Thursday, August 8, 2019

On Grits and Grannies

Every morning I wake Elyse up at 6:55 and say, "It's time to get up, Honey." She mumbles and turns over to face the wall, and I ask, "Do you want me to make you some grits?" She says "Uh-huh" into her pillow, and I ask, "Do you want to stay in bed until they're ready?" Of course she says yes.

So I shuffle off to the kitchen to make her some grits.

I'm quite happy using instant grits, Quaker Instant Grits with Butter Flavor, to be exact. I do wonder how a grits purist would feel—and I'm pretty confident there are grits purists; I'm sure a quick Google search would return many very opinionated grits Web sites—when I recall that scene in My Cousin Vinny when the witness on the stand asserts that "no self-respecting Southerner uses instant grits." Well, maybe I'm not a self-respecting Southerner. In many ways I'm only southern at all by an accident of geography: I love but can't personally relate to the works of true Southern writers like Flannery O'Connor and William Faulkner and Eudora Welty. In fact, if I were able to go back in time and have a conversation with any of them, it's possible I wouldn't even be able to understand them through their thick Southern accents.

But about those grits....

When I was little, starting (I believe) when I was five years old and my family was freshly returned from our brief life in Maryland, and lasting at least until I was eight—this I can say for sure, and I'll tell you why in a minute—I would often be left for a morning or a day with my grandmother at her little brick house in Tucker. I suppose my mother needed the time to go to work at a part-time job, or run errands, or maybe do some shopping; I don't know that it ever occurred to me to wonder where Mom was going when she dropped me off at Granny's. In any case, I remember those times with Granny with a great fondness, as something I very much looked forward to. Whether that is exactly what I felt at the time I really can't be sure, but I can tell you that now I miss them terribly; I would give nearly anything to be a kid again on my way to Granny's, where we would read stories, color in coloring books, and, when I got a bit older, sit and watch "Wheel of Fortune" with its original host, Chuck Woolery, on that small rabbit-ear-antennaed color TV that sat on the rolling cart in her living room. (And that is how I know that these times with Granny went on at least until I was eight: in 1974, when I was seven, we couldn't have watched "Wheel of Fortune," for it didn't begin its lengthy run until a year later.)

One of the details I've been remembering the most lately, the thing that makes me wistful as I prepare my breakfast these days, is seeing Granny make grits for me on those mornings more than four decades ago. I was much more interested in eating than in cooking, so I didn't pay close attention to what she did, but I know it involved bowls and pots and measuring cups and water from the tap and grits from a bag she kept under the counter—she probably used quick grits, for I don't think instant grits existed yet, and even if they did, I want to believe that my grandmother wouldn't give in to them, as I have. Finally, when the fixings were all prepared, she would ask me, "Soupy or not?" Some days I would want them soupy: plenty of water for very thin, easily slurped grits. Some days, not: only the proscribed amount of water, or perhaps even a bit less, for thicker, more substantial grits.

So when I fix a bowl of grits for Elyse every morning, I am temporarily taken back to the early seventies, to that small kitchen in that little brick house in the suburbs of Atlanta. It's one way to keep my grandmother alive and with me, and to keep alive within me the memories of people and places who were once so important to me. And in a very real way, it keeps me alive within me; the me that once was, many years ago, and in most important ways is still here. Someday when this story will mean something to Jessica and Elyse, I hope a little of my grandmother—their great-grandmother—may live within them too, and perhaps a bit more of their father than is already there. Someday I hope it will resonate with Elyse if I ask her if she wants her grits soupy or not. (If I asked her that question now, I'm pretty sure she would just wrinkle her nose and say, "Make them like you always make them." Which, by the way, is a little bit soupy; I use five ounces of water for one bowl rather than the four ounces the directions on the box call for.)

The thing about getting older, if you're me, anyway, is that you can look back and see how wonderful, how nearly perfect, many of the pieces of your past have been. But you also realize that you slogged through these near-perfect times largely blind to how truly wonderful they were. Back then, I took it all for granted, as children—as we all—are wont to do. I was clueless. I still am.

I'm not the first person to say this—it is, in fact, something of a cliché—but it helps you understand the importance of appreciating every moment, of realizing how lucky you really are, of trying your hardest to take nothing for granted. The importance of really taking the time to enjoy a good bowl of grits. It's such a simple thing, and yet, as you can see, it's really not.

I'm glad I get to prepare grits for my daughter for breakfast. I'm sorry I didn't realize what a precious thing it was, all those years ago, to have a granny who would make them for me, just the way I wanted them—soupy, or not.

(NB: I started this several months ago—actually, in a different form, several years ago—but am just now getting around the finishing and publishing it. Everything I've written here is still true, except that lately Elyse hasn't been eating grits as often; now she's more given to requesting Pop Tarts or Honeynut Cheerios. Maybe I'll write an essay about my lengthy history with Pop Tarts and breakfast cereals some day.)

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