The Folklore Project
A Southern Definition of Fine
By Laura Elmer
Lalla Farmer was like a whistlin’ kettle straight off a hot eye. She wasn’t boiling anymore, but she was still steaming. She knew she was the best cook in the family even if she was 86 and had Parkinson’s disease.
Recently, Lalla had moved from her home of 53 years to the Foxglove Hills retirement community, where she lived in a two-bedroom apartment in the independent-living section with her husband, Charles. After the move, she let everyone know that the food at “the home,” as she bitterly referred to it, was terrible. Giving up Thanksgiving dinner under her roof was a big enough step. She wasn’t ready to let go of the cooking, too. Anna and Lauren, her two teenage granddaughters, had been sent over to “help” her cook her famous dressing. But Lalla knew better. As much as she loved the two girls and adored spending time with them, she knew they were being sent as babysitters: Her son was attempting a covert mission to make sure she didn’t die in the kitchen. Lalla’s anger was down to a simmer when she opened the door to Anna and Lauren. It was hard to stay angry with grandchildren.
The three of them crowded into her cubby of a kitchen where Charles had laid out the ingredients.
“Grandma,” said Lauren, the elder of the two girls, “You have to sit on this stool and direct. We’re doing the cooking.” Lalla grit her teeth, still smiling, and replied, “Certainly,” knowing she couldn’t win. She retreated to the stool and sat like a queen with her legs daintily crossed.
“Now, girls, ya take two cups a cornmeal and add an egg no matter what the box says, and then we fry a strip of bacon to grease up the cast iron. Then, put the pan in the oven and get it real hot. Good, good, and then we cook the cornbread in the bacon grease for 20 minutes.”
As they waited on the cornbread, Anna looked up at her grandmother and said, “Where’s this recipe from anyways?”
“My head,” said Lalla, “Real cooks don’t measure and read. Real cooks remember. I know when my dressing is gooey enough because I remember the way my mama’s finger looked stuck in her dressing. And you can’t write that in a book.”
The timer broke the silence, and Lauren pulled out the cornbread. “Now, y’all flop it in that bowl and just crumble it with your fingers,” Lalla explained. As they crumbled, the smell of cornbread hovered heavy like a storm cloud.
“How much crumblin’, Grandma?” asked Lauren over her shoulder. “Grandma?”
Lauren turned around just in time to see Lalla’s eyes roll back in her head and her body go limp. Lauren screamed and Anna dove for her grandmother’s body as the weight toppled the stool. Cornbread was all over their hands, all over the floor, and all over the overturned stool. Lalla was convulsing in Anna’s arms, and Anna stared, holding so still she seemed to have stopped breathing. Lauren ran to the emergency cord in the bedroom and yanked it over and over til it came out of the wall.
“She’s moving!” yelled Anna from the other room.
“Girls, girls,” said Lalla, looking around as she came to. “What’s all this chaos? What’s happening?”
“You fell, Grandma,” answered Lauren, still clutching the red cord. She knelt down beside Lalla to get close to her.
“Oh, yes, I remember. Right, I fell. What is … is that the emergency cord, Lauren? I didn’t tell you to pull that! Are people coming up here!? Lauren Elizabeth, are people coming up here?”
“Yes, ma’am,” said Lauren in almost a whisper. She tried to mask the tears in her voice, “You were sick, Grandma. You fell. I was just trying to help.”
“I’m fine. It’s OK, you’re OK. Just such a fuss. Help me up, girls.” The two grandchildren tried to help her walk, but Lalla couldn’t get her balance.
“We know you’re fine, Grandma, but maybe you should lie down for a minute,” Anna pleaded. Lalla nodded, and Anna and Lauren carried her to the bed. She had only been lying still for a few minutes when she began to call for them.
“I … I need my lipstick. If there are people coming in here, I need my lipstick. And Lauren? Grab my brush. Come put my hair in place.” With her last ounce of strength, she commanded order. Lalla lay flat on her back, arms by her sides, as Lauren gently brushed her perm in place, and Anna applied her painted smile. The tiny, wrinkled woman clung to her last ounce of dignity and stretched out her arm to re-tuck in her shirt. “When they get here, y’all tell them it was a mistake. I don’t want anybody thinking I’m dead. Ya hear? I’m fine. I’m fine,” she said, talking herself into it and preparing her grin.
Minutes later, when the nurses burst into the room with their stethoscopes and blood-pressure cuffs, Lalla was sitting up, fully dressed, primped and proud. Like a duchess in her parlor, she looked as if she could have been sipping tea when her guests arrived.
“Why, hello,” she said, graciously greeting the nurses, “I don’t think we’ll be needing your assistance today, but thank you for visiting.”