As I watch my mother spread my grandmother’s ashes around the tree’s roots, I am relieved. She’s always wanted to visit Africa; after 19 years, she’s made it home. The wind picks up and she blows onward. She now lives on the sacred soil of South Africa, in my mother and in me.
There is an old saying that says everyone dies twice — once in their physical form and again when their name has been forgotten. My grandmother Carolyn died 19 years ago, but in my mind, she is 40. She possesses unfiltered laughter. She values freedom, tucks it between her pockets while awaiting better days. I met her through stories narrated over percolating tea on the kitchen table, woven between my mother’s disciplinary tone, in the array of spices kept adjacent to the kitchen sink. She is the base in my mother’s throat when she whispers, “My mother would’ve loved you.” She in the stories my mother tells.
“Today, you and mommy will make smothered chicken, red beans and rice with cornbread,” says Carolyn. My mother, no bigger than a cast iron skillet, replies with a swift nod. She is her mother’s favorite audience. Captivated by what it meant to “throw down,” she eagerly watches her mother soak the red beans in water. Cheryl fidgets in her baby blue jumper as her afro puffs sway in the aroma of cornbread. As she matures, now the size of a crockpot, she chops vegetables, debones chicken and listens. “Recipes are the gospel in this kitchen,” says Carolyn, the corner of her mouth resembling a smile. “There’s no need to jot them down when your legacy can remember forever.”
I too was a watcher, hanging on every word my mother said. “Today we’re making jerk chicken and coconut rice, Kennedy.” I can see everything from my car seat, strategically placed on the kitchen counter. “Watch mommy peel, cook, cut, dice, season, taste …” “When I was your age, I used to watch my mother cook just like you,” my mother says as she kisses my forehead. Grandma Carolyn was her favorite story to tell while in the kitchen. Between my mother’s 9-to-5 I created midday meals.“Mommy said to place the oven on 325.” I pulled from any recipe she’d ever recited, praying it tasted like home, like mom, like grandma.
I have grown to know my grandmother through the art of storytelling. Teddy Pendergrass and Aretha Franklin swept her off her feet and onto any living room floor, earning her the name Soul Sister No. 5. How quick she was to seize a pen and write—write until concepts cascaded onto the ground which lay beneath her, until a poem appeared.
My grandmother has taught me independence, how the truth is the best kind of answer and that you’ll never regret asking for what you’re worth. She has taught me creativity is inherent, brown skin is to be loved and cooking food is paying homage to my elders. She has taught me that Black women are everything.
Without knowing these stories, Carolyn would be a woman, a framed photograph, silenced. Nothing more than a mere memory, ceasing to exist.
In the beginning, there have been stories, fables and folktales told by civilizations, empires, townships and people. Many tales are overutilized: Cinderella and her glass slipper, Romeo’s passionate love for Juliet, the hare’s arrogance that led to his defeat. I want to know the stories that collect dust on dying tongues, that sit on the bottom shelf of a bookcase, that dance around in elders’ heads waiting for anyone who will lend an ear.
Experiencing the transgenerational legacy of storytelling has inspired me to pursue a career in investigative journalism. How do you become acquainted with someone you’ll never meet? You listen to their stories.
So when my mother whispers, “My mother would’ve loved you,” I reply saying, “She always has.”
My grandmother’s spirit is alive and will be for generations to come. If it had not been for storytelling, I would not be the woman I am today.