My baby sister turned 24 last week. She celebrated, to my shock and horror, by jumping out of a plane and skydiving through the air with her boyfriend, an adrenaline junkie whom I have yet to meet.
She told me it was happening in a text the day before. The detail was crammed between her plans of bar crawling and Game-of-Thrones-watching, so I almost missed it, but there it was. My little Layla, the closest thing I have to a human child of my own, was taking part in a (very popular) quarter-life-bucket-list activity, and I couldn’t handle it.
I called her, fully intent on remaining calm and collected, and proceeded to fall into full, heavy sobs.
I’m not a thrill seeker. I’m old enough to accept that about myself. And when other folks decide to fly through the air, dependent on a thin layer of fabric, I’m accepting of their crazy person decision. I do not, as I did last week, lose my shit. But Layla? That’s different. To those who say it’s not a big deal to take her up in the sky, only to throw her out of it: you are wrong. She’s a really, really big deal.
I remember when she was born. I remember the oversized stuffed animal llama my dad, Ava and I brought into the hospital. I remember the weight of her little body on my lap for the first time. I remember showing pictures of her to my Kindergarten class: my brand new friend.
She was a typical baby sister for most of our upbringing. We had so much time between us that unless she was doing something cute or crying or getting in my way, our figurative life paths rarely crossed. We never disagreed because there was nothing to disagree about. I hugged her close when my parents were fighting; I tried to make sure she made good decisions about boys. I watched movies and played games with her and told her she looked pretty; I tried to be the big sister she and Ava needed.
She showed up to junior high just as I was leaving high school. I always knew she was cool; she had a quick wit and snarky sense of humor. I knew she was artistic and emotionally complicated too. I didn’t understand her in a lot of ways–how she processed emotion, for example–but then again, we had completely different childhoods. She didn’t witness my parents happy together.
When I left for college, Ava following shortly thereafter, Layla was left alone. She and my dad bonded quickly over those years. She is, and will always be, his favorite. And we get it. It was during that time that this girl, the pickiest eater I’ve ever met, learned how to love–and cook–really good food. I wouldn’t realize this, of course, until years later, but it is now her defining characteristic.
My relationship with Layla shifted when I started law school. The three sisters met up in Atlanta for a music festival — one of those sprawling outdoor ones with the gleaming city towers in the background — and hit the town the night before with one of Ava’s friends from Emory. We ended up in my least favorite drinking scenario: tucked into a sunken corner of a club with overpriced bottle service and shiny, greasy men as far as the eye could see. I was served strong screwdrivers and drank them quickly in an attempt to enjoy myself, all the while extremely aware of my underage baby sister and her whereabouts.
If my memory is serving me fairly, I think it was Layla who pulled me off of the cramped velvet couch to dance. The song was new at the time–brand new–and it was kicky and fun and a little bit hipster, just how I liked it. And so, surrounded by trust fund college kids and the grimiest of locals, we danced. Like crazy. It was just the two of us, giggling hysterically, and in that moment I fell in love with that girl as a person — not just as my sister.
She went to college soon after. Luckily for me, law school was a mere 5-hour drive through the plantation-ridden south to her Georgia campus. I stayed in her dorm, then her little apartment, then her downtown loft. I partied with her baby friends (sometimes a little TOO comfortably), I stuffed my face with biscuits and berry jam and sweet tea on hungover mornings, I buried my tear-streaked face in her pillows after a terrible breakup until she couldn’t stand my presence any longer.
We got closer and closer with every visit, and made a point, every time, to make something together.
Layla is an incredible cook. Incredible. And lately, her baking skills have surpassed those of anyone else I know. Today, she owns the best cookware money can buy and is extremely knowledgable about everything food-related. One of my favorite culinary memories with her, however, is the night we brought out the cheap pots and pans in her oh-so-college apartment and made heaping bowls of gravy-drenched shrimp and grits.
The south introduced me to this dish, and other than William Faulkner, shrimp and grits might be the best gift the region has given the planet. If you get the grits right, and you let the gravy carry the just-cooked-enough shrimp through the creamy, cheesy mess, you have something satisfying and savory that sticks to your ribs and doesn’t let you forget it. On a visit to Athens, Layla and I discovered the holy grail of recipes for the thing. Indulging in expensive stone ground grits from Tallahassee, we made a dish we still talk about today.
This recipe’s glory is in the gravy. Made from thick cut bacon, onion, green pepper, garlic, scallions and chicken stock, it packs its own hearty punch, even without the shrimp. It’s one pan, one temperature, and it never ceases to amaze me just how much flavor emerges in so little time.
The grits from our first attempt at this recipe are hard to replicate; for some reason, the slow cooking kind continue to elude me. They should stew and bubble for almost 45 minutes, not quickly plump up, desperate for butter and moisture, within the first five. I improvised this weekend, using the most basic yellow corn grits I could find, adding boiling water little by little to keep them from drying out, being generous with the butter and the hot sauce. They were not the same as those $12 ones from my favorite southern foodstuff store in Tallahassee, but good enough.
This weekend, Marc and I ate the creamy creation out of deep bowls as we cuddled up with blankets on the couch: just the way my sisters and I would eat it.
Layla and I are different. Her logical can clash with my intuitive; her patient doesn’t always jive with my frantic. But one thing we both want, desperately I think, is to feel free. Just like me, she is swept away by a loving glance, a new adventure, clear night skies and the perfect soundtrack. She wants so much more than the ordinary.
When we cook together, I watch her hands move expertly from task to task, unable to forget how small they once were and how much time has passed. Next spring, the wedding cake on our table will be her creation, one she practiced on and thought about for over a year prior. I hope we both find our way toward the things that make us feel free and alive, and that she knows I am her soft place to land.