Throughout my childhood, my Southern African-American Baptist mother often came to loggerheads with my father, a Jamaican-born West Indian prophet. My siblings and I avoided any conversations that led to challenges of their belief systems—anything about the birds and the bees, other religions, or the practice of medicine and why none of us had visited a dentist since any of our initial required school entrance checkups.
Our meals were nurturing, with plenty of collard greens—familiar and comforting. My mom was a mama's girl, and my grandmother was always present, a huge stable presence. When we weren't eating at home, we were at Grandma's house, just two blocks away. Mom took pride in cooking her Southern recipes because they were her mother's and sister’s. Cooking was never a drudge or chore for her, except when my dad required certain things due to his "dietary restrictions." She imagined some woman/women in the background advising him and being critical of her cooking, either a relative or love interest, but certainly someone she didn't trust.
I needed to get out of Apopka, Florida, where I’d been raised, away from the sadness of my parents’ marriage and the life that was being forced on me. As a junior in high school, I convinced my mother that I should accelerate my education, going the nontraditional route by getting a GED. It really didn’t take much convincing, since she realized that I was something of an outcast at school, and agreed on one condition: She wouldn’t tell my dad until he’d noticed. She was good at keeping secrets. I called it the “marriage trance”—a coping mechanism for a horrible relationship. She’d been in this state of quiet existence for as long as I could remember. She didn’t talk much; she sang instead. And by the time my dad realized our plan, I’d passed my tests with flying colors.
A few years later, after I met a nice young man of Hispanic decent, and we had a baby girl named Harmony. I returned to the small town in citrus country where I grew up. Miraculously my mom had a smile on her face; she and Dad were talking and laughing together. And every morning, they prepared Jamaican cornmeal porridge for the baby and me. My mother said that all the women “in island” would eat this porridge daily to have healthy breast-fed babies. So, for about six weeks, I would wake up to smell of this rich, sweet, creamy deliciousness, and Harmony would automatically sense when it was time for feeding.
Harmony is now 20, attending college in Georgia. Mom and Dad have since divorced. I realize that the porridge was a peace offering, a symbol of unity and teamwork coming from my parents, but especially Mom. It was a gesture signaling perhaps that she was in a place of reason and forgiveness—of Dad, of me, and especially of herself for having been lost in the mess for all those years.
Patsy Whitely Beckett is a native Floridian and creative professional who can be found on Facebook.
1 c. water
1 c. cornmeal
1 t. nutmeg
1 t. cinnamon
1 t. vanilla
1 c. milk
2 T. condensed milk
Bring water to a boil.
Mix cornmeal, nutmeg, cinnamon and vanilla with milk, and pour into boiling water, stirring well.
Reduce heat to low, add condensed milk, and cook for 20 - 30 minutes, stirring often.
Let stand for several minutes to thicken off the heat.