My grandmother, Dot, oversees the preparation of Thanksgiving dinner from a hospital bed in her living room. She has held court in the kitchen for as long as I can remember. Now, though, her throne is railed, metallic, and fitted with a vinyl-coated mattress that squeaks to announce her every move. These squeaks have become the chime her grandchildren, sons, and daughters are summoned by, hoping to be able to satisfy whatever her needs may be. If we are lucky, it is a glass of water, an out-of-reach itch, a craving for a good tomato (don’t forget the salt). Those wants can be met, unlike her desire to disappear into her favorite bingo hall or not to be in pain or not to feel like a burden.
Her kitchen is cluttered this year, and with more activity than it’s seen in a while. Grandma, who hasn’t been sleeping much, is alert. Having regained use of her vocal abilities, she calls out instructions and for samples now and again. “Turn the eye on them greens down. And y’all can put that cornbread off to the side and let it cool.” The stove is in her direct line of sight in the living room.
There was a time when she moved from refrigerator to stove and back again in such a way that you’d want to imitate even that, not to mention the dishes housed by the metal-domed cookware that seemed to magically stream from the modest oven. The tin-foil-covered containers accumulated like glistening building blocks on the counters; they took over tabletops. In her slip-ons and sweats, blues wafting like smoke in the background, she chopped the staples—onions, celery, green peppers, a triad of pixilated shades of white and green—shredded cheese for buttered elbow noodles, and basted a turkey that always appeared too large for consumption, with its specially seasoned juices. A boiling blend of collard and turnip greens rattled the lid of the marbled green pot. Chicken and dumplings simmered in creamy, pepper-flecked gravy. A peach cobbler bubbled over in the oven, saturating the air with the smell of caramelized sugar and cinnamon. It was an amazing culinary marathon, not just the meal we’d been waiting for all year but the manifestation of a fullness far beyond the bounds of our stomachs. Grandma made us whole.
Now, we’re her hands and feet, moving through her kitchen in shifts, but it is clear she is still very much in charge. Everyone has their assignments, be it peeling potatoes or, for the boys, setting up tables or making the first in a series of “final” runs to Walmart. “Baby, hand me my purse. You gon’ remember all that? Maybe you should write it down.”
I make the sweet potato pies and have for some years now. I inserted myself into Grandma’s kitchen in an attempt to appropriate, to become intimate with, the woman that she is. Early on, Grandma held my hand, walked me through the unwritten recipe step-by-step. I’d discreetly pick out eggshells, not wanting her to see me falter in any way. Now, because I know she too has faltered, I reach out, comfortable enough to ask when I’m unsure. It happens when you are not as seasoned as Grandma and you don’t yet know the measured equivalent of a “lil’ bit” of nutmeg or “some” sweetened condensed milk. But it will come, she reassures me, and then I’ll just know how much.
The skin of the sweet potato has had its fill of moisture and has begun the job of removing itself. The pulp is strikingly different in color—a boiled-bland, brownish skin cocoons a lucent orange mass. I slide the knife beneath the surface of the skin with hardly any effort, and the contained brightness appears through the precisely carved slit. Adjusting to the bulk in my palm, I notice the skin feels moist and grainy, reminding me of the mud I once blended in my backyard as a child. I’m in my early twenties now, and my grandma’s kitchen has become my new backyard, expressing my interests in a more appetizing way.
I stroke my thumb along the sweet potato’s side, reaffirming my grip. Some of the vibrant flesh clings instinctively to its waterlogged skin. I maneuver the point of my blade down the length of the potato so as to salvage as much of the meat as possible. Grandmothers hate for anything to go to waste. Anything. And so I am more focused at this point than at any other in the process; I am deliberate at first even though I know soon I will lose patience, put down the knife, and use my fingers to tear and peel and strip away what will end up in the garbage. I already know what she will say once she senses my frustration, when I start to sigh repetitively and mutter my own incomplete variations of curse words, or drop things. She will say, “Bonnie”—a more adult version of the nickname Bon-Bon, given to me by my brother who could not pronounce Tavonne correctly—“don’t worry about it. Go on to the next step.” And she’s right: I’m just removing the skin from a sweet potato. I am not cutting away cancer.
A month or so prior, while reshelving displaced items at my part-time job, I felt my cell phone massaging my hip in a succession of vibrations. Back-to-back calls usually meant bad news, and so I answered the phone expecting the worst. Before the end of one conversation a flat, dreadful tone went off in my ear, severing a syllable that may well have been missing anyway. “She was getting w.…” “It’s gone too far. …” “They’re trying to make her com … able.” My sister interrupted my cousin who interrupted my aunt, as I hung up with one to talk to the other, all trying to relay the same thing: My grandmother, who was battling lung-turned-bone cancer that had settled in her legs, was not doing well. She probably wouldn’t make it through the night.
Unofficially, my shift was over. I called my older sister, Tica, on the short walk from work to my house to let her know I was making the two-hour drive from Erie, PA to the Cleveland Clinic and would be coming by to pick her up. I was home just long enough to strip off the baby-blue polo with a crimson “CVS” stitched above my breast, throw on a nondescript T-shirt, and grab my car keys.
The sign posted on the wall read, “No more than three visitors allowed at a time per patient.” Well, my family had violated that rule about four times over. Tica, my niece, Khadijah, and I maneuvered our way past cousins piled on the first of two beds in the hospital room and lining the walls. The bed closest to the window held my grandma. Under that window was a small alcove that served as an improvised seating area, but really housed the heating and cooling vent. The heat was off, as it seemed to be in every hospital room I’d ever been in. The room had that familiar, sterilized chill, a chill that prevented anyone from getting comfortable, removing a layer or two, settling in for a long stay. Every so often a white coat would sift its way through our resolute gathering of brown folks. They shifted their eyes, trying to avoid the pairs of younger, more hopeful eyes, eventually reaching the one they’d come to see about. They spoke loudly to her. “How we feeling, Ms. Lofton?” Grandma was not speaking much or very clearly at that point, a reaction to the sheer pain and (I figured) too much of the wrong kind of medication. If she were talking, she’d have mentioned how it wasn’t we who was feeling anything.
Sometimes, we “kids” were left out of the medical loop, most of our information seemingly tainted with the idea that we were still kids (although many of us had our own children) and shouldn’t be bogged down by the details, even though none of those individual details could carry more weight than the ultimate fact we were already quite aware of: our grandmother was not going to be with us forever. Not even she was capable of that.
The white coats normally spoke directly to my Aunt Stephanie, a more jovial version of my grandma’s former self and the oldest daughter of my grandma’s five children. She doled out the information to us, in a tone so gentle it seemed she thought that alone could make things better. Not much had changed since I’d received the phone call that brought me to the clinic, only the geographical distance between us.
Although my grandma wasn’t capable of speaking, she was able to answer “yes” or “no” and would struggle to form words until whomever she was speaking to followed up with approximated questions she could answer “yes” or “no” to. Other times a recognizable look would be sufficient to get her point across. She’d roll her eyes and turn her face away out of frustration when what was once so easy—asking a question, getting an answer—proved comparable to making sense of a foreign language. What we did know was that she wanted to go home. She had had enough of being poked and drugged and “looked at” and simply wanted to be home.
There was talk in the hallway, but not much in the actual room, just a lot of watching. I watched my grandma writhe in discomfort, try to sleep, take drinks of water by sucking on the end of a sponge-tipped stick. I watched tears seep from the corners of her weary eyes, and watched her get irritable when nurses came around. I watched her hold my niece and thought it painfully sad that it would be the last time she would do so. I watched her nod when my sister asked if our rubbing her feet and legs with lotion was starting to be uncomfortable. I watched how difficult it was becoming for those responsive sighs to leave her chest. Meanwhile, a decision was made in the hallway. Aunt Stephanie came to tell us that if Grandma made it through the night, we’d try to get her home in the morning.
That night, in a roomful of swirling prayers, I said my own and lay down on the icy tiles of the floor at the foot of Grandma’s bed.
Morning came along with a miracle.
After what seemed like hours of discussion about what would be the best way to transport my fragile grandmother, it was decided that ambulance was the best way to go. We gathered our things, loaded up our cars, and fled from that place with a looming urgency, as if we had actually stolen something and it was just a matter of time before anyone became aware and set things right. As quickly as we all had come, we dissipated, taking our miracle and leaving the Cleveland Clinic in our rearviews.
Once i get all the traces of skin removed from my potatoes, Grandma calls out, with perfect timing, where I can find the hand mixer. My guess is that she hears the opening and closing of cabinet doors. I try to crack my eggs casually, because when I don’t I get shells that seem to repel my fingertips as they slip and slide over the gooey whites. The previously frozen sticks of butter have sweated to a softness that clings to the wrapper. The condensed milk, yellowy sweet, and thick, goes in slowly as I narrate my very own cooking show. The whirring of the mixer starts and stops. The brown sugar darkens as it hits the moist batter and swirls below the surface as the mixer rounds the bowl.
I’m being too quiet. She calls from just around the corner, “What’s it lookin’ like, Bonnie?”
The spices make me worry; not enough or too little cinnamon or nutmeg could ruin what should be, has always been, a rave-worthy recipe.
“Uhhh, I don’t know, something’s missing.” I grab a spoon and dip it into the muted orange batter.
“Let me taste.”
I’m already there, unhanding the spoon, awaiting her response.
“Put a lil’ more vanilla in there and just a lil’ more nutmeg and I think you got it.”
The improvement is marked. She samples the mix a second time. “Yeah, Bonnie. Them pies is gon’ be good. What you think?” Her eyes are brighter and her smile is genuine, not a painful grimace. She is giving me that look, the look so full of delight and approval, that I can’t help but believe her. I can’t help but believe that I got it right, that I did it without her, that I could do it without her.
I pour my batter into the pie shells and slide them, all four, into the oven. As I fill my batter bowl with hot, soapy water, a mixed cd finds its way back to the harpy introduction of Goapele’s “Closer.” It has been playing on repeat for most of the evening, layered over bubbling pots and rattling silverware, as we “kids” two-step in the kitchen, our grandmother dozing in and out of sleep a few feet away, while we put the final touches on the Thanksgiving feast. “Is that too loud, Grandma?”
“Naw, that’s nice. I like that. Turn it up.”
I’m moving higher / I’m going higher and higher / Closer to my dreams / Higher and higher / I’m moving upward and onward and beyond all that I could see …
My younger sister, Tanesha, would have you believe that the recipe is as simple as boiling the potatoes. We both know it isn’t. Still, I receive playful teasing when any family dinner, holiday or otherwise, is nearing. She asks, then answers, her own question with a smile so big I can hear that it’s destined to turn into a contagious, laugh-ridden monologue.
“What you gone bring? Sweepotatopie?” The words run together to form one newly termed dessert. “‘I’m Tavonne and all I make is sweepotatopie.’ Don’t nobody want swee-potatopie all the time! Can we get a cake or something?”
I say, “You know what? I can’t stand you,” more laughing than talking. I don’t have to tell her that I bring more than just a pie to the party. She already knows.
And she will be eating pie. She always does. We always do.