Thursday, October 25, 2007

My people grow older

Thursday, October 18, 2007

So My Unicorn Has Cancer - A writing prompt

This is a writing prompt assigned by my capstone professor: Begin a story with "So my unicorn has cancer." I may stick writing prompts and my response up from time to time. Feel free to try them yourself. These are generally rough drafts I stick up here for amusement. Well. I sort of stick everything up for amusement. There is no rhyme or reason to this blog.

So my unicorn has cancer. Or so he told me today. The week before, he had gangrene in his horn. The week before that was asthma and the week before that he was pretty sure he'd had a stroke. I should have known better than to buy him from Lying Jack.

Lying Jack got his name because he is a liar. Pretty simple, yes? But the problem with Lying Jack is he is a very good liar. Really Good. I guess people call him Lying Jack so we could all remember why not to listen to him, but somehow people still forget. At least I'm not the only pulled in by Lying Jack's fast talk and dead serious eyes.

Toot Knowles bought a bunch of beans off him one time. Lying Jack said they were passed down from his great-great-great grandfather and they were not just any kind of old beans but they historical magical beans; that Toot had probably heard about his great-great-great grandaddy when he was a little boy. People told all kind of stories about him and his magic beans in children's book.

Oh, I know. It sounds ridiculous to hear about it now, but you obviously don't know Lying Jack. He just has this way about him. Some sort of earnestness in his eyes and his voice just seems to soothe doubts into nothing. It's like he truly believes everything he says. Maybe he does. It's hard to tell with Jack.

Anyway, Toot found himself with a handful of historical magical beans and felt pretty confident he'd gotten the better end of the bargain as he watched Lying Jack walk off with his wife's new Kitchenaide Mixer. With the attachments and a meat grinder. It wasn't until late in the bean season that Toot finally decided he'd been had by Lying Jack. All he has was a record setting beanstalk and the new nickname of Toot. You know. Because of all them beans. They did seem to rumble a stomach more than other types of beans. And Toot did get his name and picture in the Market Bulletin. He looked like a man with a sour stomach in that picture. He's been cooking for himself ever since he gave away the kitchen aide mixer.

I wish I could tell you Lying Jack never did take in anyone else, but then I'd be lying. He got nearly everyone in town to fall for some craziness or other. The chef, the baker, the candlestick maker. The mayor, the police chief, the lunchroom lady. All his life, Jack's done what Jack knows how to do and it seems to benefit him fairly well. Finally, I guess my turn came and he reeled me in with his story just like every other fool in town. I don't care to go into the details. It's a frightful embarassment how I ended up with ailing unicorn. My wife calls him a hypo-chondri-ac. She says we need to talk to him some more and show him we care. She watches a lot of that Dr. Phil.

She wanted to try and get us on that show so we could sort our problems with a real doctor of psychiatry for free and maybe get a little vacation as a nice bonus. I can't. How would it look for me to stand in front of the entire world with my head down because I let Lying Jack con me into buying some trumped up creature that don't do nothin but nag and sigh, sigh and nag. I've already got him sleeping in the bedroom because my wife thinks it'll make him have better self esteem or whatever.

I done been poked in the butt by that unicorn horn three different times on my way to the bathroom this week. He don't move, say excuse me, sorry, nothing. I can't. How would it look for me to stand up in front of the entire world with my head bowed because Lying Jack conned the devil out of me, I'm being run out of my own house and then have that Dr. Phil tell me my dog won't hunt. It ain't fittin.

Sure. Everybody around here knows about the unicorn and how I'm being pushed out of my own house. But that's different. Everybody here knows Lying Jack and they don't say much because they have their own affliction to contend with at home caused by him. Nettie finally put that phoenix out in the yard the second time it burned up her carpet. And Carl just does barely seem to tolerate that long haired blonde Jack introduced him to. I told Carl he ought to divorce and be done with the whole thing, but he won't. Says she just squalls every time he mentions maybe she ought to go home to her mama a little while. She goes to wailing and says she can't stand that boy climbing her hair no more. He doesn't know where she came from exactly, but he's just too soft-hearted to send her back to that kind of nonsense.

I understand. I don't know what to do with this unicorn. I got unicorn patties all over the house and a sore butt and my wife things I'm some sort of horrible person for not wanting to get therapy on national TV. I can't. Those people don't know Lying Jack and I just can't abide by being made more of a fool than I already am. Maybe I ought to do something, though.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Rough Draft

Nanny’s cast iron frying pans are smooth, black and cool to the touch when I scrape the food out and gently wipe a rag over them. Nanny, paternal great-grandmother to my children, is a seasoned veteran of cornbread, sweet potato casseroles, collards and hasty meals thrown together to appease the ever advancing army of visitors. This meal was one to feed the hordes brought together this time by the death of her brother-in-law, Claude Junior. Nanny, as I’ve known her since I became part of the family, has always been the most genteel of hostesses insisting I didn’t need to “worry about them dishes” but she was preparing to travel with Pa to tend to Claude Junior’s family and see about arrangements. I want to do my part, however small, and insist it wouldn’t take me long to finish up, and besides, no one want to come home days later to dirty dishes. I don’t tell her I secretly want to feel her cast iron frying pans.

Mama gave me my first cast iron frying pan when I finally set up house on my own at the age of 23. It was small, black, and smooth – just large enough to sauté onions or prepare an omelette. However, I began housekeeping with a family of three already in place and needed more pans. After a days long search that carried me through every local store, I gave up and called my mother in frustration when all I could find were gray and bumpy cast iron pans. They were not the black, smooth ones I’d grown up with in my mother’s house. Even the inept such as myself could see these gray imposters would never be worth using. She laughed at me.

“You have to cure it.”

“Of what?”

My mother had neglected most of my culinary education. Or rather, it seemed a mutually agreed decision to preserve the tentative peace between a woman and her teenaged daughter. Our shared personality traits divided by a generation clashed most often as not in my search to find autonomy. Many women of my grandmother’s era seemed to hold housekeeping close to them they way some may hold hard earned doctorates as sign of their abilities and importance. I cannot say my mother learned any of these skills from her mother and most likely learned to cook on her own or from her stepmother. My uncles will still laugh about the biscuits my mother made when they were growing up and claimed they once knocked down a wall with one. It seems she was sandwiched between a mother who had no skills to pass down and a daughter who did not want them.

Cooking was not a bonding experience in my family. In fact, my mother’s people have never been ones to bond in the traditional sense. Instead, we fight and argue and sometimes seek alpha dominance. Love is not a topic we feel the need to discuss or routinely exhibit. Instead, love seems to be expressed through a certain oddness where arguing is equated with love. Arguing shows concern and an effort to bring a certain loved one to the appropriate decision. Love has not so much been a pussyfooted kindness, but an unspoken demand from each of us. In exchange, we stand beside each other in the lean times, the stronger caring for the weaker ones. We push our own worried and fears aside when one is sick or in trouble. We do no cry then. Then we are poured from a cast of metal spines, clear heads and mildly hot tempers. Love is not expressed through words and hugs, but a level headed determination to find all the answers and provide the best solution possible to a problem. Love is a strong shoulder to lean on and a clear voice ask what needs to be done. At other times, we are all oil and water and cannot be mixed well enough to find peace in each other’s company for too long. In a family stocked with outlaws and inlaws left over from marriages gone bad, love is more of a loose confederacy. Even now, there is an awkwardness between us when my mother or I say “I love you.” It as if we are turtles deprived of our protective shells and we find ourselves unshielded before the world. It is expression enough in her gift of a frying pan and curing instructions. We know.

When I first began dating John, my children’s father, Pa and I had not yet been familiar with each other enough to hurl our now customary insults: “Good lawd, Ugly! I was havin’ a damned good day till you come along and messed it up. I do believe I done gone blind.” Pa is a big man, standing well over six feet with white hair and twinkling blue eyes that express too much mischief for a man his age. Like many men of his generation, he is missing more than one finger – lost in an effort to provide a home and meals for his family. On one of those summer days in the beginning of my relationship with John, Pa sat in the shade of a large tree in the unraked side yard of the house tending to a fire whose purpose I could not determine. I did not know him well in those days and was too shy to interfere in his business. Then he simply called me “Guhl” as he called most of the other women around him instead of my Pa-given nickname: “Ugly.”

I met up with Nanny in the shared yard between one of her daughter’s homes and her own small white house that began life some hundred years ago as a two-room sharecropper’s cabin. The roof is still layered in hand picked cotton under the modern shingles. Her eyes easily tell her lifetime of guiding her loved ones and she explained to me Pa’s decision to cure a frying pan in a handed down method of curing it over an open fire with bacon grease saved in an old coffee tin. He sat over the heat of the open fire gently turning and wiping the pan until the process was completed.

For some five decades, Nanny has stood in front of a stove providing meals for the people who mean the most to her. First, under the tutelage of her mother raised in the mountains of north Georgia and then in her own home while children stood under her feet in a kitchen not large enough turn around in. She raised and fed and tutored grandchildren in that same kitchen and now her great-grandchildren come in search of cornbread, popsicles, hugs and sweet tea. She has never turned away a child in need and shared more than would seem feasible to those who hold on tightly to their private stores and hearts.

King Edward III, sovereign ruler of England for half of the fourteenth century, proclaimed iron pots and pans to be a part of the crown jewels. The belief in the unending value of cast iron cookware has passed down through some seven hundred years, carried by settlers across the Atlantic Ocean and Eastern mountains who finally settled in the rolling Georgia midlands. Nanny, like women in my family (myself excluded), knows the value of a cast iron frying pan. She would hold them only in a slightly lower position directly under her loved ones in her casket of jewels - family being the only thing of greatest importance in life and the true reason for gently caring for her cookware. She does not berate me the day I wash her frying pans and attack one with a metal spatula because I cannot find the scrub pad. She does not even seem overly concerned, but tells me it would be better to use to the scrub pad and to not let the pans soak too long in water or put soap directly on the surface. I finally begin to understand why food still sticks to my own cast iron pans.

Unlike women in my family, Nanny is not opposed to crying openly in the face of uncertainty. It seems my children’s family wears their hearts on their sleeves and it is not in the slightest bit unusual to hear Nanny say, “I love you, son” to an adult grandchild. Expressing such personal emotions in the open was different from anything I’d ever known in my life. While it had never been directly stated by anyone close to me, attitudes told me it was a sign of weakness - emerging from this protective shell we don in our day to day interactions with each other and the world that has run against us since anyone can remember. It has taken many years for me to understand to walk through life without a permanent armor is a courageous act in itself.

I’ve amassed a collection of three cast iron frying pans since I began my time as an adult. In these years I’ve cooked with aluminum, anodized aluminum, nonstick, glass, and stainless steel in a vain hope my dinners would be palatable instead of just a serviceable meal to stave off the pangs of starvation. Slowly, I’m learning it is not necessary the fault of the pots and pans I choose to employ, but my own impatience with the intricacies of domesticated life. One cannot speed estimated cooking time under the premise that turning the burner to high will cut time spent over the stove in half. Years of personal experiments have confirmed this for me. My pans have also paid the price for my gourmet inaccuracies. The cast irons have sat in an ignoble place on the bottom cabinet shelf for quite sometime because I’ve ruined the finish and have only recent brought myself to the truth: their failures are of my own making. Washing Nanny’s pans was an affirmation that my own pans can be useful again with a little care. I plan to cure them again soon. They are growing older and are not going to always believe that Cajun blackened chicken noodle soup is a real meal.

I would like to pass them down to my children – one pan for each child; well seasoned with years of family meals and little lessons taught in between. Maybe somewhere I will be able to teach them it’s okay to cry in front of others and it is okay to stand up and defy the world when the cause demands it. These lessons are easy, it’s knowing when to choose the right course of action that life can work itself into knots. Years after they’ve left me to forge their own way in the world, it would be nice if they gently rubbed their hands across the smooth blackness of a cast iron pan one day and remembered life and family and love can be complicated, but every day is worth the effort knowing someone else will find small joys in their efforts. Hopefully, they will remember their mama loved them enough to cook even though I never seem to master the mysteries of a kitchen.