[encore] 570: Asking About My Mother

[encore] 570: Asking About My Mother

[encore] 570: Asking About My Mother

This episode was originally released on December 20, 2021.


I’m Ada Limón and this is The Slowdown.

I just hosted my brother and his family here at my house for the Thanksgiving holiday. I cooked a few of the nights and each time I did, my brother and I were reminded of how much time we spent in the kitchen growing up. At my father’s house, we had a weekly dinner menu taped on the refrigerator so that each night, a different pair of us would make a meal. One night it would be my dad and me, another night it would be my stepmother Cynthia and my brother Cyrus, and another night it would be Cyrus and me, and so forth.

We talked a lot about how we learned to cook, how we learned to set the table, do the dishes, soak the pans, take our jobs seriously. At my mother’s house, I’ll admit she did most of the cooking with us only occasionally helping. But no matter what house we were in, we had the idea that the kitchen was the place where you learned things. Not just the ins and outs of chopping or family recipes, but the gossip of the day, the gossip of the family. It’s where we might accidentally learn new details of the divorce, or about an argument between my mother and her parents.

The kitchen was a sacred place. Lessons were learned, roles were determined, and there was also martyrdom. The person who cooked for you, who cared for you, who made a sacrifice. How long something took to bake, how hard something was to make, how tired they were after work — we learned to take that seriously too. Being grateful for the food was also part of the job.

In our dual households, the kitchen was the seat of power. You could never forget who bought the food or made the food or troubled themselves over the food for you. When you ate, you were eating someone’s hard work. You were partaking in the ritual of give and take.

In today’s haunting poem, we see this all at play, and how even the food itself becomes almost alive with all that constant watching.

Asking About My Mother
by Crystal Wilkinson

In the small kitchen, the hog’s head weaves
the gamey scent of death throughout the house.
My grandmother scrapes black hair
from the hog’s pink head with the sharp blade
of her butcher knife. I ask her about my mother;
I always ask her about my mother. I play paper dolls
under a Formica table with pearls around my neck
& pink lipstick from my mother’s treasure chest.
My grandmother places the head into the tub & i watch her hands,
wait for her to tell me where my mother’s gone.
My grandmother fills the tub with water.
I hate that she always reminds me of all she’s done for love.
Remember. Remember. Hair. Face. Knife.
She lifts the heavy tub & situates the hog upon the stove
covering all the burners & turns on all the eyes.

“Asking About My Mother” by Crystal Wilkinson from PERFECT BLACK © 2021 by Crystal Wilkinson. Used by permission of University of Kentucky Press.