Acts of Contrition
That night I watched Daddy walk across the yard toward my grandmother’s back porch. I lost sight of him for a few seconds as he crossed under the massive cypress tree in our front yard and was absorbed by the black shadow it cast beneath a bright moon. It was the night that the grown-ups in my life cried, lied, and introduced me to unfamiliar emotions that I would perfect, perform, and perpetuate throughout my adult life.
We grew up in the country, right in the bend of Coulee Kinney, a small bayou that wandered off from the Vermilion River like a daydream. As was the custom of many Cajun families, my parents built our home behind Grandma’s back yard, and the space between the two houses was our circus tent, our Tarzan’s jungle, our Wild West corral. The fireflies on those humid summer nights were like shooting stars. We chased them and captured them, as they hovered too low for their own good, in Mason jars with holes punched in the lids. Innocence allowed us to sleep with those magical jars next to our beds and tip them out into the damp grass the next morning while the fireflies were “still sleeping.”
And right past our own big-as-the-world front yard, in the bedroom where we brushed her hair, my grandmother committed suicide. I don’t know to this day if I really heard the shot, but some time after supper that night, a subtle awareness that things were out of sync slipped through the house. It was like a sea swell that quietly rolled in to cover the shore and then retreated, leaving my world subtly but irrevocably changed.
Mom was standing near the sofa in the den with the telephone to her ear, but she was speaking French to Daddy instead of talking on the phone. Daddy was fumbling through the clutter on the kitchen counter. He finally grabbed a set of keys and rushed out the den door to the driveway. That’s when we ran, my sisters and brothers and I, to the living room picture window. That’s when we saw Daddy swallowed up by the shadows of the cypress tree and emerge again in the moonlight to let himself into Grandma’s back door. That’s when we saw him carry out the long wrapped up bundle of my grandmother and lay her across the back seat of her old Dodge.
Mom was still on the phone, this time talking in a shrill voice into the receiver. Her face was a mask, a tight layer of panic distorting her familiar features. All five of us could make out most of the French words. Someone hadn’t been feeling well. Daddy came back, but instead of coming into the house, he sat on the front porch and looked at his shoes.
My sisters and brothers and I might as well have been fireflies in a jar, and our loving, attentive parents forgot to punch the holes in our lid. Headlights came up the driveway, and strange men drove up and spoke quietly to Daddy under the carport. Father Theriot sat in Daddy’s armchair saying a rosary with his eyes closed. My nanny and parrain came in sobbing. My mother was a banshee. It was way after bedtime, and we flitted around in the confusion and landed in the corner of our bedroom near the closet. Daddy finally found us there and told us that Grandma was sad and it made her too tired, so she just died. As I stood there no higher than my closet doorknob, I knew I had not been nice enough, had not spent the night with her often enough, had been too selfish to keep my grandmother from becoming so sad. I should have been able to save her.
Mom never told us the truth about that night, never acknowledged it as our baneful birthright. Our maternal legacy, like a water moccasin in the flood-soaked coulee, has been dark and silent. Sometimes lethal. For generations, the mothers in my family have been passing down the genetic disposition for depression and mental illness, and my own son will need big medicine for the rest of his life so that the landscape will stop telling him that ours is not the world to which he belongs. And of course I blamed myself and of course I added that to the tangle of muddy family roots that were planted along the banks of snake-ridden coastal waters the night my grandmother died.
My son has thanked me, throughout his recovery, for recognizing his struggle and facing it — for not making it a secret. I’m not my mother after all. But I understand her. My mother still keeps secrets. Big ones, and she doesn’t know how to stop. She listens to me talk about genetic tendency and acceptance and therapy, and she says a novena. She blames my son’s illness on my ex-husband, an abusive alcoholic that I thought needed saving.
We clean my grandmother’s tomb on All Saint’s Day, my mother, my sisters, and me. We paint it and top it with a plastic pot of yellow chrysanthemums, and then we make our signs of the cross and say our silent prayers. We never talk about how she died. Instead, we talk about kids and food and clothes and what’s on sale at the mall.
My grandmother’s home was sold and moved on a barge down the river to the southernmost part of the parish.
The cypress tree, over 100 years old, reluctantly fell over during a hurricane in 2002.
I wish I could tell my mother that, in spite of what the Church says, I believe that Grandma rests in peace.