Trigger warning: I’m going to refer to some racially offensive language (and high fat content foods) in here.
“Why does every show start with the stuff we JUST WATCHED on the last show?” Vivi asked me in frustration. She was several episodes deep into the Transformers.
“Well, sweetie,” I chuckled, “back in the OLDEN DAYS before Netflix, TV shows only came on once a week or once a day, so they did that to remind you what had happened last time.”
In a world of binge-watching streaming video and On Demand cable TV, my daughter has never needed the “On our last episode…” recap to pick up the thread of a show. We had discovered a relic.
- an object surviving from an earlier time, especially one of historical or sentimental interest.
an object, custom, or belief that has survived from an earlier time but is now outmoded.
She is growing up in a different kind of life, a life where recaps are “now outmoded.”
This has not been lost on my family. I remember when she was about 3 and we were all sitting around the dining room table at Daddy and Gay’s house. Her Uncle James looked at Vivi across the table and blurted, “That child does not know how to eat a drumstick.”
Every head turned to witness Vivi gripping her fried chicken leg by the meaty end while she gnawed for purchase on the bony little knobbly end. My firstborn, not one generation removed from walking out into the backyard to procure a chicken for the frying pan, didn’t know which end of the drumstick was the handle.
Daddy was aghast. “Don’t you feed this baby CHICKEN?”
I rotated the drumstick in her hand and Vivi bit into the meat like she had struck gold. “Of course I do! It just…doesn’t have any bones in it.” I bake chicken breasts or chicken tenders or chicken nuggets. I don’t cook non-specific chicken parts chicken. I don’t fry it. And I sure as hell don’t cut it up.
Daddy set his own drumstick down on the edge of his plate. “How do you make STOCK if you don’t have a carcass???” I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I don’t make stock, I don’t own Crisco, and I have never in my life cooked a dumpling. And as God is my witness, I will never be hungry enough to mess with giblets.
That night taught me that drumsticks, a staple of my life, might be a relic for my daughter. An object of purely sentimental interest.
So many things that are normal to me don’t really make sense to her. The other night we were out of body wash at bath time. I handed her a bar of $8 goat’s milk and honey soap that I get special for myself from the farmer’s market. This child who is in the gifted program at school did not even know how to work up bubbles with a bar of soap–all she could do was stare at it and chase after it every time it slipped out of her hand. She sat there in the tub with her Mr. Bubble, Kidz 2-in-1 Shampoo, a pink sponge…and a relic.
Remember that story from last summer when she was away at camp and I couldn’t wait to get a letter? Then when it arrived I realized that I had never taught my daughter how to use an envelope, so an unsealed envelope was all I received? She has two different email accounts in fourth grade and takes coding classes but doesn’t know that you have to lick the envelope to make it hold the letter inside. Envelopes are from an earlier time.
My kids don’t know what a phone book is, much less how you can use the Atlanta Yellow Pages as a booster seat when you are eating fried chicken around your Grandmama Eunice’s Sunday table (but you better wash those hands first and use SOAP).
Relics. I get sad when I consider how differently my children are growing up. We had it pretty good, what with the drumsticks and the rotary phones and the weekly episodes and the Ivory soap that was so pure it floats.
But it’s not all wistful memorializing of my glorious past that she won’t ever experience. Some relics are signs that we are making real progress.
Like the day Vivi and I went to a Sunday afternoon showing of Hidden Figures. We had seen the preview at Moana so she recognized the early scene of the three women repairing their broken down car. Vivi leaned over to me in the dark and whispered, “Three neh-GRO women chasing a white police officer…”
I didn’t understand her at first and said, “Huh?” with one eye still on the screen.
“Remember when the lady says ‘Three neg-ROW women chasing a policeman…'”
“Oh right!” I laughed quietly with her and nodded. She went back to watching the movie while I had to put my hand on my heart and catch my breath for a second.
My Georgia-born-and-raised daughter doesn’t know how to pronounce “Negro.” That word is a relic to her.
I read somewhere that you shouldn’t make fun of a person who mispronounces a word because it means that they learned it by reading instead of by hearing it. I’m sure Vivi has read “Negro” in books, but she’s never heard it in conversation while sitting around her grandmama’s table at Sunday lunch.
By the time I was her age, I had heard enough to distinguish the difference between Negro, n*gger, nigra, black, colored, redbone, high yellow, and blue gum. And that was from listening to mostly nice people talk.
We didn’t say n*gger in my family, not even in the older generations. Only coarse people used that word. My grandparents said “colored” or “nigra.” After my wedding to Fartbuster, I blanched when my grandmother–a self-taught painter–recounted a delightful conversation about painting she had had with “that nigra art professor” at the reception. “His name is VINCENT!” I scolded her. Grandmama didn’t understand why I was getting worked up. Mom reminded me that, for their era, using “nigra” was polite.
Not good enough for me. I lived in the modern world and their terms were relics. The world changed around them, yet they held on to their words. My beloved great aunt even coined an adjectival form: when I bought my first car, she said, “I wouldn’t buy a red car. It’s too nigra-ish.”
The one and only time I got my mouth washed out–speaking of soap–involved these n-words. Coming home from school one day when I was 5 or 6, one of the older boys dared me to say n*gger. I didn’t do it then, but once we got home, I said the word within earshot of Quicker, who looked after us. My memory of the event may be hazy, but my memory of the taste of Ivory soap is 99 44⁄100% Pure, because my mama soaped up a blue wash cloth and had me sit there and suck on it until I had learned my lesson.
I did learn my lesson that day. Flash forward 40-something years to that dark theater, where my daughter puts the accent on the wrong syllable of Negro. I felt something move, something shift across generations. One word. It’s such a small thing, but it gives me hope.