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Fear of Frying

by Diane Kimbrell

Othermama’s biggest fear in life was death. Her second biggest fear was that she would be buried in potter’s field—a bleak burial ground for paupers located about a mile outside our hometown of Quicksand, North Carolina. To make sure she didn’t end up there without so much as a stick to mark her grave, Othermama, my maternal grandmother, took out an insurance policy with the Quicksand Mutual Trust Agency. She had no intention of being buried in an “ole cold, pine wood box,” as she put it. Her monthly payments to Mr. Mosely, the tall, thin insurance man, ensured that she would be laid to rest in a satin-lined coffin with a lid. Although she couldn’t bear the idea of being closed inside of anything, it was preferable to being exposed to the elements and eaten by worms—worms, which by the way, were her third biggest fear.

Othermama had always lived with us. To this day, nobody in my family will admit it, but we all dreaded her death as much as she did. I never understood why she was so afraid of passing on to her final resting place. Perhaps she feared being cast into the Devil’s lake of fire burning with brimstone, for what exactly I’m not sure. Nowhere in the Bible is it written that putting sugar in a chicken pie is a sin. It wasn’t done to make anyone sick; it was a mistake made by a nervous newlywed (trying to impress her husband’s family) who didn’t know how to cook. Nobody died from eating the pie but Othermama’s in-laws never forgave her. They suspected she’d done it on purpose. Maybe Othermama worried that God thought so, too. As far as I know, Othermama never used the Lord’s name in vain or left a bed unmade. In fact, in spite of a rough beginning, she truly excelled in the culinary arts. She was a godly, good-hearted soul—one of the few definitely bound for glory. We feared her passing because she was our leader; she held the family together.

More specifically, Othermama was the only one in the house who knew how to cook. Mama made a great batch fudge but we couldn’t live on fudge alone. The kitchen was Othermama’s domain. Daddy was the only one of us brave enough to open the refrigerator without asking Othermama’s permission—but even he dared not stand too long with his head stuck inside trying to decide what to eat. To me, the very thought of her passing away like an ordinary mortal was inconceivable and this is why the doctor’s diagnosis was so difficult to accept.

Othermama had two daughters, Sissy and Lovinia. She called Sissy her practical daughter; she called Lovinia a dreamer. My mother, Lovinia, was the older of the two. We finished our Sunday meal that June afternoon in 1965, and following family tradition, Othermama, Aunt Sissy, Mama and I retired to the living room to sip iced tea and chat. Daddy and my brothers, Jake and Ben, headed for the den to watch TV. Othermama and Aunt Sissy took their usual seats on the couch.

“Is your neck swollen?” Aunt Sissy asked, peering at Othermama over her bifocals.

“My neck? Swollen?”

“That’s what I asked. Is your neck swollen—on this side?”

“Why would my neck be swollen?” Othermama and Aunt Sissy’s conversations often reminded me of Abbott and Costello comedy routines. Going for a second opinion, Othermama said, “Lovinia, does my neck look swollen to you?” Before Mama could answer, Aunt Sissy piped up, “Does your neck hurt?”

“No,” Othermama stated flatly.

“Doesn’t appear too swollen from here. Is your throat sore?” Mama asked. Mama’s worried expression—the one she wore most of the time that had briefly disappeared during dinner—suddenly returned.

“Well, it wasn’t until everybody started talking about it. But now that … ”

“I knew it.” Aunt Sissy lit a cigarette, took a long drag and exhaled before she added, “You must have a sore throat because your voice sounds hoarse. Let me feel your neck.” Ordinarily, Othermama didn’t like to be touched but she didn’t push Aunt Sissy’s hand away. “Good Lord God, that’s a knot,” Aunt Sissy said.

“Could be the start of the mumps,” Mama suggested. “Mrs. Snipes’ little girl is recovering.”

“Lovinia, that’s ridiculous. I’m way too old.”

“No, Othermama, you’re not. Anybody can get the mumps,” I said, but no one was listening. My name is Nicolette Elizabeth Bradshaw (Niki for short) and although I was a junior in college at the time, I was still considered a child—to be seen not heard.

“It’s a wad of snuff,” Aunt Sissy hissed. “A wad of snuff.” Although it was mid July, I suddenly felt a chill in the room. Mama crossed her legs and began to rub her left eyebrow with her left thumb and forefinger. The rubbing of her eyebrow was a nervous tic. Aunt Sissy, oblivious to everything except the sound of her own voice continued, “I begged you to quit years ago.” Othermama drew her lips into a thin straight line, a sure sign that she was angry. Although the whole family knew about it, Othermama considered her snuff to be a deep, dark secret never to be spoken of out loud. Once acceptable in the courts of kings, snuff had long since passed from favor like chamber pots, corsets and wooden teeth. Aunt Sissy disapproved of Othermama’s habit; she considered it “nasty.”

“When you quit smoking,” Othermama said, as she reached into the pocket of her blue seersucker housedress for the small can of Superior Snuff, “I’ll quit dipping.” She was the only person in the world who dared put Aunt Sissy in her place.

“Just promise me you will make an appointment to see Dr. Sides,” Aunt Sissy said, in a much kinder tone.

“I’ll call tomorrow and make an appointment for you,” Mama offered. Othermama didn’t argue.

For as far back as I can remember, my nightly prayers included a request that Mama and Othermama be kept safe. Though there had been some close calls (most recently, the night Daddy threatened to kill Mama if she opened her mouth one more time, and when Othermama drank a glass of Texsize Household Cleaner by mistake thinking it was milk) my prayers were answered. But a lump? It seemed that older people recovered from things like the flu or pneumonia—but a lump? A lump could be cancerous. Fatal.

In a week’s time, Othermama’s lump had doubled in size. It looked like she’d swallowed a hen’s egg that went down the wrong way and became lodged in her neck. Unable to determine the type of cells in the growth or diagnose it as benign or malignant, the stymied doctor suggested radiation treatments to keep it from growing and hopefully shrink it. Dr. Sides allowed that the growth could be “life threatening.”

The instructions following a treatment were explicit: do not get close to children physically; do not handle food. Since one or more of her great grandchildren were always visiting our home, Othermama found this to be the worst possible punishment imaginable. One of her greatest pleasures in life was feeding them. A wonderful cook, she loved to feed everybody. Following her first treatment, her youngest great grandson, Scottie, ran into the house, arms outstretched for a big hug. Turning from him, Othermama ran towards the bedroom. “Stay back! Stay back!” she screeched, “I’m radioactive.” She began to spend most of her time lying in bed. Othermama never went to bed during the day—she was always cooking or cleaning. In an effort to lift Othermama’s spirits, Mama asked her to help with supper.

“I have cut up the chicken, rolled it in flour, added the salt and pepper,” Mama said, “all you have to do is stand by the stove and fry it.”

“Oh no, I can’t,” Othermama quivered. “The doctor said I’m contaminated.”

“Your hands won’t touch the chicken.”

“But I’d have to touch the fork handle to turn it and the handle of the pan, too.”

“That’s OK. You can do that,” Mama said.

“No. I know good and well what the doctor said.” Othermama was dying to cook, but she insisted on following the doctor’s orders to protect the family. She was like that. Othermama always put others’ needs before her own. Later than afternoon, I entered her bedroom to check on her to make sure she was still breathing.

“Othermama?” I whispered. When there was no immediate answer, I knelt by the bed and put my ear as close to her face as I dared to listen for an inhale or an exhale. The pounding of my heart was so loud I couldn’t hear anything else. When she finally said, “Yes?” I felt close to fainting.

“How do you feel?” I asked. Her voice had a natural quiver but recently it seemed higher in pitch and quivered more than ever.

Oh, I’m alright.”

Following the discovery of Othermama’s lump, our home that always bustled with activity had become unusually quiet—no more clickety-clack of Mama’s typewriter during the day or rattling of pots, pans and silverware in the kitchen. Othermama needed rest. Aunt Sissy, who now dropped by every evening to see Othermama, spoke in whispers. Concerned neighbors brought over so many flowers from their gardens, our living room often smelled like a funeral parlor. Dodger, our cocker spaniel, stopped barking at passing cars along the road and neighbors who passed through our yard. Never before had he eaten dog food from a can or a box because Othermama fed him table scraps. With each passing day, his large brown eyes became sadder and sadder. Mama cooked but it wasn’t the same. Othermama never put bacon in spaghetti. Hungry and heartbroken, I passed those six weeks of Othermama’s radiation treatments in constant prayer.

God, please don’t take her. Not yet. I have only one more year of college. Without her help I could never have attended. Don’t let it be her time. She deserves to see me graduate. I owe her money. Let me pay her back.

I knew God was listening, I just wasn’t sure of His plans.

With each treatment, the lump in Othermama’s throat became somewhat smaller. The doctor appeared guardedly hopeful. On the sixth and final visit, he told her that he had done his best and that nature would have to take its course. One month after her last radiation treatment, the lump had completely disappeared and Othermama’s energy was back. With the doctor’s permission, Othermama returned to the kitchen. For that first meal, she baked biscuits for our breakfast, scrambled half a dozen eggs and fried a big pan of Livermush.

Dr. Sides declared her case a “medical miracle.” What that lump was and where it went still remains a mystery. As for myself, there was no mystery about why it disappeared. My family and I prayed it away. And, I am certain the person praying the hardest was Othermama.

Actress and writer Diane Kimbrell has lived in New York City for many years, but was born and raised in Charlotte, North Carolina, and is a graduate of University of North Carolina. Her literary credits include The Raleigh Review, The Battered Suitcase, the Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, Subtletea, Muscadine Lines, the SFWP Journal, River Walk Journal, and Plum Biscuit.

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