Just look at her. My grandmother, Dorothy Lorena Davis, was– as Maya Angelou would say– my “rainbow in the clouds.” I know this is what so many of our grandmothers did for us. She saw me, made me feel recognized and she waited for me to see the same things she did. She raised five of her younger sisters’ children and they called her Mama. She never had any biological children of her own. She gave up her life and sacrificed in a way that’s unheard of nowadays.
After moving to Alabama for college, I spent a lot of time with her. We never really left her house when I visited, and without a car, I’d be there for hours on end, watching her as she completed various parts of her daily routine. She kept her house impeccably clean. Her bed had to be made a certain way–sheets hospital tucked, pillows here, bible centered at the head of the bed. On Fridays the plants were watered and since she had trouble walking, it took her at least an hour to get from her bedroom, water the plants in the living room, and back to her room. But she was insistent, meticulous, even lingering when I wanted to rush through it. Now that she’s gone, most of my memories of her are connected with the house, with the things in it. I wrote “Her Knife,” the first time I cooked using her recipe for pork after she was gone.
To celebrate her birthday this year, I’ve included two poems.
Elegy for Dorothy Lorena Davis
What still cuts is her Blackwood handled knife—
the steel blade thin and water-stained, aged yet sharp.
She used it for the pork she pierced to make pockets for garlic cloves.
It took nearly an hour to peel the flaky suits
from the cloves, wispy like onion peel, falling aside
on the counter beneath her hands,
which were softer than anything I’ve touched–
they broke nothing, held much.
One day she offered me part of her yellow apple,
held out a slice against the side of the knife, and I refused, though I wanted it.
She frowned, her soft nails clutching the heel of her palm,
threatening a punch and then laughing it open.
If a clove sought its way out of the pork, slipping out like a white fish
fighting a hook, she’d turn the knife’s blade on its side,
prod the head of the clove
until it gave, moved back into the meat.
This was the only knife she used. I saw it cut the pork on-the-grain—
she taught me that–
never needed a man around to cut meat.
The knife sliced slivers of her decadent pound cake.
This paring knife, the only utensil she never put away,
its home in the dish drain beside the sink.
The blade opened everything except her skin;
even if a thumb braced against it while cutting
it would not nick her skin,
an unspoken agreement of tenderness between knife and woman.
Forthcoming from Bayou Magazine
For Dorothy Lorena Davis
It opens in black and white:
my seventeenth summer,
Eight Mile, Alabama.
I was dancing an old dance deep
in my grandmother’s arms.
That cymbal summer
I wore a maroon dress
I’d be grounded for wearing—
like a second skin.
Those red dust days in Eight Mile were so hot
people stopped saying it was hot.
We all smelled like outside.
My grandmother— not subtle with love—
made saucepans of Cream of Wheat,
the right amount of butter stirred in.
I didn’t really know
how to take the love.
With a grain of salt?
Eight Mile: the rotted oak that still held
three tire swings,
vulture always eating the remains of a dog.
a warm habitation,
a lemon pound cake baked.
–Birmingham Arts Journal