Cornbread, Piss, and Figs: An Essay on Grief and Home

By Jessica Cory

It’s nearing 8:30 PM the Sunday before Spring Equinox when I find myself in the darkened backseat of my husband’s red Outback weaving through the Blue Ridge Mountains with a hunk of cornbread in my left hand as my right rests on a bucket quarter-full of undiluted, pungent, piss.

A note on the cornbread: I have Mast Cell Activation Syndrome. Imagine having a million allergies, some that can cause anaphylaxis, and sometimes they come, go, or worsen without any rhyme or reason. Many reactions are triggered by food; thus, swinging through a Wendy’s drive-thru off the highway isn’t an option. If I’m going to be away from home for several days, I bring snacks. All the snacks. Especially since the stress that travel places on my body induces me to lose at least one food per journey. This trip it was pork. So the pork rinds I’d stocked up on? Pointless. The applesauce I’d finished, and couldn’t find more of since I was in a different state, means my only safe snack left is the big round pan of cornbread I’d made before leaving, now sitting sliced into golden hand-holdable triangles nestled in well-loved Tupperware.

But back to the piss. Ravenous and tired after four hours in the car, I finally wrestle a slab of cornbread from where the Tupperware lay atop our travel cooler when shortly after a rest stop (because it’s always after a rest stop), my son announces, “I really have to pee.” Neither me nor my spouse had anticipated this need of a child who hadn’t consumed more than 3 sips of Sprite in the last 12 hours due to suffering food poisoning. It’s dark, there are no gas stations for miles, and so I offer the bucket. I help my son maneuver onto the bucket in the dark, one hand holding the bucket’s thick gray plastic, the other supporting his back. Once he finishes, as my husband nearly gags from the odor of non-diluted piss, I offer to chuck the liquid from the window. “It’ll blow back in,” John replies, “Wait til I pull off.” We’re several miles from the next exit and, still starving, I again reach for my cornbread. Finding myself between corn pone and piss bucket, I feel the world sending me an enacted metaphor or maybe at least a comedy of errors.

But back to the bucket. Earlier that morning, I awoke in our rented, poorly insulated cabin to my phone’s vibration. A text from my mother:

“Kiddos tummy is upset. What do u use for that? He threw up earlier & then a little more an hour later. I think it was something he ate.” 

He never vomits, I tell her. Give him some Sprite and crackers and we’ll come pick him up. Since I was overcoming a migraine due to the wonky Ohio weather I’d left over a decade prior, John drove the three-hour round trip to retrieve our child. Once he hit the winding backroads of Vinton County, however, our son’s wretching returned, forcing John to stop at a Dollar General (because there’s always a DG in rural Ohio) for a mop bucket and a roll of no-name paper towels. After cleaning up the seat, the kid, and the DG floor because our child refused to wait in the car since he was sick, they finally made it home (well, the cabin at least) to me.

We’re in southeastern Ohio at our VRBO’d cabin because the conference I usually attend annually is held near my hometown this year. Living several states away, I don’t get home often, and don’t even know if I’m able to call it that anymore. My extended family still live in that nearby paper mill town, as do my parents. Having limited grandparental connections in my own childhood, I want more for my son, now seven. The conference was the perfect reason for all three of us to make the trip: I would get to see old friends and colleagues and meet new ones, my husband could get peace and quiet (and a hot tub!), and my son would make valuable memories with my folks.

A day before the conference festivities began, our trio arrived at my aunt and uncle’s country home for the hand-off, since their house is the only one not smoked in and smoke closes my throat off. My parents told my son about their plans: venture to the Center of Science and Industry, peruse the local candy store, and select the freshest donuts from Crispie Creme (yes, with a C).

Between my parents’ words though, my breath halted in my throat and not due to allergies. My mother looked wispy, pallid, gaunt, a ghost. Not quite two years ago, during one of the many pandemic peaks, she was diagnosed with a rare cancerous tumor in her sinus cavity. Week after week, she had her face, throat, and head radiated with a mask she described as “a torture device.” Day after day her sisters and my father took her to Columbus to have liquids pumped inside her taut veins, which she told me the nurses had to use warm compresses to nudge open, placing them gently on her arms, arms reminiscent of the tissue paper you pack away at Christmas to reuse next year and eventually forget. And because of my own immune disorder, I couldn’t be there. I couldn’t be anywhere, really. While this distance protected me from seeing her at what was possibly her worst, being absent during her gradual decline created shock at her current state. Skin the yellowish-white of overboiled potatoes, dentures outsizing her face, a physique that would fill Kate Moss with heroin-chic envy.

To be clear, I’ve always known my mother would die. Her own chronic illness resulted in week-long hospitalizations for most of the years of my early childhood. A few days before, we’d know the signs: grey skin, fatigue, and casseroles began to fill the freezer. My father and I both hate casseroles. I think it’s because we associate them with strife.  My mother pre-baked them when her bleeding increased and well-meaning Methodists show up casserole-handed at the slightest whiff of illness, job loss, or death. My father never ate her casseroles, preferring to make pancakes or grilled cheese for the two of us. I wonder if they just stayed in our freezer until my mother pawned them off on the neighbor who developed breast cancer or the church friend whose father died. We preserved this food in my family like we preserve our feelings.

In the dark backseat of my husband’s Outback winding the road toward home, if I can call it home either, my moaning, pitiful son huddles next to me, whimpering when he can’t sleep, sleeping fitfully when he can, and I encourage him to calm and to hush because “getting upset won’t make us get there any quicker” and wait for his hazel eyes to flutter shut again.

My husband, fueled by ample coffee and amphetamine-based ADHD meds, ticks off the miles as my phone lights up, an odd beacon of data in this otherwise dead zone. It’s the cat sitter:

“The litter box was totally clean. IDK if they went elsewhere in the house.”

Because if a bucket of piss, a vomit-stenched kid, and the impending cat musk smell that fills a house after days away isn’t enough, I’ve now got cat shit to deal with. Or maybe just the ammonia-rich cat urine. Either way, looking forward to getting home is looking bleaker.

We do make it home though, at least the house we try to make a home, and shortly after our arrival, during the chaos of bringing in bags and drawing my son a warm bath, I spy the cats’ new litter box: the rug beneath my son’s drum kit. As my son lets the warm water soothe his aches and exhaustion, I remove the bass drum, pedal, hi-hat, and the rest and drag the hefty white (now slightly yellowed on the right corner) rug onto our back porch to deal with in the morning. After all, it’s nearing 10 PM and a few hours’ wait won’t make a difference in cleaning, though it will make a difference in my level of fatigue. Rest, however, like the best laid plans, is futile.

Fresh from his bath and in his favorite fleece pajama pants, the ones dotted with neon videogame controllers, my son curls up on the couch for a quick pre-bed TV show and promptly pukes all over the floor, missing the bucket and, thankfully, the couch. Now I find myself amid a funhouse full of dueling odors: musky cat dander mixed with acrid bile vomit. Between this and the earlier cornbread/piss bucket combo, I’m really starting to feel the universe fucking with me. And as someone with hyperosmia (an odd symptom of MCAS), I’m just ready for this shitshow to end.

I awake the next day (a Monday, so perhaps I should’ve known better), to the thought that today would, indeed, be a better day. I planned to keep my son home, observe his cracker and Gatorade intake, clean the damn rug, and wade through the piles of laundry we’d brought home following our five-day trip. At 8:30 AM, I receive an email. Having been thisclose to a job I received a campus visit for, which means I was one of two top candidates after the initial application and a heavily narrowed-down round of interviews, I learn that another candidate has accepted. This job would’ve put me hours closer to both my Ohio family and my spouse’s eastern North Carolina loved ones. My insides grow silent. I text friends and family to let them know I didn’t get the position. I email my students their weekly update. I place a grocery order. I clean the rug. I throw another load of clothes in the washer.

We think of grief as resulting from the actual death of a loved one, or perhaps of losing one’s job, or maybe circumstances that permanently alter our life for what we perceive to be the worse. My mother is still alive. I am still employed. My son has started keeping food down. The rug is airing out. I can’t eat pork yet, but I’m awaiting a returned message from my immunologist and my cholesterol’s already too high anyway.  My disappointments and concerns don’t register as grief to me, but my body disagrees. There’s a knot in my chest, my muscles ache, and my motivation to do much of anything is lacking. John shares his thoughts on all of these subjects: his disappointment that I didn’t get the position, his concerns about my mother’s flagging health. He asks me how I’m feeling.

But I don’t pick up grief.

Instead, at nearly 6:30 Monday evening, I found myself purchasing a brown turkey fig tree from some website I’ve never encountered. Ficus carica ‘Brown Turkey.’ Self-pollinating, they do not require another tree or a wasp to produce fruit. This self-reliance feels inspirational to me, though it probably shouldn’t. Again, my family preserves our feelings and while I know this isn’t necessarily healthy, it’s all I know. Just like with the drive home, whining and wailing doesn’t make life any easier. So I force myself to look for the bright spot: Since I won’t be relocating for that job, I’ll be in my current space this growing season, which means I better plan my garden.

I don’t even know if Ficus carica ‘Brown Turkey’ will grow here. Some friends have one less than a mile away but say that they struggled to keep it alive and our cats, apparently hellbent on ruining many aspects of my life, destroy indoor potted plants by eating leaves or using the pots and dirt as an extra litter box. The USDA says I’m in zone 7a bordering 6b and the Brown Turkey fig grows best in zones 7-10. I hedge my bets and click the blue “Place Order” button, my email inbox dinging in another window.

This tree will take years to fruit if it even makes it that long. I don’t even know if I can eat figs without an allergic reaction. Frankly, this seems like a somewhat expensive impulse buy. Eyeliner or a new book would’ve been more practical (and there’s nothing more I love, as someone who swallows feelings, than practicality). As I ponder practicality, my phone buzzes. A text. My mother again:

“How’s our boy? I bet hell b better now that hes home”

As if home inoculates us from illness or from grief. I know better. My mother is slowly dying at the home she has made in the Ohio hills; I am impulse-buying fruit trees out of what I now know is grief in the home I’ve built in these western North Carolina mountains.

A friend once described these mountains I’m learning to call home as “oppressive” and lamented “the darkness” they brought both to the holler in which he resided and his state of mind. He’s now living in the open plains of Colorado. However, I find the mountains to be more of a comfort, an enveloping. Driving to the grocery store for more orange Gatorade, I chose the narrow two-lane route that follows the river, crank up Tyler Childers’ “Lady May,” and find myself wanting to cry by the time I reach the only not-updated Ingles in the region. Not one to tear up in public, especially not in shitty, litter-strewn parking lots, I take a deep breath and collect myself before collecting my groceries. But this urge to weep, to give oneself over, even briefly, to the realities of ill health and lost potential and an exhausting 48 hours signals to me that what I’m feeling is more than just fatigue and mere disappointment. It is grief and it, too, needs a home.

Cats and other animals piss on objects to call them home. My parents smoke Pall Malls to smudge their apartment. I buy self-pollinating fig trees to plant in a yard that might belong to someone else years from now, and prune the hydrangeas the previous owners left behind. Home, like grief, may be temporary or it might outlive us, our bodies becoming only fluids and ash that nurture the corn crops that flood our Appalachian landscapes.

Jessica Cory

Jessica Cory teaches at Western Carolina University and is a PhD candidate specializing in Native American, African American, and environmental literature at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. She is the editor of Mountains Piled upon Mountains: Appalachian Nature Writing in the Anthropocene (WVU Press, 2019) and the co-editor (with Laura Wright) of Appalachian Ecocriticism and the Paradox of Place (UGA Press, 2023). Her creative and scholarly writings have been published in the North Carolina Literary Review, North Dakota Quarterly, Northern Appalachia Review, and other fine publications. Originally from southeastern Ohio, she currently lives in Sylva, North Carolina.

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