04/18/2013 01:10 pm ET Updated Jun 18, 2013

Grits and Polenta: Keeping Our Families Close

My cousin Grey died on Wednesday morning, after a short illness; he was 64, and lived in Georgia, about 20 minutes' drive from me. I hadn't seen him or his family for around nine years.

When I started seeing email messages about his illness on the Facebook family page, it suddenly dawned on me that, no matter what our history has been, we're all part of each other in a very real way. What the heck was I thinking, not being part of their lives and having them part of mine?

Oh, sure, some of us have diametrically opposed political and spiritual views and we've gone in so many different directions, but we all have a number of the same personal characteristics ingrained in us. Roots for all of us grow deep in Alabama clay. We have great dry senses of humor, we're good storytellers, we're loving and sentimental, and we share strong moral values; we're deeply patriotic and spiritual in our own ways, and we share the same heritage. That's huge, in today's uncertain world.

Grey's death and the folks who died in Boston bring all this bubbling up to my psychic surface; I'm glad I've renewed my relationship with my generation's cousins, and look forward to meeting the next two generations at Grey's memorial service later this week. We just never know when we'll be saying either, 'I wish we had been closer when we could', or 'thank goodness we all made the effort while we could.'

On another front, since I'm on a 'memory lane' trip these days, here's what happened this morning. (It's related.)

I came across a recipe on one of my gardening news feeds, for Polenta Cakes with Carrots, Cheese and Crispy Onions. It looked easy and good, so I decided to make it for lunch. 

Stirring the cornmeal as it thickened, it dawned on me that this is a glorified version of the fried grits Mom made so often during the War. (World War II -- really!) She'd make grits for breakfast, then spread out the leftovers in a pan and refrigerate them. 

At dinnertime, she'd cut 'em into squares and saute them, serving them hot with butter -- well, marjareen (margarine) -- and syrup on top. Man, were they good! I think the syrup was one of my Dad's family's traditions, because he loved it on toast, pancakes, biscuits and who knows what else!

So, here I am today, much more sophisticated than those War years when I'd stand on a chair at the white enamel table, watching Mom squeeze out the tube of marjareen into a little bowl, then mix it with yellow food coloring, all the while grumbling about those darn ration cards. Mom made grits; I make polenta -- and it's all the same thing.

So, bottom line, what goes around comes around. We're all of us more alike than we are different, and we need to hold each other close; not just our blood families, but the whole darn family of humanity.

Enjoy the rest of your day and, in Garrison Keillor's words, "Be well, do good work, and keep in touch."