Learning to Write on Accident; I Am the Daughter of my Mother’s Mother’s Mother.

Posted by on Aug 17, 2015 in Uncategorized | 0 comments

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My mother accidentally taught me how to write poetry. She didn’t do it on

purpose, and she didn’t know she was doing it. I didn’t either. Some of the invaluable

lessons we receive about what to do with all the words are ones we get in the classroom

with our teachers and mentors. Others, we pick up without realizing in places outside

the workshop because poetry fundamentally has wormed its way into everything. There

is nothing forbidden to the written arts, and so they will embrace all our experiences,

even if we don’t realize that’s what’s happening at the time.

 

When I was about 11, trying to bloom into a Southern Womanhood I understood

very little about, I asked my momma to teach me how to make our family Mac and

Cheese. I had participated in the creation of this magical pasta dish since I was old

enough to wield a cheese grater— placed at the kitchen table with a lengthy sheet of wax

paper and two bulky blocks of extra sharp cheddar, gleefully shredding (and

occasionally filching) cheese was a sacred job. I knew it was time to learn to make the

whole dish for myself, however, because this recipe is one of a collection of recipes that,

rather than being written down, have been recorded over generations in the minds of

my female relatives.

 

This recipe is not a recipe, but rather a bloodline that swims through the

matriarchs of my family back to the revered Mama Lucy, my great grandmother, who I

remember meeting once, on her death bed, and who I have heard much about in the

many years since. The original calls for 10 cents of cheese, which successive daughters

have approximated to be the two familiar blocks I am so used to working with. This

meal, in a nearly exact form, has clung onto these women, and nourished each of their

families; a remnant of a previous time that refuses to fade and continues to define

femininity in our household. If one can cook, and, specifically, can successfully cook a

recipe from the infamous Mama Lucy collection, then one has achieved a kind of

familiarity with one’s ancestors— it was a saucy, bubbly milestone I had to hurdle.

Gathering the ingredients and cooking the pasta is relatively easy, until it comes

to measuring amounts. 10 cents of cheese is not what it once was. Pasta comes in pre-

packaged boxes that vary in size. As I watched my mother shake *some* shells into a pot

of boiling water, I chimed in quickly, “But how much…?” Momma smiled and told me to

guestimate about how much would fit the two circular casserole dishes we had been

using since I was an infant.

 

The first thing I learned about how to write a good poem is that you only make

how much you need. If you’ve done it right, each word will fit in its line, and the piece

will contain itself without spilling into excess, into being unnecessary.

 

As the pasta boiled and bubbled, the cheese needed to be grated, per usual. I

stood at the counter and worked through the cheddar without much thought,

occasionally stealing little pieces and savoring their flavor. Momma caught me and

scolded, “That’s not for you! That’s for the pasta.”

 

The second thing I learned about how to write a good poem is knowing what

belongs to you and what doesn’t. We frequently refer to what we have written as “our

work” but it is “ours” in the way “our children” are “ours.” We cannot manipulate our

poems to be what we want them to be; they will be what they need to be regardless of

what we think. No matter how good a line may taste, it may not be yours to say. Let the

poem become what it is becoming, it is not entirely yours.

 

Next came the rue. Momma poured milk straight from the carton into a saucepan

on high heat and waited. She stirred it with her wooden spoon, the tool of choice, and, as

it began to steam, added successive sprinkles of flour. She repeated the need of the

mixture to thicken— the difference between a delicious sauce and a runny, melty mess is

how it all comes together, thickly and un-burnt.

 

The third thing I learned about how to write a good poem is that the process is

just as important, if not more important, than the product. Words will not form whole

works unless we focus on how and why we put things together the way we do. The

difference between an impactful poem and a jumbled block of text is how it all comes

together.

 

Once the cheese was added to the rue, and the mixture had turned a velvety

yellow-gold, it was added to the strained pasta. Divide among proper dishes, sprinkle

with a little extra cheese, and pop in the oven.

 

The last thing I realized about how to write is that my family of non-writers has

taught me what it means to be a poet. What I am writing down is just as much a part of

this swimming, pumping bloodline of southern womanhood as what these women will

never write down, and what we will always just know.


plane photoFaith Padgett was born and raised in the suburbs of Texas and is currently a Creative Writing/Spanish double major at Oberlin College in northern Ohio. Her poems have appeared in Hanging Loose and several anthologies including the Poetry Society of Texas’ student anthologies and the YoungArts anthology for 2014. She has won several Scholastic regional silver and gold keys, and was a semi-finalist in the Presidential Scholars program in 2014. When not working for Spry or writing, Faith can be found sipping tea with a book of poetry or walking through the prairie with one of her four adopted mutts. 

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