by. But, she made me join the swim team. She forced me to put on a dress and go to prom with Matt Leroy. She said I could do anything and be anyone. She pushed me to try new things and to be a better person.
You know, I was the first one in our family to go to a University. No surprise, Gram Lenn was the loudest one in the auditorium at graduation. She hosted a huge party at her house later that summer in my honor. She served up her famous cornbread and chili, with a side of spaghetti noodles.
An odd combination.
One me and Gram laughed about.
My phone rings.
“Hey Steven, I’m getting ready to head into surgery, is everything okay?” I say when I answer the phone.
“It’s Gram. You better come home.”
My heart starts to palpitate and the neurotransmitters in my brain are firing off neurons so fast I barely feel my feet running.
I knew this day would come.
It doesn’t make it any easier.
My fucking car can’t get me to the airport fast enough. And I don’t know if it’s from working a 36-hour shift or the three shots of tequila at the airport bar. But, as soon as I sit in my seat on the plane my eyes close. It’s a long flight from L.A. to Savannah. My dreams go right to Gram Lenn.
“Frankie, come on girl, get to the kitchen while there’s still something left to eat! That book ain’t goin nowhere and your cousins want to see you,” she says and ushers me out of my book fortress, where I’ve been hiding for the last 30-minutes. Gram is always trying to make me socialize with whichever cousins are at the house.
Without her, I’d probably starve.
And lack any social skills.
But right now, I want to be as far away from the kitchen as possible!
I maybe, sort of, kind of did something bad. Like real bad. Gram’s gonna have a complete hissy fit!
“Whatchu reading ‘bout now Frankie? Looks yucky,” Baby-face Steven, age six and one year younger than me, sticks out his tongue when Gram ain’t looking.
“Frankie, don’t be rude to your cousin,” Gram scolds and sets down a big slab of beautiful yellow cornbread in front of me. The glorious glow of the bread makes me forget what I was worried about. I mean, what’s the worst that could happen anyway? I tense up momentarily. I’ve seen Gram get mad at my cousins. It’s not pretty.
But my mouth is watering. I don’t know what to do!
Should I eat? Or run?
“Gram, what does nunya mean?” Baby-face asks. He’s staring longingly at my oversized center-piece of cornbread. He reaches his little hands towards my plate and I snatch it out of his grasp, pulling it’s precious content closer to me.
“It means, none-of-your-business you big dumb baby,” I say to Steven. Then I stick my book under my butt to keep it safe from greasy cousin fingers.
“Why you hiding it? You readin’ something naughty,” Michael the know-it-all, age eight, one year older than me accuses.
“GRAM LENN! Frankie is readin’ something naughty,” the know-it-all yells.
“GRAM! Michael and Steven are eyeing my cornbread!” I yell in return.
“Boy, you quit tattling on Frankie. And Frankie, mind your manners. Now, who’s ready for a big bowl of my famous chili with their cornbread?” Gram goes to the six-burner stove to check the pot. A puff of chili steam floats up when she cracks the lid.
I let out a shriek, “Nooo!”
My heart is pounding. If Gram sees what’s in that pot, I’m bound to get a spanking.
I put my hands over my eyes.
I can’t watch!
“What’s all the hollering for? There’s enough here for everyone,” Gram answers my outburst.
“I ain’t eatin that Gram,” know-it-all tells her. He hates her chili.
“Why you little scamp! You’re all eating this here chili till you burst!” Gram spins back around with a ladle and waves it at us. Me and baby-face and know-it-all scream.
Gram laughs her big ‘ol hearty laugh.
“Plenty of folks would be happy to have my home cooking Michael. This was Granny Lou’s recipe. And someday, I’ll pass it on to you little turkeys. Now, hand them bowls over. You all growing like weeds, you can’t live on cornbread alone,” Gram Lenn orders.
But I’m scared!
If Gram takes the lid all the way off the pot and sees what I done to her chili, she’s not going to let me go out and catch fireflies tonight with baby-face and know-it-all. And when they spend the night, that’s the only fun thing to do with them. They hate reading books and they wiggle too much to watch TV.
The doorbell rings.
I take the opportunity and slide out of my chair. Thank god Gram Lenn always has a long tablecloth, making her table the perfect place to hide, unless your cousins just watched you disappear.
“GRAM! Frankie went under the table!” Baby-face and know-it-all yell at the same time.
“Heyo, Mama Lenn! What’s that I smell? Your cornbread? Mmmmmm. My favorite!” That’s Uncle Holt. A good distraction. I tug on Michael’s ankle and he kicks me. So I pinch him.
“Ow, why you gotta pinch me?” Michael slides out of his seat and under the table with me.
“Gram’s gonna kill me if she sees what’s in that chili pot,” I whisper. “I, uh, I put something in it. I was doing an experiment. Something from one of my books,” I explain to Michael. He folds his arms over his chest. He’s not impressed. He probably doesn’t even know what a science experiment is!
“So,” he grunts.
“You gotta help me! We have to hide the chili,” I beg.
“Why should I? You’re a jerk Frankie and you get special treatment from Gram. I want your cornbread. Gram always gives you the best piece, the one from the middle with no edges.” He licks his lips. I hate him right now.
“Fine,” I give in. I have no other option.
“For the next month,” he adds. My jaw drops open. No cornbread for a month? Ludacris!
“And I want you to show me that book,” he throws in at the last minute. His eyes are glowing. Like the little devil he is.
“Then I ain’t helping you. What’d you do anyway? Put boogers in the chili?” He smiles.
“Really? Boogers.” I don’t have time for all this! Uncle Holt is going to want to be fed. And soon. That means Gram is gonna lift off that lid… And if she sees it I’m in for it! “Okay, don’t laugh.” I face the cover of my book towards my know-it-all cousin. It’s an encyclopedia of the human nervous system. With real pictures.
“You’re gross Frankie. You gonna grow up and butcher people?” Michael says too loud.
“You grandbabies, get out from under that--” But before Gram Lenn can say anything else, more distractions.
“MAMA! That your chili and cornbread I smell?” It’s Auntie Taylor.
“Now, are we gonna run for it and grab that pot together or should we rescue baby-face first?” I ask Michael. Before we have time to decide, the chair holding baby-face slides backwards, squeaking across the linoleum floor and he jumps off and runs like a miniature madman out the back door into the yard.
“Come back Steven!” Gram yells.
“What’s wrong with these kids Mama? Your chili and cornbread is the best. Dish me up a big fat bowl,” Uncle Holt says and takes Steven’s vacated seat.
Now here’s the part I’d like to forget.
The part that gave me nightmares for years.
I felt awful for scaring Gram.
Even in my dream, I flinch, thinking about it.
Michael and I are about to rush out from under the table and take the pot of chili off the stove when Gram lifts the lid to serve Uncle Holt.
“Aaaggghhh! There’s creepy crawlers in the chili!” Gram screams and flails, trying to put the lid back on. But, she moves too fast, and the pot is too close to the edge and that entire damn pot of chili comes flying off the stove, clanging down to the floor of her beautifully clean kitchen. The room she’s most proud of. I watch horrified from under the table as the mess of hot beans and spiced meat and sauce dump out all over the floor. Along with hundreds of creepy crawlers.
“What the F--” Uncle Holt is about to say something ugly.
“WORMS!” Gram shouts and hisses.
“Mama, them ain’t worms, that’s spaghetti noodles in your chili,” Auntie Taylor bursts out laughing.
“RUN!” I’m halfway out of the kitchen when a giant hand grabs my shoulder. My heart starts palpitating. Oh no. That’s not just any hand-- That hand belongs to Gram Lenn. I’d know her hard working grandma grip anywhere. I’ve seen her grip up enough of my naughty cousins to know I never wanted to be on the receiving end.
“Frankie. You better start explaining.” Her voice is eerily calm considering what just happened. Know-it-all Michael has managed to escape during the chaos.
“Cerebral veins,” I whisper.
“What was that? I couldn’t hear you over the sound of my filthy kitchen.” Gram Lenn turns me around. My eyes are squeezed shut. I’m scared to open them and see the mess I’ve caused. And I’m even more scared to see the look of disgust and disappointment on Gram’s face. I’ve never done anything naughty before at Gram’s house!
“Cerebral veins,” I say again softly. I slowly open my eyes and look from Uncle Holt to Auntie Taylor for help. But, neither of them will look me in the eye. “Like in my book Gram. See.” I hold open my encyclopedia of the human nervous system to page 36 and point to the picture of the brain with all the beautiful cerebral veins. “I thought I could make them out of the spaghetti noodles, Gram. And if I put them into your chili, then maybe they’d turn red, and I could twist them around and-- I’m sorry.”
I can almost see Gram’s cerebral vein, poppin out of her forehead. She’s never been mad at me before. I don’t know what to do. I can feel the tears welling up in my eyes, hot and wet, but I don’t want Uncle Holt or Auntie Taylor to see me crying. And I really don’t want Gram to be mad at me.
She grabs my chin and lifts it up.
She looks deep into my soul.
“Child. Now listen. You got a lot to learn, and I’m surly gonna see to it that you do. But, let me tell you something right now. Don’t ever mess with a grown woman’s cooking. You hear? You don’t go adding salt to the gravy, don’t be grinding extra pepper in the chicken. And NEVER add cerebral veins to my chili. We straight?” Gram’s expresion is serious. The most serious it’s ever been in my entire life.
Auntie Taylor has her hand over her mouth.
And Uncle Holt has turned his back to us. But his shoulders are shaking.
“Yes, Gram Lenn. No salt in the gravy. No pepper in the chicken. And NO veins in your chili,” my voice cracks. “You want me to clean up for you Gram?”
“No, no. Just go on outside with Steven and Michael and catch fireflies. I’ll take care of this. You done enough for one night.”
“Thank you for coming,” I say over and over, shaking hands with the people who have come to pay their last respects to our family. Gram’s passing will be hard on the entire community. She’s always been a pillar of strength and voice of reason. After I moved out to L.A. Gram started working three times a week at the soup kitchen at her church. Then there were her game nights, volunteer work at the library, the neighborhood watch, not to mention great-grand babies to help raise. And my Mama finally got clean and moved home, taking care of Gram in the very end.
“Frankie! Come on, time to eat,” Auntie Taylor shouts from the kitchen.
I can smell it before I enter the room.
Gram Lenn’s cornbread.
My heart swells, my neurons start to fire and the endorphins release. The warm and cozy feelings of being with Gram fill me up.
“I get a center-piece!” I shout at whoever is listening. Maybe when I get home to L.A. I’ll see about using my kitchen to cook in, not just as an extension of my library. It sort of looks like a book fortress right now. Gram would be proud.
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This was a wonderful, heartwarming story, beautifully written! I like how you've tied it all together - she's a gifted child interested in the human brain and ends up becoming a neurosurgeon, the way you've described her reactions (neurons firing in her brain) - that's exactly the technical language she would use to describe them. I feel hungry for good food now. :) You've nailed the language used by the various characters (including the child characters) and the characterization is spot on. You're a very talented writer!
Kanika, Thank you for reading and replying to my short! You are such a talented writer it makes me feel special to have you look at my work. Like being friends with a famous person or something. I appreciate you thinking I nailed the language. I write a lot of southern style themes and characters because I lived in Georgia for six years and now in Florida for 2 years. I guess I'm just drawn to that voice. My children, age 13yo, 11 yo and 8yo are usually my inspiration for most of the children in anything I write. They are like a wild pack o...
Hello, It looks like we're part of a mutual admiration club because I think you're a fantastic author. I loved your story and all the storytelling techniques you've used. Your children sound adorable and I'm sure they keep you on your toes. :) I have a 6yo and he keeps me quite occupied. Great to read on your profile that you're an agented YA author. I would love to check out some of your work once it's published! I have a novel ready (dystopian fiction) and I'm in the process of looking for a publisher here in India. I will be sure to chec...
Hi S.E. I loved this story!! It reminded me of those special times when my family would all get together. Isn't it amazing that our grandmother's were the best cooks. I thought this was masterfully written. I loved the humor and playfulness throughout. I was sad to read about her passing, but that her legacy would live on. I really liked this line: "I’d know her hard working grandma grip anywhere." - This was great!! Now I need some good chili and cornbread... lol :) I thought this was really good, and I think you're a wonderful wri...
Daniel, I really appreciate you taking the time to read my short story. I was inspired by trying to make chili the other night for my kids. Turned into a fiasco when the meat smelled a bit "sus" as my 13yo stated. But, I figured, I'd cook it anyway. Um-- NO! Should have listened to her. Anyway, the garbage disposal had a good meal and we ended up with frozen pizza. LOL Keep reading & writing! xo S.E.
That's a very funny story. I know what you mean, I had many nights like that. I look forward to reading more of your stories! :) :)