I don’t know my grandmother’s middle name. I didn’t call her Mimi or Gigi or Nana. I didn’t call her anything. I don’t know her voice. I’ve seen pictures but I don’t know, really, what she looked like. I don’t have any lasting memory of the woman that gave my father life. That raised my aunt and uncles. That was a teacher. A reader. An elementary school principal. A lover of words and language and coffee. Of the woman who had a quick tongue and was a fierce card game component. I’m pretty sure that all of the stories I’ve ever heard about my grandmother have been blurred into a fiction meant to memorialize the good Southern lady in strength, dignity and pristine white lace gloves. The only thing I have left of her is a wooden table and a wedding picture.
And the feeling of her presence at all of the major events of my life.
For all the things I don’t know about this woman who brought so much joy, faith, and vitality to our family I do know, for certain, that Thanksgiving smells like my grandmother.
Specifically, the cornbread dressing.
One of the first Thanksgiving lessons I learned was that it was dressing. Not stuffing. Because it was stuffed into the bird. It dressed the table.
My people are from Savannah. There’s still some southern snobbery guiding our traditions.
Every year on Thanksgiving, my mother spends two days making my grandmother’s cornbread dressing recipe. I’m pretty sure it’s two fold: one, to keep my grandmother’s memory alive; two, for my father. He doesn’t have many childhood traditions left. His mother’s dressing is one of the only lasting tastes of his 1950s upbringing and my mother makes that memory come alive each year. It is through the blending of spices written down in a yellowed cookbook (which Mom pulls out each year but doesn't need to read) and melding those individual components - onions, celery, cornbread, stale bread - together with butter.
We savor the sauteed onions and cornbread soaked in turkey stock and heap huge helpings onto the good china and ask, gently, if she made extra for us to freeze for the cold winter storms waiting for us in January. There is always a pan full my grandmother’s dressing prepared for the freeze and we plan strategically in the winter when we will thaw and fill up on the warmth of home.
I have a lot of thoughts about Nelle. I’ve often wondered if she would’ve been proud of me and I’ve secretly convinced myself that I would’ve been her favorite (although I think her other 6 grandchildren have done the same). We love the memories that we’ve created surrounding her. And hearing Uncle Ricky call her Mom. Because we’ve only ever called her Nelle. I have no memory of her house and yet I envision Thanksgiving with fancy table decorations and handmade tablecloths and fine china and dress shirts and black patent leather Mary Jane shoes. I smell pine and cranberries.
It is in this moment that my mother asks me what I’m writing about. And I tell her. And she tells me that I’m wrong. Never was the recipe ever Nelle’s. Thirty years of memories and fantasy flash before the fiction that I find is writing the family history of my mind. We laugh, uncontrollably for hours over this memory. This made up moment I've carried for two decades.
And as we embrace in laughter, I wonder what other memories I’ve made up about my people and I think I like my version better.
I watch as my mother pulls potatoes out of the pantry to prepare and mash. They were not on the original menu but she heard Caroline asking for mashed potatoes with her turkey. So she’s making them. For her. And I smile and know that Nelle would’ve done the same. For any of us. And that, I know I’m not making up.
The legacies of old ladies lasts beyond the years they hold us in their arms. The legacies of old ladies is left in the memories of hugs and kisses that steal the chocolate taste of cookies off your lips.
The legacies of old ladies last in the smell of cornbread dressing simmering in the oven - even if wasn’t really their recipe but it is our memory of them - filling up a room to remind us to be thankful for the traditions that last even after thirty years.