Thursday, February 12, 2009

Don't Be Ugly, Sugar


Am I five years old? Seems about right. At this age, I took a plane by myself from Chicago to Florida to visit my paternal grandparents. (Being the mother of a boy the same age now as I was then, I shudder to think of this.) I remember I was in a window seat and, I think, in a bulkhead row on the right-hand side of the plane; I have a memory of seeing the exit door to the left of where I sat. I recall the widening space between myself and my parents, their worried withdrawal (or was it just my father I glimpsed at that last moment?)—also my sense of perfect security despite being alone. I don't remember the flight itself, what I did to pass the time, if I talked to anyone. I don't remember arriving in the airport in Florida, don't remember the drive to my grandparent's house (in an overly large dull green American boat of a car), but I can clearly see their driveway and the garage through which we entered into Mimi's kitchen. This is the central memory, though: the kitchen table, with a view out the window to the front yard and past that to the street without traffic, in the sunny, somnolent community of retirees. Sitting at this perch in the kitchen—my grandmother's kitchen, make no mistake about who reigned there—I received an education in Southern food, manners, and conversation. My grandmother was a mystery of manners, to me anyway. I am sitting in her kitchen, having come a long way down to Nowhereville on a plane by myself to visit. I see her maybe once a year, if that. I am sitting at the round table in the corner of the kitchen, and another child comes over to play; some neighbor's kid or grandkid. My grandmother sets down a plate of cookies. Among the cookies are a confection known as "divinity" (not the fudge kind, but the airy, Karo-syrup-and-egg white kind, like meringues, my favorite). When I reach for one, too hastily, she says, "Now, don't be ugly." It's a common idiom in the South, and she is only telling me that it's polite to let a guest choose first. Of course, I am thinking that the neighbor's kin can come over any time for divine treats—is it wrong to expect that I am the guest that matters more? Wrong or right, I was five at the time, so it's neither here nor there. I remember being shocked; it must have been the first time I'd ever heard the expression, and it stung. But if I got stung at times, there was also honey on my grandmother's tongue. Just as often, and still yet at that kitchen table, I'd hear "Gimme some sugar," and it wasn't just a request to pass the bowl and spoon so that she could sweeten a glass of iced tea or powder her grapefruit. (I loved to watch the sugar dissolve into the juicy citrus, though I could never understand how anyone could actually do that to a grapefruit, especially the ones she had so often that were naturally sweet.) "Gimme some sugar" meant kisses and hugs, cuddles and caresses. For both of us, I guess, it took some adjustment, some settling in and efforts at translation (I won't even go into all the "y'all" and "yonder" and "fixin' to" that went on). But we managed to make ourselves understood and, in the end, appreciated: I gorged on citrus and she on "sugar"; we sat together at the kitchen table and looked out the window, waiting for something to happen but just as often being happy that nothing did.

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