As I walked in, a curated collection of snake plants, draping pothos, vibrant yellow hand sewn drapes, and a sewing room in the corner, all caught my eye, making it so hard to focus. My heart was skipping beats, one after another. Then I heard a voice coming from the kitchen in the back say, “C’mon in here, Andrea!” I then knew I was home. Not home in the literal sense, but I had arrived at a place I’ve longed to be for years now. The saying says, “Home is Where the Heart Is” and my heart truly felt welcomed.
As I walked into the home of Mrs. Alice, my dream project came into sight. I was here! I have spent nearly two years aspiring to reconnect women, especially black women, with the rituals and traditions of women before us. I remember as a little girl walking down the street to my great Aunt Betty’s home and wondering how her home was always immaculate or gazing with amazement at Mrs. Bessie Mae’s beauty salon and sewing room with gorgeous dresses draped on the sewing table. But, the moment that will always be etched in my mind, is when I found my paternal grandmother’s newspaper clippings which read that she was the president of the Homemaker’s Club in the 1950s and 1960s.
I have been searching for rituals of homemaking that at times seemed as if they were hidden treasures. Hidden in the bosom of our grandmothers, great-grandmothers, and aunts are the secrets to our legacy but moreso our essence. Who we were, how we were, and the connection to who will become lies within the hearts and hands of the women before us. And, it looks as though I, we, are embarking on the rite of passage, right here and right now with Mrs. Alice.
This past Sunday, I went over to Hyde Park to spend time with Mrs. Alice and learn her ways of winemaking. Over 40 years ago, a few steps down the block, my Big Mama would gather muscadine grapes off her vine to make her own wine. My aunt said she always kept a stash hidden under the sink. My dad would laugh and say, “Wooh Lawd, that wine Big Mama made would make you grow hairs on your chest.”
I’ve never had homemade wine so I wanted to see and taste it for myself. Mostly, I wanted to learn how to make it and be able to pass it along to women after me. Thankfully, Mrs. Alice was open to receiving me and allow me to sit at her feet and learn.
The first thing I wanted to know was how did she learn. I asked. She said, “I found a recipe in the Commercial Appeal over 20 years ago in the like society and Living section and tried it. And, it was perfect. Nobody taught me. Over the years, I’ve made it my own.” Mrs. Alice said wine making brings her joy and she loves it. She gleamed with so much happiness as she said she loves being creative with different fruits and sweetness.
Just like many of the black women before us, she doesn’t let any fruit go to waste. Often times, people will try to throw away fruits like figs and apples. She sees the possibility and beauty in all fruit and will make the most decadent wine out of something others couldn’t see potential in. That’s another sermon right there.
Right in the heart of North Memphis, I experienced the most authentic and engaging wine flight ever. Mrs. Alice had been awaiting my visit for a week or so. Do you know she had everything out and ready for me? Gallons of wine from both her collection and I also had the privilege of trying some from her “personal stock” that was hidden in her bedroom. If you grew up with older black women, you know just how special you have to be in order to get what’s in the backroom.
We first started our flight with both a red and white Muscadine wine, followed by a fig and blueberry wine, next was pear and lastly from the stash was Mrs. Alice’s favorite Blackberry wine. As she poured my wine, I felt immensely grateful for the moment to be able to indulge in something made from her hands and her heart.
“She said, “I like mine sweet. But, if you don’t, to make a drier wine, add less sugar”. That’s how you make it a little less sweeter.”
When I tell you, Mrs. Alice's wine is IT! It is IT! It was bold. Strong yet soft and sweet. To best describe it, and I know it may sound cliche but it tastes like a black woman. Graceful yet commands all of your attention. You taste the alcohol but the sweet and organic flavors of the fruit balance them very well. Each wine was medium to full bodied. I felt like they would dance well with a comforting soul food plate or wholesome and decadent dessert.
Never would I have believed that I would learn how to make wine, let alone from an 87 year old black woman. But, such is life. In this life, one of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned is that timing is always divine. This was a moment both Mrs. Alice, her niece Mrs. Edwina and I have longed for. Mrs. Alice and her sisters taught sewing and homemaking skills at one of the community centers in the neighborhood. They set their hearts on passing down skillsets to younger women in hopes that our traditions would be carried on. They called it “Rite of Passage.”
Unfortunately, those young women weren’t ready to receive their offerings. Mrs. Alice, her sisters, and her niece stopped teaching and just held on to all of their homemaking gifts awaiting someone who would be eager to learn. And, here we all are. Together in this moment.
I learned that in my search for reconnecting and restoring our ways, there is more than just recording recipes. There’s wisdom too. Making space to spend time with our elders is our first ritual in our initiation to becoming the women we seek to be.
Just like fine wine, we get better with time.
What I seek to gather in She Said Stories, are archives of wisdom that give all of the Alice Mae’s, Lossie Jean’s, Dorothy Anne’s a voice that our granddaughters will still hear as they are making homes and building their own legacies.
And, it began with Mrs. Alice and us all learning how to make our own wine.