My grandmother died this morning.
My grandmother was a quilter and a florist, an ex-Sunday school teacher and member of the lady’s guild, a bearer of three sons and a husband’s temper, a gentle-voiced teller of stories and singer of hymns. My grandmother was also a racist, Jim Crow bred into her alongside a sweet drawl and a way with pie crust.
She believed black people didn’t have souls, like the beasts of the field. Still, she sang “Jesus loves the little children, red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight…” once when my sister and I were children, afraid during a late-night thunderstorm. I remember Grama’s backyard lighting up in the humid Arkansas night, like a film negative through her lace curtains. She swayed at the edge of our bed, her sweet, drawling voice curving around those words like she meant them. But some people just love a tune and don’t care a whit about the message.
If she was one of those people, there was a time I didn’t want to know. A time I didn’t want to see any further into that hollow place than I had already, tunneled down through my father. Didn’t want to see the ugly thing that emerged there from time to time. The thing that nearly spat through Grama’s lips at the notion of my cousin having “yellow babies” when she married a Chinese man; the thing that twisted her nose like something stank when my sister announced an upcoming trip to Africa.
And so I stopped going near her. I didn’t go when I spent a week in the Ozarks. I didn’t go when my uncle died. I didn’t go when her emphysema got bad. I didn’t go when she got pneumonia or when her bad heart put her in the hospital. I didn’t go to a family reunion last July, organized with the concern she wouldn’t make it through another year, because I knew if I heard the ugly thing speak through her lips I wouldn’t be able to ignore it as the others do. I’d have stormed out, not without saying something first.
I have a black daughter whom you pretend doesn’t exist, and I’ll probably never see her again. My baby, gone from me for nearly sixteen years now. Severed from me on a foggy March morning, my milk already in and ready for her. All the years haven’t dried it, I tell you. All these years they made me keep her precious light under a bushel for you. You put that ugly thing in your son, my father. It’s your fault my oldest girl is gone from me!
I was ready for my Grama to die. Ready to see a long chapter end. A chapter where separate water fountains once stood, where signs differentiated between “black” lines and “white” ones. A chapter that held a long phone pole at the end of Grama’s street, a siren on top of it that used to call anyone without white skin over to their side of the tracks at dusk. It had signaled generations back to rows of clapboard shanties I’d seen on the way to the rabbit hunting woods when I was ten. And I’d known, when I’d seen those dwellings, that I was looking at what the old timers called “Niggertown.”
I was ready to see my cousins, the two who married interracially, soap that foul word and its derivatives from yet-born children’s mouths. I was ready for my Dad to be released from allegiance to the God of Oakville First Baptist Church. I had a feeling even Grama’s deity, weary of His misrepresentation, might appear before her remaining sons with a message, “Let the old ways lay with thy mother!”
Allowing the decorum of a proper mourning period, I envisioned my mom promptly making things right as the new family matriarch. With a little urging, maybe she’d start right away and help me round up the younger members of the family after the funeral. We could tear that old phone pole down, burn it and dance on its embers. We could ship pieces of it to the Smithsonian where they could sit alongside chunks of the Berlin Wall. We’d create a think tank for tolerance in Grama’s name. There would be a PBS program, “How One Family Singularly Redeemed Jim Crow’s Legacy”, brought to you by the Nellie Watson Foundation. And Grama’s life, never mind her death, would fit neatly into my agenda, tailored for the comprehension of her great grandchildren: The one she’d hardly known and the one she never would.
I was barely out of bed this morning, my only raised girl set off to school, when the phone rang.
“Nellie passed away,” my mother said as quietly as a firefly’s light dims.
“What time?” I asked, matching her tone.
“No. Arkansas time.”
And there was something about the time, the fact that it wasn’t mine but Grama’s, that started to ruin the family remodeling I’d planned in the wake of her death. I started remembering things in her time not mine.
First I recalled her laugh, understanding it had been around for eighty-six years. It was a boat of a laugh, Grama’s, high up on either end and sunk down in the middle, usually ending with the name of whoever got it started. “Oh, Kelsi!” she would trail off with the “i” all breathy like a short “e,” her left hand slapping her leg, her eyes watering, her chest rumbling with emphysema. Her laugh confounded me this morning and started smoothing over the tooth of my resentment, the same way her sugar used to take the bite out of iced tea.
And I remembered more. I recalled how we taught her to say “butthead” in the early 80s, my dad, my sister, and me; how funny it sounded coming out of her lips all drawled out, “buuddhaaiiid.” I remembered the feel of her hands, smooth like wrinkled pear skin, as they moved from my arm to the biscuits she made or the afghan she crocheted. I recollected the wedding quilt she’d spent months making for me; the unfailing chicken-scratched Christmas cards, sent even last year as macular degeneration was blinding her. I remembered the time Dad flew her out to California the week after a heart attack killed her youngest son. I sat beside her on the guest bed, holding her hand while she’d cried.
And I recalled her reaction when I told her I’d had my first child. A baby I’d wanted and loved from the moment I’d felt her first kick. A beloved daughter whom, those who claimed to speak for God assured me, I could only love by letting go. My oldest girl. As the clock ticked on our hospital stay and the vow of open adoption was made, I finally believed she was too good for me–her too alone, too vulnerable, too unmarried mother. I was a young woman who desperately needed the support of my own mother, a mother who had long since been unavailable. I was a young woman who feared her own father, a man who kept a loaded pistol under the nightstand. A father who’d make sure no black man would get away with touching his daughter.
It was Autumn when I told Grama. She was visiting California and I’d driven her to a church service, back when her God and mine could still squeeze into the same building. I told her despite my mother warning me against burdening Grama, insisting the news would affect her bad heart. I stood on a sidewalk outside of my church, twenty-five years old by then, feeling twelve, scanning her and wondering if the news would cause her to keel over clutching her chest. My absent child would have been approaching sixteen months old and still came to me, nightly, in my dreams. I still felt a tingling in my breasts when babies would cry in grocery stores. Still felt her, physically, the way an amputee feels a missing limb and reaches for it, surprised again to find it gone.
I didn’t know I was going to tell my Grama that morning, but as we walked to the parking lot after the service, it was as if my child began pressing out from inside of me demanding to be recognized.
“I had a baby girl Grama!” I blurted as a gust of wind swirled red leaves around us.
I searched her face for shock and saw none as we continued walking. Instead, something shifted behind her eyes. She looked the way she did when she was knitting; concentrating, her lips moving, counting to herself. I stopped and leaned against a concrete railing, patting it, encouraging her to come beside me as I continued speaking, figuring I’d just get it all out before she could tell me to stop.
“It was over a year ago. Born on the first day of Spring. I had her with me for two days.”
I was facing my Grama now. She remained silent, but her head started to nod slowly.
“Her father left when I told him, but Dad would’ve had a problem with him anyway,” I paused. “There were … ethnic differences.”
I looked for something to register in my Grama, but she appeared only half there in front of me. It was as if she’d stationed a piece of herself at her eyes to hold the fort, so the rest of her could back away from what she was hearing.
“It’s okay,” I tried to smile the way I’d learned to. The way I had to in order to keep myself convinced. “I found her a new father, a daddy who swore he’d always be there for her.”
Grama’s nodding ceased but her lips continued moving.
“I named her Gethsemane, after the garden, Grama.”
I thought I saw a softening in her eyes then, more moisture than her allergies put there, but maybe it was just because I’d referred to the Bible. Still, I figured I’d slip a little more in.
“She had the most beautiful caramel colored skin,” I told her, still able to feel the softness of it. “Her black hair had amber running through it, and there were the prettiest little ringlets I twisted my fingers through.”
I raised my head to look her straight in the eye, wanting her to finish drawing the conclusions I’d sketched out for her. But I don’t think she did because I didn’t use words she’d have been familiar with. “Mulatto.” “Half-breed.”
Still when I finished Grama noted, without so much as a palpitation of her bad heart, what my family had collectively dusted under a rug. After working her bottom lip back and forth under her top one, the part of her that had been gone came back behind her eyes for an instant and looked at me before casting down at her dress.
“Oh, hon,” she said, straightening her hem and slowly shaking her head, “it must have killed you to let your baby go like that.”
I’ve barely seen Grama in sixteen years. I felt like it would be selling out to even once visit the place where that awful pole still stood. Like it would be a betrayal of my gone girl to stand in that dismantled siren’s radius. But now I wonder what time will have to say on the matter. Would it have been possible to stand with a foot on each side of the Mason Dixon? To have bound together the split root that runs through this family’s soul? Is it possible still?
Sometimes I swear time would turn in on itself or shatter completely in attempting to answer. Why would it fare better than I have? Look at all of these years. Years! I figured this day’s sorrow would at least be redeemed by the lapse of old Jim fucking Crow’s grip, but there’s nothing to say that he’s shaken down from this family’s tree. Death can breathe new life into the worst of things left behind, not just the best. It can cause us to scoop up old ways and spit shine them, run them up flagpoles, drag them into the next generation. I wonder who will do that now? Maybe one of my cousins.
But all of this thinking is worldly tiresome, and my Grama was no longer of the world as of 10:05 Arkansas time. The divisions of this place, the ones that mark time or people, surely haven’t followed her to where she has gone. And her death is so not about this singular thing she didn’t know was between us. She may have lit near me some time today, maybe while I wrote that last paragraph, sorrowful upon realization of the holy cord she unwittingly helped cut. But then she surely moved on beyond me, beyond her still-living sons, on toward her husband and her youngest boy.
Just now, my stoic sister called crying about Grama’s passing. When she gave me the news this morning, my practical mother wept. My iron-forged father got sick to his stomach in Grama’s hospital room yesterday because she was so emaciated. Her teeth out. Her memory trailing off to a factory from her youth where people made shoes. And I, the woman who could be a professional wailer, have not yet shed a tear. Not even when my mom told me this morning, her voice cracking, the very last thing Grama said to her.
Emerging from her phantom shoe factory for a few lucid moments, Grama remembered this in the hours before her death: Her daughter-in-law, my mother, had been abandoned. When Mom was two years old, her father left without a trace. When she was five, Mom’s young mother left her to be raised by maternal grandparents. “A breakdown,” Mom had heard people whisper later, though we’ve never been certain.
Being left that way had drawn a veil between my mother and anyone whom she later loved or might love, given the chance. And she always seemed like a bird that might fly away if I got too close. But, before dying this morning, Grama wriggled herself up under that old veil, touching the soft place in my mother. The place neither me nor my sister dared go for fear of scaring the bird in her off for good.
“I love you like a daughter,” Grama whispered to my mom, “and I’ll just never understand how a mama could leave behind her own flesh and blood.”
I’ve been thinking too much since I got off the phone this morning. Linking events together that have nothing to do with each other, looking for patterns in what is probably randomness; looking for resolution where there is likely none. No longer sure where the sin began or ended, or even if it was sin. Looking for redemption when I’m no longer sure who needs it.