A couple of years ago, I was in my hometown for one of the holidays, and my mother startled me by offering to pay for a new tattoo. Before then, she had not approved of my body art. When she discovered the ink on my lower back, she had taken in a deep, holy breath, shook her head slowly, and said: "I see you letting people write on your butt now." I think maybe she insisted on paying for this tattoo because she knew I was obviously stewing in the middle of some breakdown, due to being ill and poor after having decided life was too short not to follow my dream of writing.
We made the tattoo event special. I went with my sister and my cousin. The shop, which had recently been opened by a family friend, was the first in town as far as I knew. It took a moment, but I decided to get my grandmother's initials on my ribcage, reasoning it would be like Granny was there near the lung that had tried to betray me.
My cousin's like, "Don't put it right there and have some motherfucker kissing on grandma."
My sister and I laughed at him, but I learned that my cousin was round here kissing ribcages. Then I wondered if my grandmother had ever been kissed on her ribcage before, and I wondered if I was weird for wondering that. And then it became a spiral of wondering all sorts of things about my grandmother, things that I'd never gotten to ask her about, like how life when she was a little girl. Or what was in that orange salad she made? Had she ever wanted to see the world? Were there things she had been passionate about? Or had her passion been sacrificed to the struggle of being black and a woman in the South? I wondered if she knew how much I appreciated her doing what she had to do so I could do what I choose to do.
I recalled what I knew about her for sure. She was born in the Delta in 1925 and was raised by an aunt and uncle. Her first husband tried to beat her, so she cut out across a field with her clothes and only her legs to get her to town. She had chopped plenty of cotton. She raised 11 children as a single parent while working for the Coca Cola plant and as a domestic for white families. She made heavy, foul-smelling tatter rags that could smother out whatever ailed you. One time, when she was in her mid-60s, my mother took too long to pick her up from one of those houses across the tracks, and on our way, we met her marching across the bridge with her bags. She never failed to be on that porch waiting when we pulled up to take her to church. It taught me that if a person is kind enough to give me a ride, I oughta be ready to roll when they got there. Granny took holiday gift-giving very seriously: all the girls always got useful items like panties large enough to double as bras and modest night gowns, perfect for those heating-pad-and-ice-cream-in-bed days. To the boys she gave socks and flashlights. She could chop wood well into her 70s. She minded her own business, but was intensely observant. She loved her house and never put her purse on the ground. She wouldn't debate or argue and was a listener more than a talker. In another time, she could have been a caring doctor. Mary Alice was tough, honest, comforting, brave, peaceful, loyal, and all about family. She loved fiercely and was fiercely loved.
She was also a woman who died Alzheimer's long death. When it began, well-meaning, practical daughters began sorting out her life for her: cleaning her closets and her Depression-stocked cabinets. She fought back; as soon as the daughter left, Granny went out and retrieved her belongings. Then came the hospital stays, longer each time, and at some point, she completely ceased to be herself. She lost her stoutness, and her cheeks drew in. In her bones, I saw my face. Only her fingernails were the same, faithfully polished red by one of my aunts. Her mind and voice had gone away, but sometimes her will was very much still in her body. For instance, if I fed her the hospital's green beans, she would spit them out, but she would always manage to hold on to the ice cream. Then came the stage where she couldn't eat any more, and decisions had to be made. She lingered, and I wondered how much she was aware of the process of dying and how she felt about it. My folks took the stance that it didn't matter if she spoke or if her body was uncooperative because as long as she was above ground, a miracle could happen, or at the very least, they could see and touch her. On the other hand, I missed seeing her stand (she had been a tall woman), and I was afraid that her death would lopside my memories of her life. I thought maybe we should just let her go. When I was so bold as to vocalize this, my mother explained to me that doing so meant starving her to death. Granny was all they had had, and she'd fought to feed and clothe and educate them; they couldn't let her starve. It shamed me.
They put her away nice. The line of cars in the processional and the number of highway patrol men that accompanied her to her resting place would've had you thinking she was a celebrity, and her children looked like celebrities, too, especially the girls, as they picked through the grass in tall heels and broad hats. Granny would have approved. We blanketed her casket with plush, July roses and watched to the very end as the earth reclaimed our ancestor.
For me, my breakdown seemed very silly when stood up next to her life and legacy. It was not to say my pain and emotions were not valid, but I must admit that they were very First World, Generation X concerns. My Granny did what she had to do, so I can do what I choose to do, which is write these stories, work partly part time, and whine over my stultified career. Her life and legacy also let me know that if I am going to make something of my writing, I can't be ready to give up every day. I have to honor her sacrifice and always remember she is the reason I write in the first place. Because I want all to see her as I saw her: beautiful, brave, and realer than death. And I want her to know if she didn't teach me anything, she taught me that when times get rough, I have to spit in my hand and grab another hoe.
The worst part of nostalgia is the longing. The worst part of the past is that it's permanent. The best part of now is that we have the opportunity to say what we need to say, to ask what we want to know, pre-tattoo. The other morning, I asked my mother if she'd thought Granny had ever been kissed on her ribcage.
And my mother's like, "Well, she had eleven children."
We laughed a long time together.