When the summer storm subsides, I creep around in the evening air, taking photos of flowers bathed in the golden light of the setting sun, their petals resplendent with drops of rain. The gray sky recedes. My mother-in-law, Zora, smiles when she finds me huddling by the rose bushes, camera in hand. She leads me beyond her front yard, across the street, and onto her neighbor’s curved driveway. Zora assures me that her neighbor won’t mind, so I snap away. Zora points out beautiful blossoms and adjusts the blooms, moving them to the right, left, up, or down to create prettier shots for me. Wrens wave their tawny tails at us. Cardinals flit from the undergrowth. Water laps against the red clay bank that surrounds the neighborhood lake. I photograph incandescent yellow lilies, ivory magnolias, serrano chili pepper plants, mauve cornflowers, and her neighbor’s collection of miniature birdhouses, which hang on cedar fence posts – a constellation of hospitality venues for small finches and songbirds. I photograph Zora: fuchsia lipstick on curvaceous full lips, short dark curls, white shirt with blue stripes and matching navy shorts. For the first time in a very long time, I feel right again.
It’s not just the rush of trespassing with my mother-in-law; nor is it the blessed salve of South Carolina’s humid June air on my frosty, sun-starved Utah skin. I feel right among the area’s lush green foliage: the electric pink azaleas, globes of blue hydrangeas, and billowy, purple butterfly bushes; the crested blue jays, robins, and yellow-headed finches; the squirrels, tails twitching as they ferret away acorn stores… I feel right that Zora stands by my side admiring this landscape with me.
Zora’s lilt enchants me: rounded sounds born of the rural South, recounting tales of putting up fruits and vegetables for the winter, picking watermelons from the vine, or driving out to visit the cows. Expressive blue-green eyes punctuate her words as she describes how her mother loved to tap dance. (We both aspire to tap too.) From our hundreds of conversations, I have adopted several of her sayings and mannerisms. I catch myself all the time: Quit!… I might could… I’m fixin’ to… I reckon… Fourteen years of southern inculcation has taught me the respectful utility of the phrase Yes, ma’am, though Zora has yet to scold me for my habitual disuse. Zora stops mid-sentence to hug me, whispering I love you. She calls me darlin’, honey, and sweetheart far more often than she calls me by name, a habit I’ve formed with my children. I address her as Mom Z; to my children, she is Gran Z. We all steep like sweet tea in Zora’s radiant light.
Zora influences me profoundly in the kitchen. We love to talk shop. She indulges me as I record her recipes, my fingers typing furiously to catch each step of her work. How many bananas do you use? How much sour cream? Brand or generic, and if so, is there a specific company or store you prefer? She continues her work as she answers my barrage of inquiries. A smile forms in the crook of her right cheek.
“Look at this,” she says, nudging two hard-bound, jade colored books across the table: a two-volume set called Meta Given’s Modern Encyclopedia of Cooking, originally published in 1947. “Meme just gave them to me,” says Zora, winking. “She’s had these so long, we just call them the green cookbooks.” (Meme is the 91-year-old Hartley matriarch. Everybody giggles when I inevitably fail to pronounce her name correctly.) Zora thumbs through the stained, yellowing pages of the second volume. “See this? It’s a set of two, but the index for both is in this one,” she says. “Let’s see what this has to say!”
On the first pages, I read: “Mealtime is more important than many women realize, not only physically, as the time for refueling the body, but emotionally as well, as the time when the whole family gathers together to enjoy each other as well as their food.” Zora embodies this philosophy. Mealtimes are for sharing communion and company. Zora prepares eggs, grits, sausages, and fruit for breakfast before anyone else has woken up. She chides those who depart the meal a few minutes early to help with dishes: “Now, honey, don’t worry about that!” She saves vegetable scraps for the wild rabbits in her backyard, fortifies the soil of her plants with eggshells, and champions recycling and composting, a resourceful remnant from her childhood on the farm. She reveres the vitality of things grown in the earth, offering me tastes of her first tomato, juicy and sweet, and succulent halved figs from her prolific tree. A born adventurer, Zora shares my curiosity for food: Did they coat the fried okra in flour or corn meal? What’s that secret kick in the low country shrimp boil? Have you ever made chocolate cake with cola? I never feel like a food-loving geek in her company. Did I mention that she is an incredible cook and a masterful improviser?
“If you’d like, those might come to you one day,” says Zora, eyeing me as I gape at the green cookbooks’ color photography. “That’s pretty beautiful, especially considering how old these are,” she adds. I nod and mutely think: priceless, heirloom, treasure, love. I think: azalea, hydrangea, butterfly, bee. I think: New York, South Carolina, Zora, me. As I leaf through the cookbooks with Zora so close by, warm, grateful rightness steeps warm amber in my soul.