My mother often tells me about the wisdom my grandmother gave her when she was my age. I’m nearly thirty, an age where I’ve lived enough to know my understanding of the world is infantile, at best. It’s a blessing to get out of the “I know everything- it’s the rest of y’all don’t get it” phase of life. When Mom drops knowledge on me I listen. Wisdom, I’ve learned, is like black coffee. It’s an acquired taste.
Catherine Sauls lived in the South her entire life. Every Sunday she and my grandfather loaded up their Lincoln for service at Reformation Lutheran Church. Whenever we visited from Virginia we dutifully followed our grandparents down the long aisle and had our cheeks and crowns of our head kissed by strangers. After the service Ma would head home to make Sunday supper, a meal that took two days to prepare for, a meal that could feed dozens. In the South you had to be prepared for extras; every Sunday could bring a new cast of characters: a down on his luck parishioner, or a cousin three times removed, or an old friend, or a stranger that Pop-Pop met on the street. No one was turned down, and there was always room for “just one more” at the table.
Ma religiously dressed in the second holy trinity: pumps, stockings, and pearls, even as she stood over a pan of fried okra popping and hissing in Crisco on a slow-burning South Carolina afternoon. She and my mother would talk, Mom shelling green beans or checking the temperature of the ham in the oven. Anyone could help with the little things, but the stove was Ma’s ship, and she was the only captain. There was always talking and laughing. I liked being in the kitchen with them. Something inside of me, even at age seven, told me this was where I belonged, bonded with the women who bore life and witness to each other.
Mom and I had a quick visit recently. We shared a bottle of red wine under an unusually dark California sky. This was our communion, just as cooking in the kitchen had been her ritual with her mother. Mom and Ma didn’t drink together. Despite her legendary status as a party thrower, Ma was a complete teetotaler. Not to say she didn’t have her vices. Mom would sometimes offer her a martini, to which Ma would deadpan, “You have your cocktail, I’ll have mine,” before popping a Valium.
“Your grandmother had a lot of sayings,” Mom said, her eyes glistening like they often do when she is remembering her mother. “But if I had to pick a favorite, it would have to be this one.” Her accent changed, shedding the staccato acquired after two decades in Northern Virginia. She traded it for Ma’s drawl, the vowels tilted. “’Dahlin’, living is like licking honey off a thorn.”
Southern sayings are sometimes blunt, sometimes beautiful, but always rooted in truth. Tolstoy, chief of all things truthful for literature geeks like myself, wrote a parable along the same lines. It goes like this: A man is chased by a monster. He jumps into a well to escape, but while falling he discovers that there is a dragon at the bottom of the well, prepared to swallow him whole. The man catches a limb during his free-fall, hanging above the waiting jaws of the dragon and below the snapping of the monster. For a moment he is safe, but then he notices two mice chewing the limb. His demise is imminent. So what does he do? Lament his situation? Curse his luck? Nope. He discovers that there is honey dripping from the branch. Instead of thinking of the end, he licks the honey.
To paraphrase Jeffrey Eugenides: we are the man on the branch. Death awaits us. It could be in the form of something as big as a dragon or as nondescript as a mouse. There is no escape. And so we distract ourselves by licking whatever drops of honey come within our reach.
I’m not sure if my grandmother had Tolstoy in mind when she told my mother that living was like licking honey off a thorn. I’ll never be able to ask her. But the truth remains the same to Tolstoy and my grandmother and my mother and me and you. We are all looking for the sweetness in life. It comes in many forms. For some it presents itself in the first snow of the year, or a kiss from a child, or a passage from a book that has the power to connect your mind and soul, or a moment tangled in the hips and sheets of a lover. It’s these things and all things.
For me I know that time spent in a Columbia, South Carolina kitchen with a woman dressed in the second holy trinity is one of life’s sweetest moments. And by writing that memory down my grandmother lives on, even though she left this earth over a decade ago.
Our time here is limited. Our capacity for the sweet moments is infinite. Live well, live now, live sweetly.
Ps, hi Mom. Love you to the moon and back.