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The Cornbread Skillet



By: Bill McFadyen

Hearing of Mamma’s death was nothing like when Granddaddy died. Riding in the backseat on the way to the coast to fish for Spanish mackerel, I had heard my uncle tell his fishing buddies that Granddaddy would live a normal life after having received a lung cancer diagnosis. To them, that meant that he would not seek any treatment that 84 years was enough for Granddaddy to call it a life lived. I was then 12 years of age and it sounded to me like he had been cured. So when Mom came into my room that morning before school to tell me my hero had died, I was shocked proportionate to the heart-brokenness.

My Grandmother’s death six years later was different. I was a college student. Cancer was a very clear demon. The persistent pain evident in her face while she lay in the bed before I went back from Christmas break begged for ultimate relief. Grimacing, she told me something during that final visit that I will never forget. Facing the completion of her own 84 years, she said resolutely that she had no regrets.

Eighty-four years old, dying of intestinal cancer and no regrets? Heck, I was 18 and already had regrets.

No regrets? I even questioned her about it with a certain incredulity. She had been shot in the face in an accident when in her twenties. She had an infant son to die a couple of days after his birth. She had a brother who died pretty young from his own bad habits. She watched her husband of 50-plus years waste away in the same fashion in which she was now expiring. She was lying there fighting through the delirium of constant pain to talk to me – to say goodbye. Still, she was cogent and resolute when she told me, “I don’t regret anything that has happened in my life.” Those happenings, fortunate and unfortunate, were her life. Even facing her mortality, she would have changed none of it.

I studied some philosophy at Davidson College. (Well, “study” may be an overstatement – but I was certainly exposed to some.) That last bit of wisdom that Mamma imparted to me was much clearer than anything about which Dr. McCormick lectured. For her, the good and the bad each have their place in what we become and in the life we are granted.

So that phone call a few weeks later that Mamma was gone came with no shock. It set in motion what I now call “The Business of Death.” You lose the person and then you start the business of bringing an end to what was a life as we know it. When can everyone make it home? When should we hold the church service and who will line up the pallbearers? Who will get the death certificates? In the moment, The Business of Death takes precedent over mourning the loss. The mourning will come, but not right then.

The years – the decades especially – steal my clarity. I do not remember if we McFadyens and Bartons gathered at her house after the funeral or on some later date. Logic tells me it must have been later because it takes time to wind down a house from being lived in to being divested. But gather we did with the intent of everyone getting their desired keepsakes from the accumulation of things that marked the convergence of the lives of Scott and Hattie Currie McFadyen.

I think we actually went in a circle, starting with her daughter (Zula Barton) and her son (my dad). After they chose what they wanted, then it was the turn of the two Barton grandchildren. Linda in Atlanta took the crystal via her mom’s proxy. (I drank from it at Christmas this year.) Her younger brother Butch chose Mamma’s diaries. They were a meticulous collection of her life’s events and those of her two children, as she also kept separate diaries during their childhoods written by her in their first-person account of the days. Then it was the turn of the McFadyen brothers.

As a small boy, Granddaddy would (as he referred to it) take me to ride. He meandered the backroads and farms of Hoke County and visited Uncle Turk on the far reaches of Morganton Road and checked in on Uncle Reg at Barton Poultry behind Edgar Edens’ farm. Lunch on the road was usually seafood – sardines and crackers with an RC cola. Every once in a while, though, we would eat at their house at 312 McAllister Street.

There would be a main protein course of country-style steak or sliced ham or one time I remember having rabbit (another story for another day). There would be butter beans or field peas or green peas. And there was always cornbread.

Cornbread is like barbeque. Wherever you go, it is different from where you just were. Cornbread can be a tall cake from a deep-dish with actual corn kernels inside. Or it can be a deep-fried paper-thin concoction that crunches when you bite it. Mamma’s cornbread was very simple. I remember standing in a chair to watch her make it the day she first showed me how. It was white corn meal with water and salt and pepper. And just a couple of splashes of milk because she said that made it brown up better. Simple ingredients to form a daily staple. But her secret was the cornbread skillet in which she cooked it.

It was black cast iron, as all proper skillets must be. It had the protruding handle for re-positioning it over the burner during cooking. The uniqueness of this skillet was its depth. Actually, its lack of depth. From the middle of the cooking surface to the top of the lip is about one-half of an inch.

Mamma would get the batter into a consistency that was a little bit watery and pour it into the well-seasoned surface. Somehow, she flipped the cake such that it never broke. The outer circumference was a little crispy and the cake was a mixture of deep brown and somewhat opaque, depending on how much contact the batter made with the somewhat irregular surface of the skillet. Granddaddy was a non-believer when it came to margarine so the cornbread in its finished form was patted with chunks of real butter that slowly melted while you filled your plate with the main courses. It is odd how today, fifty years later, the only two things I distinctly remember about her cooking are the aforementioned rabbit shank and daily wheels of cornbread from that shallow skillet.

She lived 84 years. She cooked and cleaned and chronicled the lives of her children and of herself. She went to Sunday School every Sunday whether she was in Fayetteville or traveling to California in their Oldsmobile. She saw people die of old age and she saw them die tragically. She suffered greatly in the end of her life. She had no regrets.

When it came my turn to choose my remembrance, I asked for the cornbread skillet. It was small and inexpensive and generally underwhelming. I also was granted a grandfather clock that eventually became irreparable and is now gone and a cedar chest that gave up the ghost many years back after too many moves between $75-a-month shanties. The only thing I can put my hands on today that reminds me of Hattie McFadyen is that cornbread skillet.

About that, I have no regrets.