Southern Cooking Makes A Difference
by Shirley A. Blair Keller
Chuck loved Mother, but Mother did not love him. After being dumped by my father, she was filled with consuming anger. Chuck said that he had enough love for both. She was not impressed. Once she asked my sister and me what we thought if she married Chuck. Our positive opinions did not seem to help make a decision.
“Why do you keep asking when you know I won’t marry you?”
“I love you and the girls. If you’re not ready now, I’ll wait.”
“What if I’m never ready?”
“Why worry about something that hasn’t happened yet?”
We were the few white children in the new neighborhood. I had problems making friends. Having Chuck around helped because the African-American kids saw him.
“Who is he?”
“He’s our stepfather.” I lied.
The word got around school that the new white kids had a black stepfather. As a result, the traumatic transition of being accepted did not take long.
New flavors and aromas poured out of the kitchen: BBQ chicken and ribs with a sauce to die for, beans and rice, corn bread, greens w/ ham hocks. I gobbled up his Southern cooking learned in Austin from Big Mama. I tried hot sauce. I was hooked. He played harmonica while we ate the hot peach cobbler covered in melting vanilla ice cream.
“I was afraid to let him drive home. He might fall asleep at the wheel,” Mother said, when I found him sleeping in the overstuffed chair. I did not need an explanation. I loved his presence: grits, eggs and bacon, home made biscuits for breakfast. Mother was an awful cook. I appreciated the glorious meals.
“Get out of bed and clean this pig sty!” Chore Saturday. She stayed in a lousy mood all day. Mother argued the minute Chuck arrived. No matter what he said she escalated.
“That’s it. I want you to leave. This isn’t going to work.”
The tone caught my attention. Chuck went to the bedroom, pulled out a suitcase. “Shirley, get your clothes and put them in the suitcase,” Chuck said. I didn’t move.
“It’s okay, Shirley,” Chuck said. “Your mother doesn’t want me. That’s fine, but I’m not leaving my daughters. Loraine, get your things out of the dresser.” My sister froze.
“What do you mean, you’re taking YOUR daughters? They’re not YOUR daughters,” Mother yelled.
“Mimi, they’re not just my daughters, that’s true. They’re yours, too, but I’m not leaving them.”
“They’re not YOUR daughters. They never were YOUR daughters. They don’t look like you. They don’t have your blood in their veins!”
Chuck’s voice was quiet. Mother calmed enough to listen.
I responded to Chuck’s assuring manner. I grabbed underwear and filled the suitcase. My heart raced. I did not want to be left alone with my mother. I did not want to hurt her, either. Torn. My sister followed. Mother pushed us aside, threw clothing on the bed.
“Chuck, you have no right to do this. I’ll call the police. They’re my girls!”
She went after him. Chuck held her at arm's length. She swung, to no avail. She was only five feet tall. She tried to push the massive 250 pound, six foot giant. I must have shown the terror I felt. Chuck mouthed the words, “It’s okay girls, don’t worry.”
I was worried. I remembered the week of the divorce, Mother with a hairbrush in one hand, a coat hanger in the other, swinging as I crouched, dodging her violence. And the day she came close to driving off a cliff because she was mad.
Was she laughing? I thought. Mother’s head was on Chuck’s big belly, balanced by his hands on her shoulders, arms hung at her side. Tears wet her cheeks. To my surprise, she was laughing.
“I must be nuts,” she said.
Mother sat on the bed.
“I’m sorry. I am crazy. I’m pining away after one who doesn’t want us. This man wants us and I’m throwing him away. ” She extended her arms, “Come girls. I’m sorry.” One under each arm, we absorbed her hugs and kisses. “I’m sorry. We’re so lucky to have Chuck. I don’t know what came over me. I’m sorry.”
I snuggled in Mother’s arm. For once, since the divorce, I felt secure. The big brown man put clothing back into the drawers. Our life as a family began. Racism brought problems I could not even imagine at that moment. But Chuck’s love, patience and Southern cooking, would make all the difference.
"But What About The Children?" is the grandfather's question as the writer's Russian Jewish Californian mother was about to marry an African American Christian Texan gentleman. The story is the writer's answer half a century later, "Grandpa, we are richer for the experience." "Southern Cooking Makes A Difference" and Bridges of Cloth are excerpts from this book.
Shirley's picture book for children, The Rescue, is about a family of owls and a family of humans, drawn together, who are forced to communicate.
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