I am chipping at a block of frozen cookie dough because I could not find the jello. And because we’ve lost a dear member of our family.
When I learned the news of her passing, I betrayed my Southern roots and cried like a baby. It is protocol to shake one’s head and say, “God bless her heart. She was the sweetest thing”. It is decent to show emotional restraint. It is customary to attend the departed’s service with baked goods in hand and pass time at the later gathering with pleasant small-talk about the weather and the latest mundane news in the lives of those still living. But she is Frances, and there is much more to talk about than baked beans and south-easterly winds.
As a little girl, I delighted in hearing Frances speak. Her South African accent had a way of pinching a word and then letting it loose, swooping it up again to hear it trickle out. Her mention of a pocketbook was enough to send the house into a tizzy as we all chirped out the word to mimick her fancy tongue. For years I assumed she was my Aunt or maybe a Second-Grandmother, as I had a few second-cousins and never really understood the concept of lineage. As far as my child’s brain was concerned Frances lived at my grandmother’s house, and her occasional absence worried me like the sudden fear that you’ve left your Easy Bake Oven turned on. I suppose I expected her to be bound by blood to all of us because she was far too sane and cultured to join our chaos just for the pleasure of company. Surely she must have had to tolerate us because we were kin. When introduced to her children and grandchildren, I eyed them with suspicion for a while because there was no way she had two families, the newest of which looked remarkably happy and well-adjusted. It took me years to comprehend that Frances was my grandmother’s friend and, therefore, not entirely ours. Still, she attended every Friday night festivity, perched in a corner chair, the one calm fish in a crazy pond. As we displayed our many malfunctions, Frances kept a soothing demeanor and chirped in here and there. As a kid I got too distracted by her lovely accent and hardly remember a word said. All I heard was peace and pocketbook.
Last Christmas my father-in-law was excited to present me with a copy of Hornersville Baptist Church’s annual cookbook. I gave him a hug and a thank you and nuzzled up to the kitchen counter to flip through this latest thing begging me to cook dinner already.
I perused the pages of recipes. Casserole. Cheesy Casserole. Taters. Mash Taters. Steamed, Fried, and Pickled Okra. Then I came upon a recipe that slapped a nervous laugh from my gut. “What is Funeral Salad?,” I asked my mother-in-law. She stared at me as if I had forgotten my name and explained that it is exactly what it sounds like: a salad… for funerals. I sat quiet for a moment, unsure if I was really born into a culture so strange that it’s people treat the death of a person like an invite to a dinner party. For all the things that clearly show my twangy roots - the y’alls and grits and devotion to butter- the etiquette of a country funeral still seems absurd.
After we buried my grandfather, my 17-year-old self sat between my quiet Nana and a stack of photo albums. A group of her friends stopped by bearing platters of comfort foods. Sitting in the sad living room, I caught my first glimpse of the Southern Mourner’s Code of Conduct. A long-time friend of my grandfather spooned food into his mouth, stopping only to ask another man about next week’s golfing weather. The more I strained an ear to eavesdrop on the miniature conversations taking place, the more infuriated I became. The women dished on recipes and church. The men stuck firmly to weather, predicted weather changes, and weather as it pertained to sports. I don’t remember much else from that day except that I wanted to kick a hole through the wall in a brazen display of grief. I wanted to slap the Happy Golfer’s plate from his hand and ask WHY AREN’T YOU SCREAMING SORROW HERE, SIR?
This week, when finding the church ladies’ cookbook in the back of the cupboard, I resolved to test this “baking with faith” theory. Unable to attend her memorial, I felt guilty and desperate to shake a little bit of the sad left after France’s departure. I rummaged through the pantry in search of powdered jello and canned fruit and felt a moment of failure that I had not been prepared for this as I know a gaggle of Southern women with fridges stocked full of emergency casseroles. The best I could do was to yank a frozen log of cookie dough from the forgotten depths of the freezer.
I hacked a knife at the ice-cold dough in hopes of thawing it into submission. I thought about Frances in all her glory.
Since I was little, when I read a story rhyme or children’s book, I’ve heard the words in my head as Frances’. Her tone always seems to fit in every plot and line, character and scenario. She was Mother Goose of where the wild things are.
I call my wallet a pocketbook. The bag girl at Wal-Mart looks at me like I must not know my place.
Before I thought she was an Aunt with a very odd Southern accent, I had a sneaking suspicion that Frances was royalty. She had a prim and proper nose, and a poise that should be in charge of something. I later denounced this idea. Her Highness would not be subject to our antics.
Several minutes later, I had two trays of jagged cookies (charred edges & frozen centers) and an understanding of the way we mourn. We busy ourselves with teaspoons and flock to crowded churches come Sunday morning because we are human, and this is all we know in the way of filling what is empty. And with that I caught the phrase coming from my lips, odd and organic:
Bless her heart. She really was the sweetest thing.