A Spill for My Southern Grandma | Sojourners

A Spill for My Southern Grandma

The truth will set us free. But not until it is finished with us. — David Foster Wallace

The day she died I wrote a spill for my gran. It went something like this: 

Gran made giant pots of spaghetti that would have fed armies, and hordes of buttered, crescent yeast rolls.

Gran snapped string beans on her back porch as her mother and her grandmother had done in the same North Carolina summers.

As a boy, I would stretch up on my toes so she could kiss my cheek. In college, I would lean down so she could peck that exact same spot.

Gran never smiled in pictures because she hated her crooked teeth.

Gran was always looking out of the house for us when my family’s minivan pulled up her driveway — her face in the kitchen window like a full moon.

This kind of “spill” is of course a writing exercise. You just write whatever comes to mind without pausing or editing. Let the words pour out onto the page and see what seemingly disparate thoughts run together, pooling like a reflective puddle.


All people are complicated. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, there is a complex history of the word “spill.”

One meaning derived from the Danish spilde is to lose or waste. When Gran’s memory began to fade, it felt like we were losing her slowly, as if she were still with us and yet not with us at the same time. With those persistent and unstoppable spills of her memory, what complex and rich history, what vital and caring personality, was our family losing?


Gran used to whisper-sing old Baptist hymns at her sewing machine, which was why I thought that machine was called a singer.

Gran fried us hamburgers for breakfast and let us eat dinner on TV trays while watching baseball or The Andy Griffith Show. She taught me to whistle that opening tune.

A child of the Depression, Gran saved buttons in a jar so that each one might be reused. And she taught herself how to fix the leaky faucet and unclog the toilet in order to save money on a plumber.

Gran grew up with Jim Crow and didn’t think it was safe to swim in the same pool with black people.

Gran used to tell me that “the blacks were happier when they were slaves.”


I learn from the dictionary that the definition of “spill” that I most often use — the one we think of when a toddler knocks over his milk, “to let (liquid) fall or run out”— developed in the mid-fourteenth century in reference to the spilling of blood. Going even further back in time, the Old English derivation from spillan meant to destroy, mutilate, or kill.

To spill, then, is an act rooted in violence and bloodshed.

It is impossible to spill about my Gran without spilling some uncomfortable truths. And those spills reflect back to me my uncomfortable legacy as a white man raised in the South.


I recall a time when I was a child and my little brother accidentally dialed 9-1-1. A police officer came to our home, and my brother solemnly promised to never do it again. Then the nice policeman walked away, taking his gleaming gun with him.

I think about 10 and two. You always keep your hands on 10 and two. If you’re white like me, it’s to keep you safe while the car is moving. If you’re black, my friends say, it’s to keep you safe when your car is stopped. By the police. By the protectors of our community.

I think white parents want to shield our kids from the difficult realities of race in order to protect our family histories. Don’t spill your secrets. But my talk with my children must be about anti-racism. About the grave inheritance of our white advantage and the responsibility we bear to write a different story, a different and better reality.

Yes, you can clean up the spilt milk. But we must stop trying to whitewash our American history. Racism hurts us all. It dehumanizes us all.


Someday soon, I imagine sharing a different kind of spill with my children.

Your Great Gran, she made the best sizzling friend chicken.

She loved peaches, just like you.

And you, my child, have inherited the peachy hue of her skin and all the advantages afforded by our society to those who are deemed white.

Like you, like me, your Great Gran was beautiful and tragic, fearful and brave, ignorant and wise, living and breathing and flawed and beloved by God.


On the Sunday Gran died, I baptized a little girl sixteen months old. And I was grateful for the unending grace that knows neither limit of time nor space. And, as the water spilled down her rosy cheeks, I remembered how Gran held my firstborn, how Gran held me when I was a child, how I held Gran’s hand for the last time, just a few days before.

The truth will set us free. But not until it is finished with us.

When my faith community celebrates the sacrament, we invite all children to come forward and cup their hands into the font to lift the water. We remember how Jesus put his skin into the game because he loves the little children, all the children of the world.

As I stare into this reflective pool, I know that baptism has been used to divide, even to conquer. But I remember a freeing truth: No religion or creed has an exclusive claim to water. Every drop of rain eventually spills back into the sea. And I remember how each of us emerges from the waters of a mother. How each of us is made of water and requires water to live. How a child at sixteen months might splash and play in a little water. How all children are finally our children. 

I hope truth will set us free.