I’m not much of a cook but the other night I decided to make matzo ball soup for Passover, since I wouldn’t be able to spend the holiday with my family and it was a way to kill several hours. It just smelled so… Jewish! And in a way that I associated with my grandparents’ house. Which led me to today’s poem and story, both of which are concerned with what we inherit from our elders, for better or for worse. There are young girls in these pieces who are uneasy with these inheritances; in the poem, it has to do with a fear of loss, while in the story it’s even more complicated than that. (Note that the whole story is a single sentence and seems to be a series of commands from an older woman to a younger one… or maybe it’s just the younger one repeating to herself, in her own words, what she remembers being told as a child.)
David Hockney, The Arrival of Spring in Woldgate, East Yorkshire in 2011
her grandmother called her from the playground
“i want chu to learn how to make rolls” said the old
but the little girl didn’t want
to learn how because she knew
even if she couldn’t say it that
that would mean when the old one died she would be less
dependent on her spirit so
“i don’t want to know how to make no rolls”
with her lips poked out
and the old woman wiped her hands on
her apron saying “lord
and neither of them ever
said what they meant
and i guess nobody ever does
Who is this lady?
Born in Knoxville, Tennessee, Nikki Giovanni is celebrated for writing poetry that is at once accessible and has deep political, cultural, and spiritual dimensions. She attended Fisk University, an HBCU, where she connected with other Black artists and served on the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. She has written poems for children and nonfiction about her experiences in the civil rights movement. Today she teaches at Virginia Tech.
Wash the white clothes on Monday and put them on the stone heap; wash the color clothes on Tuesday and put them on the clothesline to dry; don’t walk bare-head in the hot sun; cook pumpkin fritters in very hot sweet oil; soak your little cloths right after you take them off; when buying cotton to make yourself a nice blouse, be sure that it doesn’t have gum in it, because that way it won’t hold up well after a wash; soak salt fish overnight before you cook it; is it true that you sing benna in Sunday school?; always eat your food in such a way that it won’t turn someone else’s stomach; on Sundays try to walk like a lady and not like the slut you are so bent on becoming; don’t sing benna in Sunday school; you mustn’t speak to wharf-rat boys, not even to give directions; don’t eat fruits on the street—flies will follow you; but I don’t sing benna on Sundays at all and never in Sunday school; this is how to sew on a button; this is how to make a buttonhole for the button you have just sewed on; this is how to hem a dress when you see the hem coming down and so to prevent yourself from looking like the slut I know you are so bent on becoming; this is how you iron your father’s khaki shirt so that it doesn’t have a crease; this is how you iron your father’s khaki pants so that they don’t have a crease; this is how you grow okra—far from the house, because okra tree harbors red ants; when you are growing dasheen, make sure it gets plenty of water or else it makes your throat itch when you are eating it; this is how you sweep a corner; this is how you sweep a whole house; this is how you sweep a yard; this is how you smile to someone you don’t like too much; this is how you smile to someone you don’t like at all; this is how you smile to someone you like completely; this is how you set a table for tea; this is how you set a table for dinner; this is how you set a table for dinner with an important guest; this is how you set a table for lunch; this is how you set a table for breakfast; this is how to behave in the presence of men who don’t know you very well, and this way they won’t recognize immediately the slut I have warned you against becoming; be sure to wash every day, even if it is with your own spit; don’t squat down to play marbles—you are not a boy, you know; don’t pick people’s flowers—you might catch something; don’t throw stones at blackbirds, because it might not be a blackbird at all; this is how to make a bread pudding; this is how to make doukona; this is how to make pepper pot; this is how to make a good medicine for a cold; this is how to make a good medicine to throw away a child before it even becomes a child; this is how to catch a fish; this is how to throw back a fish you don’t like, and that way something bad won’t fall on you; this is how to bully a man; this is how a man bullies you; this is how to love a man, and if this doesn’t work there are other ways, and if they don’t work don’t feel too bad about giving up; this is how to spit up in the air if you feel like it, and this is how to move quick so that it doesn’t fall on you; this is how to make ends meet; always squeeze bread to make sure it’s fresh; but what if the baker won’t let me feel the bread?; you mean to say that after all you are really going to be the kind of woman who the baker won’t let near the bread?
Who is this lady?
Born in Antigua in 1949, Jamaica Kincaid was close with her mother until her three brothers were born, after which point Kincaid says she felt neglected in favor of them. She left the island to work as an au pair in New York and later enrolled in a New Hampshire college. After dropping out, she returned to New York and began working in magazines and was eventually hired by William Shawn to write for the New Yorker. She has since written several novels, short story collections, and works of non-fiction, and teaches at Harvard.
Write about something you’ve inherited from your family—an object, a characteristic, or something else—for better or for worse. Or make it fiction by writing about a character wrestling with an inheritance.
Alanna Schubach is a fiction writer, freelance journalist, and teacher. Follow her on Twitter @AlannaSchubach and read her work at alannaschubach.com. Send questions, recommendations for future newsletters, and the results of writing prompts (if you’re so inclined) to firstname.lastname@example.org