Sunday dinner in Columbia, Tennessee: fried chicken, mixed greens— turnips, mustard, and spinach, pan-fried corn, twice milked then stirred with flour and water, candied sweets, chow chow; plates of sliced tomatoes, onions, and cukes, fresh-picked that day from the garden around the side of the house. Only four or five years old, I still remember my Aunt Gladys, Superintendent of the Sunday School, going out in the backyard, nonchalantly grabbing a chicken by the neck, and easily sending it to heaven. Years later she told me about the first time she had tried to cook chicken. It was a stew. She was seven. As soon as she brought it inside, she had plunged the chicken into a pot of hot water, feathers, innards and all only to hear my grandmother yell, “Gladys, where’s that nasty smell coming from?”
Our house was in town, but we didn’t have indoor plumbing when I was a little girl. None of that seemed to matter. Sitting next to my grandmother, listening to her recite Paul Laurence Dunbar then memorizing a poem that I would practice for her, over and over again until a visitor stopped by and politely listened to me. Those words won’t go away. In the winter, the smell of kindling when I opened the wood stove would fill the house. My job was rolling up pieces of newspaper and stuffing them down the opening at the top. As soon as the paper caught fire, I would quickly close the stove and go back to the chair next to my grandmother. I still have a candy box with her comb, hair pins, and glasses. In a larger box, I have a pair of her Daniel Green Comfies and a faded flannel nightgown. If I close my eyes, I can still see them, my Aunt Gladys, my grandmother and a few friends, sitting near the fire after Sunday dinner at our house.
Sandra Seaton is a playwright and librettist. In January 2020, the opera Night Trip, her new commission with composer Carlos Simon, will première at the Kennedy Center. Her other works include From the Diary of Sally Hemings, her collaboration with composer William Bolcom and her plays The Bridge Party, Music History or A Play About Greeks And SNCC in 1963, Estate Sale and her Civil War play The Will.