Thursday, November 29, 2012

Memories & Milk

Waves of heat tumbled over the pastures, turning the summer grass's bright shoots to prickled dry stalks that  would angrily poke my sandal-clad feet. A small cowherd--the neighbor's stock grazing on my grandfather's land--dotted the hillside. As I leaned against the kitchen window, my whole weight balanced across the  counter on bent elbows and waist, I stared at the slow moving animals. The occasional lowing of a mother calling to her calf wafted to my waiting ears--I watched as the beasts waddled around, fat from spring and early summer eating. As they lowed and wandered across the hilltops, I wondered if they were complaining about the slim pickings, whining at the stick-like blades now poking their thick tongues and broad snouts.

Everything seemed to be turning brown. The grass, the trees--parched with thirst. The cattle and the old draft horse--their sleeky black hides bleached by sun beams. Even inside, the thick, brown heat seemed to fill up the kitchen, coating the oak cabinets and linoleum floor. It was a thick, slow-moving heat--oozing and seeping like honey.

It was a heat that should've slowed me down, but all it did was manage to keep me indoors. My little-girl energy emanated from my skin just like the sweat-steam emanated from the cow's hides outside.

I continued to dangle on the counter , not caring that my elbows were turning red from the pressure, ignoring the dig of the laminate edge into my ribcage. Hold on, hold on, hold on. My flip flops beat a staccato on a loose cabinet door in my effort to cling and balance, but still I slid down with a hmph, one bony knee knocking the door handle as I went. I let my bottom bump onto the floor, hands splayed behind me, and there I stayed, head arched back, looking upside down at the kitchen.

At the top of my vision, I saw my grandmother's slippers moving back and forth. She bustled from the under-the-counter radio across the room to the oven, peeking inside its glowing maw.

"Ready yet?" I called out, then laughed at my own voice--stretched out and distorted from the way my head was still arched back.

My grandmother glanced my way and chuckled at my expression. "Almost ready," she chirped. "Almost ready Freddy."

I straightened and crawled like a baby over to the oven door. The oven window pulsed a yellow-red color. I could just make out the dark edge of a pan before a swift pat to my pant-seat told me to get up.

"Better wash your hands, crawling around on the nasty old floor," my grandmother said.

I looked at my palms. "Your floor's not nasty, Grandmama," I said, holding my hands up as proof.

"Better hurry, if you wanna eat," she said, oven mittens already in hand. Up I hopped.

After what my child clock termed forever, the oven would gape and reveal its humble treasure: a fresh, crumbling cornpone baked to golden perfection and glossed a syrupy brown on top. With mitten hands, my grandmother grasped the skillet handle, lugging its burdened weight onto the countertop. I always marveled at that strength; I knew how heavy that pan was--old, solid iron, rubbed a rusty black. Occasionally, she would let me tentatively lift it, always two-handed, my elbows bowing at the weight. Then she would laugh and toss the pan around, her arms accustomed to the heft and size.

"Whole kitchen sets used to be made like this, honey," she said. "Different from now." Yet, she always moved swiftly and gracefully when, inside the oven, the metal blossomed red.

Quick as a finger snap, a twist made the bread slide onto the waiting surface of a lily-white plate. Using the big kitchen-knife, she then sliced eight, pie-shaped pieces. I clambered into a chair as two bowls and two little spoons appeared on the kitchen table. Bouncing, bouncing in my seat as my stomach gave a quick gurgle.

"You know, some folks eat this with buttermilk but ish"--she squirmed and made a face--"I  don't like old buttermilk with cornbread. Give me regular sweet milk."

She sat the milk carton on the table. I reached for it eagerly and poured until a thick ribbon of white splashed and pooled around the bread in my bowl. My hungry eyes always then searched for the bear-shaped honey jar. Tendrils of honey flowed over my fingers, leaving finger prints all over the carton and lid, a sticky mess later. I'm sure my grandmother grinned at my efforts. But she never stopped me--simply sat down and poured herself a bowl.

Together, we sat--I jabbered, she listened, our spoons clinking little,muted laughs. Until the bright, white belly of the bowls showed clean, until all the sweet bread, milk, and honey was gone.


The cast iron skillet, the smooth bowl, the brown cracks marring the top of the pone--ironically, it all wasn't the product of some age-old family recipe. Although, one of those does exist, tucked into some dusty recipe book on a pantry shelf. The secret to those lazy little-girl afternoons was simply a nondescript, little cardboard box. Boasting in bold red to be America's favorite. One box, one egg, 1/3 cup milk. 

Some of the best moments in life are so simple. And childhood memories are glossed and sticky with nostalgia; and mine, like any recipe, are made sweet by the sugar. 

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