I was adopted, along with two of my siblings, just before my third birthday but somehow managed to forget everything about my past when the new family took me home. It’s odd how one can forget who they are, but maybe sometimes things happen to one’s soul that are so traumatic, the memory must be buried completely in order for that person to survive. I’ve heard that intuition is the voice of the soul and I believe this. To hear the voice of your subconscious mind is a strange thing. It’s a gnawing, nagging feeling that forces you to obsess over seemingly insignificant things.
I began questioning my new parents from the beginning although questioning is hardly an apt description. Rather, it was more a gentle imploring of my subconscious mind urging me to remember. I asked my adoptive family who my parents were. We are, they said. No, my real parents, I’d respond with a trace of guilt. Always the guilt. Like I owed these, who had been strangers, some debt. They refused to tell me. They knew and refused to tell me.
I spent years wondering about my past, but the answers I needed were buried deep inside me, and there was no way to access them. I could only guess that the pain of being separated from my family was so intense for me that my mind had blocked those memories until the trauma passed. And pass it did. Over the years, my memories slowly began to surface, a fact I kept to myself, fearing my adoptive family’s reaction if they discovered I knew the truth. The memories were confusing, not even complete memories really, more like fragments from the life of some stranger.
At first, they came as a glimpse, like interference on a television set. A red balloon. A white fence. An overweight woman with long flowing hair that reached her waist. A dark room and the sound of crying in the night. A waterfall. A house with people I didn’t recognize. I pushed the disjointed images far from my mind, but my subconscious refused to be silenced.
Glimpses of new memories soon followed. A sidewalk. A slender man with unkempt hair and glasses. An institution, bleak and cold, gray and unfeeling. And then of all things, eggs.
Eggs with the yolks half-cooked. My new family only scrambled or hard-boiled them. When the image of the egg with its runny yolk appeared in my mind, I could taste it. Could feel its texture. The taste on my tongue was undeniably familiar. The feeling was so intense it made me uncomfortable. I ignored the memory, but my subconscious had finally found a way to reach me.
My new mother loved to bake biscuits and I loved to spread grape jam and butter on the bread and let it melt in my mouth. One day as I bit into a freshly baked biscuit a bit of grape jelly and butter fell on my plate. The mixture swirled and I stared at the pattern, eyes locked on my plate, body stiff as if my soul had grabbed me, holding my shoulders, demanding that I see what I had buried. In an instant, I was no longer at the table with my new family. I was in Chickamauga, Georgia, at my grandma’s feet reaching a tiny hand for the plate she held on her lap. She was stirring grape jelly and butter together. I wanted it. She laughed and obligingly fed me the mixture from her fork.
Then came the flood. The memory fragments were now complete. The round woman and the skinny man with unkempt hair and glasses were still strangers. I watched them both from where I sat on the step fronting the yard, an entryway sandwiched between a white picket fence. The woman and the strange man were smiling. I looked away and glimpsed a girl passing by, a red balloon trailing behind her. I sensed a great sadness in my younger self. I didn’t want to be there, wherever there was.
I saw the people I hadn’t recognized at the house in the mountains and this time I knew them to be my three uncles. I sensed a happiness there and a happiness in them. I saw my father, putting on my shoes. He smiled at me, but I was mad because I didn’t like the way he pulled the sock over the top of my toes. I could see the dress he put on me, it was blue, and the black shoes too, but most importantly, I could see him. Strange how the touch of cotton on your feet can bring the smiling image of the father you forgot you had immediately to mind.
No sooner did I see him there, putting on my shoes than we were riding down the road in his car. His red car. He loved that car. I looked at his hands. One hand on the steering wheel, the other resting on his lap. I looked at my own hand on my lap and carefully posed my fingers to match his then glanced back at him. He had been watching and was smiling down at me.
My adoptive parents told me that after the adoption I would only eat fried chicken and biscuits. I don’t think they could have known just why that was all I wanted to eat, but it’s funny now. They had wanted me to hate my biological family but never realized that one taste of a biscuit with grape jam and butter would be powerful enough to undo years of conditioning.
I thought about this recently when I sat down to dinner with my family. My real family. My grandma had made fried chicken just as she had made for me so many times before the adoption. She loves to cook, but she only cooks soul food. When I last visited, she’d prepared a ham along with her usual fried chicken and biscuits. She made sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, baked beans, green beans, and macaroni and cheese. She made pecan pie, coconut cake, strawberry pie, chocolate cupcakes and coconut cupcakes. It was all made from scratch, all but the macaroni and cheese. She and my aunts had cooked for hours.
I ate a little of everything. Well, all but that southern gelatin dish with the fruit and nuts mixed in, of which she’d made two different kinds (orange and green, standard for the South, I believe). I ate until I couldn’t eat anymore and when my grandma offered me a slice of pecan pie I told her I couldn’t possibly eat another bite. So of course she cut me a slice and set it before me with a fork and I ate that too. I told my grandma the story of the grape jam and the butter. She laughed and confirmed the memory. I related what memories I had to her and she explained them, one by one.
Fried chicken and biscuits. I never expected something so seemingly insignificant to unlock my past, present, and future.
But then I guess that’s why they call it soul food.