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Buttermilk

May 1, 2014

“The refugee experience of dislocation, cultural bereavement, confusion and constant change will soon be all our experience.  As the world becomes globalized, we’ll all be searching for home.”

— Mary Pipher, The Middle of Everywhere.

For a long time my mother was just about the only person I knew who drank buttermilk. I remember her telling me how she’d hold her nose and gulp down a tall glass of it when she was pregnant with me, just to strengthen our bones.

When I was in high school, she’d have it in a thick glass encircled with red and green stripes with a couple of pieces of cornbread crumbled in and shoved to the bottom with a large spoon.  She’d eat the soaked cornbread with the same spoon and then drink the buttermilk that grated her throat with its tiny leftover crumbs.

I know how it felt because sometimes I make my own version of this East Tennessee cocktail.  I fill up one of my own glasses with warm cornbread right out of the oven and pour cold whole milk over it like a bowl of cereal.  I eat it with a small spoon,  crushing down the cornbread that has soaked up the milk like a dishtowel, and then eat it like my grandmother did after she’d taken out her teeth.

Grannie was good at cornbread, and we’d make it in the kitchen of her trailer while a pot of pinto beans simmered on the stove. I’d simmer too, roasting the back of my legs in front of her big gas furnace and then turning around to warm the front side, too.

She had a big tank of gas out back that I longed to ride like a cowgirl.  It was next to the old house my mom had partly grown up in, beside which sat a school bus full of furniture my uncle had left when the Army moved them across the sea.

A couple hundred yards down the family property sat two other trailers, one a rusty red and the other a faded white.  Uncle Raymond and Aunt Nettie lived in the white one, and their collection of, well, everything, spilled off the screened porch and into the yard. My parents owned the red trailer, but we never lived there, just used it for a few years when we came up for weekends and then rented it out to aunts and cousins who made it a more permanent home.  Out back was the old road my grandfather had ridden his horse cart through alongside the creek.  It was where my Daddy taught me to shoot a gun by setting an rusty can of Dr. Pepper up on the sawed off stump of a tree.

I still buy buttermilk, usually when I feel like making cornbread. Despite watching Grannie and then my Momma make it a hundred times, I still measure out the ingredients according to the recipe on the back of the cornmeal bag I buy at the grocery store.  Even when I’ve got the Merle Haggard station I created playing in the background on Pandora on my iPhone, it almost never turns out right.

My husband is forgiving, and sometimes this makes me think less of him. Not him, really, but his ability to understand me and my need to be able to make good cornbread. I know he wants to make me feel better, but telling me the cornbread is good when it just isn’t makes things worse, even more so when he believes what he’s saying is true.

I think his mother understands something about cornbread, about buttermilk. Like mine she was not raised in the city or the suburbs.  She understands what it means to drink milk warm and straight from the bucket that sat underneath the cow.  I don’t.  He doesn’t. But I bought us a cast iron skillet at the Salvation Army and cured it with bacon grease in the oven just like my Momma told me I should.

His mother can feel beyond the crisp crust. I think she understands the need for the texture of home.  I say it this way because her English and my Spanish keep us at safe distance from such intimate exchanges about food.

I sometimes wonder, sitting across the table she insists on clearing when I’m the one who has prepared dinner, how it came to be that she and I are connected by the thread of a boy who sits next to her not finishing the home fried potatoes I’d decided not to peel.

I think back to a single day in a $500 two-bedroom apartment in Buford, Georgia, a girl on the brink of puberty, almost able to speak English because I’d been teaching her, knowing just enough to tell me they’d left her grandmother behind.

I was 21, hadn’t even finished college, had moved back home for my last year as an English major, and had needed a job.  I’d called up my high school principal, also a deacon at my church, who’d told me they’d gotten a grant and asked me if I was interested in teaching.

I hadn’t thought much about teaching, wasn’t getting a teaching certificate, but I’d just completed a course at the Statesboro library on how to teach literacy and thought that his offer might be a place to begin.

My mom was, for the first time in decades, making cornbread in her own kitchen in a basement apartment on the other side of the city.  I was wading through what that meant with my sister, my father, in our house by the lake in Buford.

The town had changed in the few years since I’d left it, and this teaching opportunity was evidence of that. I had graduated with exactly one Latino, and now the elementary and middle schools were over 20 percent non-native speakers, as I learned they were called.

Dijana was one of my middle school students, and she was more than a head taller than the short Mexican girls with long braided hair who sat with me in borrowed classrooms. Dijana was  loud, funny, quick, and Bosnian. She lived with her family in an apartment behind the supermarket near the highway.  That grocery store was called Ingles – Een -gulls, we pronounced it, not having any idea that to many of the immigrant students who were moving into town it meant English, the language I was hoping they might learn.

I didn’t have anyone to tell me whether it was appropriate to accept Dijana’s invitation, but she made it so often, and so convincingly, that eventually I did. I drove into her complex in my red Chevy S-10 pickup and saw several of my students playing in the parking lot, watching their siblings ride second-hand tricycles on the asphalt in the heat.

“Come in,” Dijana’s mother said, and it was soon clear that these were most of the few words of English she’d been able to acquire in the classes she’d squeezed in at the Presbyterian church a few blocks away.

They were Muslim, and thinking back now they were probably the first Muslims I ever encountered, surely the first whose home I’d ever walked into, the first who’d invited me in.

I sat down on the sofa, and it seems now it should have been covered with something, a comforter maybe, or possibly even a clear plastic covering that perfectly fit over the contours of the cushions, the arms,and  the back.  Just like the one my mother-in-law uses to keep the dust off the furniture in their home in Ecuador, it must have squeaked when I sat down.

Drive around I-285, the perimeter that once encircled the whole city of Atlanta, provided some sort of boundary for it, and you’ll see trees, lots, small forests draped with invasive vines. In summer, they make the shoulders of the roads so green you feel a freshness amidst the heavy humidity.  In the winter, such as it is in the South, the brown vines are exposed as creeping and ominous, weaving in and out of branches from the rusty barriers of the highway to the backyards of the nearest homes.

Kudzu is considered a nuisance, and every time we pass a large patch, my father reminds me of his version of its history, claiming it was brought over from Japan to stop erosion and ended up causing more problems than it solved.  He says it is impossible to kill.  You can hack it, burn it, freeze it, trim it back, yet it survives, becoming impenetrable eventually.

It was growing up the wall in Dijana’s family’s apartment, creeping up from floor to ceiling on a series of nails.  Its tendrils were reaching from the black and gold entertainment center to the front window’s sunlight, unstoppable.

I sat on the sofa as hearty smells wafted in from the open door at the far end of the kitchen.  Dijana’s mother was grilling on the fire escape. She had a small, charcoal grill with a red dome top, and she knelt down to reach it, to tend its warm flame.  Halal meat, something I’d only learn about in the years to come working with other refugee families like hers, was charring on the escape route from their second floor home.

A few minutes later, Dijana’s younger sister, who was eight, brought an almost silver tray with a matching set of china out from the kitchen. I thought of my Nana’s china, lost now, whose cups then hung from hooks and whose plates perched on top of box frames around the picture windows in the dining room and kitchen of my parents’ home.  There were two sets, one royal blue and white, sturdier, and the other a delicate bone with pink roses and a gilt trim around the rim.

Dijana’s mother’s china was like that set, with tiny handles you had to pinch between a forefinger and thumb to hold.  I wondered briefly if she’d brought it with her from Bosnia, realized that was ridiculous, impossible in the flight from war. As her sister set the tray down on the black coffee table in front of us, Dijana told me about the house they’d lived in back in Bosnia, she told me about her school, their village, the garden her grandmother had tended behind the small concrete home they’d shared.

“All of it gone,” she said, the four simple words I’d given her perfect for the sentiment she needed to share with me. Just her grandmother had been left, and I wondered how she was surviving without her vegetables.

I looked into the cup, thought of my own grandparents’ land, now fallow with a few of their children’s trailers planted in place of corn, tomatoes, cotton. No need any longer for the nine siblings to start school after the harvest was done.  Like PawPaw and Grannie alive only in our memories, even the farm house is nearly gone. She’d moved out of it back in the seventies when it became unlivable. When the movers broke some of our furniture in our last relocation, I began to long for some of that hard wood so I could build us a sturdy dining room table.

I looked down into that cup that afternoon, and what I saw was something familiar: white bordering on yellow, thick and creamy with edges bubbling up to the lip of the white China cup into which it had been poured.

I saw my mother, her journey out of poverty and into our kitchen and then her own.  I saw Dijana, making her way to my classroom, me making my way to her because my mom had found a way out, if only for a little while, again.

I took a sip, drank down the acrid taste of the buttermilk. I thought of my mother thinking of me growing inside her, taking a breath, and making me strong.

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