On Dumplings and Death- A Thanksgiving Remembrance
There is no adequate description for the weight of grief, of a loss so profound that words disappear.
By Adria R. Walker
I held my grandmother’s hand as she died five years ago, twenty-four hours before Thanksgiving Day. We call my grandmother Dear. She lay in a medium-sized room at a facility in Hattiesburg, Mississippi as I plead for her to stay alive longer. At first, I asked her to stay until I started college. And when that felt unfair, I asked her to hold on until my high school graduation. Then just until Christmas. And finally, one more day: Thanksgiving.
We spent weeks in that medium-sized room, but it’s foreign to us. It isn’t Dear’s home. There is no pond, no swamp, no garden, no massive peach tree outdoors. Photos of ancestors don’t grace the walls. There are no aged, framed photos of Martin Luther King Jr., JFK, and Robert Kennedy on the wall in the hallway.
Nothing can prepare a person to watch life drain from the eyes of someone they most found comfort in. There is no adequate description for the weight of grief, of a loss so profound that words disappear.
On the night she passed, my aunts Robbie and Dot, brother William, Momma and I formed a circle around Dear’s bed. I held Dear’s hand, fighting back tears and saying, “It’s okay, Dear. I love you, Dear.” But it isn’t okay and I am still angry about her death.
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On Thanksgiving morning, like every year, I am with Momma in the kitchen as she makes the dumplings. She washes and de-bones the chicken breasts and carefully kneads the dough into a ball. When the broth is warm enough, she shapes pieces of dough into dumplings and drops them into the broth to cook. She’s the masterful potter, the dough is her clay and the stove is her kiln.
I have an important, vital role, too. It is my job to make sure the salt, butter, and pepper all combine correctly to round out the broth. When the first dumplings surface, I taste them and my smile bursts open. They’re ready.
I try to remember Dear and I sitting in silence on her porch. Or working on a puzzle. Or in her garden with the plants. I try to remember Dear in her housecoat, her near-straight, silver hair styled around her head, a big, black basin between her legs and a seemingly endless plastic bag full of peas to her left. I try to remember how we were all drawn to Dear’s house, the woods surrounding it and the wonder of how she could create a world where you were loved, protected and fed all the time.
The last memory I have where all of my uncles are alive is when I’m five years old and it’s nearing Thanksgiving. Uncle Shelton, Uncle Danny, Uncle Don and Uncle Randy wear beautifully crafted cowboy boots and hunting gear in Dear’s house. After I make a mess of myself and my feet are blackened from playing outside barefoot, Uncle Don takes care in washing my face and my feet. And in that moment, I declare that he is my favorite uncle.
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Today Lee Williams and The Spiritual QC’s’ “Cooling Water” plays on the stereo and I weep when I hear the song, remembering that Dear wanted to be reunited with family members she lost.
After reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X when I was fifteen and finding out about how the meat industry targeted Black neighborhoods, I became a strict vegan. I tried converting every member of my family but they wouldn’t have it.
Momma and Dear taught me how to make chicken and dumplings and that year, I refused to be their taste tester. Dear asked me again and again to try out the dumplings with her. Each time I said “no ma’am,” she smiled and shook her head.
Over a decade later and I want to be in that kitchen again, watching Dear and Momma make dumplings. I want another opportunity to eat those dumplings. At the time, my decision to decline felt political and morally right. Now, it feels like a rejection of my family, of my tradition and of the way we love.
Thanksgiving Day 2014 was spent at Auntie Dot’s house in Hattiesburg. We lost Dear the day before and I don’t remember much of it outside of the fact that we kept busy, not wanting to pause for fear we wouldn’t stop crying. In Auntie Gloria’s photo of that day, my cousin Gerald blurs by in the background and Momma and I are hunched over Dear’s light blue rolling pad, with our hands covered in flour as chicken broth boils behind us in Dear’s white dumpling pot. I’m pressing the rolling pin over dough, as Momma watches—ready to correct me at any moment.
Like her mother, her mother before her, and her mother before her, Dear lives on each and every time Momma and I are in the kitchen making chicken and dumplings.
(Photo of Adria and her mom in the kitchen, with cousin Gerald in the background.)