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All I have left of many family members is paper. There are hundreds of pages in my family’s genealogy notebook–the fragile pages protected with plastic coverings. About a year before my paternal grandfather passed away, he gave me a thick, black notebook filled with our family’s history dating from 1581 to 1996. On days when I feel aimless or lonely–which are many–I leaf through the notebook and allow the ghosts from generations past to keep me company. I study pictures of women I’ve never met. I hold a picture of my Great Grandmother Margaret. The picture features her profile. Her nose is long and narrow, her lips are pursed, and her gaze faces the floor. Her dark hair is curled–perhaps pin curls–and swept back into a bun. The next page in the notebook I study speaks volumes because of the picture that’s missing. It’s my Grandmother Hildegarde’s page. Her mother, Marian, has no picture. My grandmother never spoke of her mother when I was growing up. My father never said much about her either. Marian died long before I was born, so I assumed that was the reason.

There are recipe cards. These paper phantoms haunt my kitchen and my memory. But how can I allow myself to be haunted by memories I don’t have? The recipes are old–over a hundred years old in some cases. These paper phantoms tell me who I am in a small way. These paper phantoms hide secrets. One night, five years ago, I asked my dad about my Grandmother Hildegarde’s recipe for Black Bottom Pie. I wanted to understand the recipe and understand her better. Somehow the conversation led to my dad telling me that my grandmother’s mother, Marian, had given her away when she was young. My grandmother wasn’t a young child either–she was 16 years old. Marian sent her to live with a wealthy elderly woman in Caruthersville, Missouri because she couldn’t afford to take care of her any longer. He said she never recovered from Marian abandoning her. I wish I had a picture of my great grandmother rather than a piece of white paper with “Marian Presley Bebout” typed on it.

I never would have discovered the truth behind my great grandmother’s missing photograph if I hadn’t asked questions about my grandmother’s Black Bottom Pie recipe. What other truths can I find? I want to resurrect family stories and family recipes–excavate the terroir of memory of the loved ones who are left–to know the secrets. I want to preserve what’s left of my family and our collective memory so I can pass this knowledge to my daughter. I have a feeling she’ll know my family–my paper phantoms–better than I will one of these days. That’s my hope, anyway.

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  • I'm Emily. Welcome to my table. Pull up a chair and tell me everything.