Everyone goes home, but Southerners go down home.
Down home is where you started. It is where your bones were formed, where your spirit decided on your particular self as its vessel. If it weren’t for down home, you wouldn’t be you, because your parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents would never have come together. Down home is the mouth of the river that you became.
Home holds your things; down home holds the rest of you.
I didn’t have my own down home until I moved out of the house I grew up in with my mother, bother, and grandmother in Louisville, Ky. I found myself in Philadelphia working a random desk job after grad school didn’t work out for me. At the height of my then-undiagnosed anxiety disorder, my every day was spent on the constant brink of panic, lungs and heart in an unending riot. Going home was a chance to give my brain permission to relax and indulge in everything that feels good: naps that last too long, hugs from my mother, and, during the holidays, food. Copious, ridiculous amounts of food.
My grandmother was a masterful cook. She did most of the cooking for Thanksgiving and Christmas, our two biggest family meals of the year. She was fat then, cheeks fleshy and round as the bird she stuffed, cigarette dangling dangerously from her lip, flirting with the stuffing. The turkey, the centerpiece, was always her job; everyone else supplemented with side dishes and bad jokes and wine. After we blew through the meal like a pack of Tasmanian devils and passed out on any soft surface we could find in the living room, my grandmother set right back to work in the kitchen, washing dishes, putting away food, taking care of things we couldn’t be bothered with.
We do all that now. At 87 years old, my grandmother is not who she used to be. My fat, happy, foul-mouthed, cigarette-smoking granny has adopted the costume of a kindly old woman whom I occasionally do not recognize. Big hands that once handled 25-pound turkeys are now skinny, nervous butterflies flitting about her face as she tries to remember grandchildren’s names, the days of the week, whether or not she’s eaten dinner for the day.
Holiday dinners with her come with a bit of dread these days because of the fantastic mess she makes when she eats. She prefers her shirt to her napkin, streaking her face with peas and sweet potatoes. Once she managed to get soup in her hair and no one fussed at her out of sheer amazement. She has also taken to chewing and spitting out certain foods, either sending them launching from her mouth to the floor beneath her or plopping them in slobbery blobs on her plate, which isn’t much fun to look at as you try to finish your own. We stopped going out to restaurants years ago because it is an aggravating experience, having to caution a woman who has raised countless children against eating like one herself.
Still, we don’t move her from her spot at the head of the table. We fuss at her and poke her on the leg when she takes food out of her mouth without using a napkin or wipes her hands in her hair, but we don’t move her. My mother now makes the turkey. My aunt handles the dishes. We move busily around her as she sits, eyes closed, head nodding to a song that no one else can hear, and sometimes we dare to wish aloud that she would get up and join us; that our Thanksgivings and Christmases and she herself were encased in Teflon and impervious to change.
But for all the growing old, she is still here, and we don’t lose sight of that. In addition to doing the cooking, my grandmother also said grace before the meal, and we haven’t taken that away from her, either. When my grandmother prays, her gruff country voice softens into a chorus of rose petals singing a hymn. After a series of strokes, her speech isn’t always easy for us to understand or for her to give us, but during the holidays she finds the song in her lungs and pushes it through her gnarled esophagus as best she can. We tighten our circle around her, not so much to make out the words but to catch them as they slide from her tongue, to let them wash over our scalps before they crash to the ground like snowflakes, one day to melt and leave us only with puddled memories.
Two years ago, I managed to record my grandmother saying grace before Thanksgiving dinner to preserve this piece of her, one of a handful that has remained unchanged.
Father, we thank thee for another Thanksgiving holiday.
Thank you for all the blessings that thou hast bestowed upon us
Through days that have passed and gone.
Father, we know thee
And we love thee
With all our hearts.
Grant unto us such things as we stand in need of;
Grant unto us the things that thou would have us do and to go.
Go with us, stand by us,
And when comes our time,
Give us a home in thy blessed kingdom;
For we give thee the praises forever and ever.