Two views of my grandmother.
Grandma has an odd nose and long silver hair and black skin. Daddy says she is part Indian, so I figure that is why she smokes a pipe. When Uncle Walter comes over, they sit in the kitchen, drink black coffee made on the black wood stove, and discuss the evils of the man who sleeps in my aunt's bed. Uncle Walter puts a piece of wood and some newspaper in the stove, and Grandma takes a pot off using part of her apron as a pot-holder. All her things are smut-color-ed from the stove, and she is almost the color of the stove.
Sometimes I pretend her mumbling is really chanting and she is an Indian medicine lady making cures on a black clay stove chanting healings. If we are there at night after she does the dishes, she tells mother to put me on the table so she can wash my legs in the dirty dish water to heal them. My legs are very small and they hurt sometimes for no reason. She rubs the dish-water on my legs with her strong black hands and starts telling my mother about the man my aunt likes. I close my eyes and pretend it is chanting. I see Indians dancing around a fire shaking rattlers at my legs and throwing magic powder in the air over my head. I pretend she is chanting," "MAKE THIS LITTLE DEER RUN FAST - MAKE THIS LITTLE DEER RUN FAST."
I see shadows on the wall and I pretend they are buffaloes and horses and strange markings drawn on a tent wall. My mother wipes my legs with the dish towel and I fall asleep in her lap dreaming about Indian braves and hawks flying. My legs get stronger and stronger; I run so fast the braves can't catch me. They shoot arrows at me and I become a brook; when they see the brook they jump in and I become a fish and swallow them up. When the other braves throw arrows at the fish I flap my fins and become an eagle and fly away. When I wake up my legs are tired and I tell my mother I've been running all night and that is why my legs hurt.
On Sundays we go to Grandma's house for dinner. Just about all my aunts and uncles are there and lots of cousins. She usually cooks chicken and gravy in a big iron skillet, rice, macaroni and cheese, and baby sweet peas from the can. She makes purple Kool-Aid for us kids and the grown-ups drink black coffee from a white drip coffee pot that she always keeps on her black stove. The man comes out of my aunt's room with no shirt on and speaks to everyone. For a brief moment everyone is silent, then they all speak at once. Then he and my aunt leave the house to go for a drive. The man walks out with his shirt in his hand and puts it on when he gets to the car. My aunt has on a blue-and-white flowered dress that blows in the wind. Her hair is curled and she smiles as she waves and gets into the car. The man waves to us like he is going away and never coming back. We go dig for rocks while the grown-ups discuss my aunt and how the man came out with no shirt on. My aunt's children never hear the things that people say about their mother. They play a lot and laugh a lot and throw rocks at us and tease us. My sister hides in the closet on top of a box of clothes so they won't find her and throw rocks at her. My brothers fight them for a while; then they all laugh and go play ball in the pasture. I take a walk on the railroad tracks in front of Grandma's house. I pretend I am going to walk to where the tracks end; when I get there I will meet my grandmother's people and they will adopt me and let me be an Indian girl.
When my mother and father go to their meetings on Wednesday nights we get dropped off at Grandma's house. The man is not there and my aunt and my Grandma are fussing in the kitchen. We stay in the front room and play jacks on the floor with our cousins. I ask for a pencil and they don't have one; they search all over the house and can't find paper. I want to play school but there is nothing to play school with. So we get old clothes and play ladies going to meeting. The boys are wrestling in the back room. The man comes and goes to my aunt's bedroom. I see him pulling off his shirt. My aunt goes in too and closes the door. My grandmother drops the skillet and starts mumbling to herself. I run to the kitchen to see what is wrong; she is crying. The man comes out with his shirt back on and a bag full of clothes in his hands; he goes outside and my aunt follows him. After a while she comes in and her eyes are red. My sister has fallen asleep on the floor and I wish my mother would come to get us. My aunt makes a pallet on the floor for us, and we go to sleep in our clothes. When my mother comes for us, we are all confused about where we are. I get up first and help wake up the others. I look in the kitchen and see that Grandma is rocking and mumbling. I wonder if she is trying to go back to her people in the smoke of her pipe. I wonder if I can go with her.
Sometimes my mother lets us spend the night at Grandma's house. We play almost all night, and then when we are so sleepy we can't play any more, my aunt makes a pallet on the floor so we can an sleep together. When all the fights are out and everyone is quiet I can hear the train passing and the river boats on the river. Sometimes a cow moos or a dog barks, and sometimes Grandma mumbles us to sleep.
When it is morning the light comes through the cracks in the old house; everywhere there are cracks. The room is dark and the walls glow with cracks of light. Grandma is in the kitchen. I don't know when she goes to bed or when she get s up; she is always in the kitchen. I want it to stay like this forever with the cracks of light and Grandma rattling pots in the kitchen. But then I hear sounds in my aunt's room and I know the man is back again. I get up and climb over the sleeping children. I try to touch the fight in the cracks, but it is just a hole and not something I can pick up and play with. I rub the rough wood with my fingers and listen to see if Grandma is chanting. But there are only pot sounds. I go to the kitchen and she is bending over the black stove. She smiles at me and gives me a piece of fried bread and milk with coffee in it. The man leaves my aunt's room and tries to sneak out, but he trips over the children and they wake up. Grandma frowns and gets her pipe from her apron pocket and sits in her rocking chair. I wait her to start mumbling, but she sings, "Jesus Saves, Jesus Saves."
After we get dressed Grandma gives each of us a lard bucket and a croaker sack and we go off like grown-ups going to work. It is still very early, everything is wet with dew. Grandma waves to us and we head for the pasture. We go to a tall pecan tree and start picking without talking much. I want to pick a sack full so I work very fast. My sister is slow and she only gets a half-bucket. Sometimes I think about Grandma and sometimes I think about what I will buy with the pecan money. I find an old arrowhead in a ditch near two pecans. I pick it up and rub the dirt off with my fingers. I look up to see if there are any eagles in the sky, but all I see are vultures. I put the arrowhead in my pocket and I pick even faster. We move from tree to tree until it gets too hot to pick. We meet some other children picking and we speak to them and ask how much they have. They show us, and we compare sacks and then move on.
At noontime we drag our sacks and buckets to Mr. Meckle's store and line up in front of the scale. Mr. Meckle weighs each sack and says fifty cents a pound; then he counts out our money. He pays us in change; those with the biggest sacks get dollar bills and change. Mr. Meckle says they have lots of candy in the store if we want to buy some. We go into the store and Miss Drake asks us what we want. My cousins buy lunch meat and a whole loaf of bread and packs of different colored Kool-Aid. I share some of my money with my sister and we decide to buy ten penny candies each and keep the rest of the money Miss Drake puts our candies in small brown paper bags and we hold them like they are gold. The cousins laugh at us for being so stingy, but we tell them we are saving for Christmas. We walk back home on the railroad tracks eating one penny candy at a time. The cousins all have a sandwich and one offers me a piece. I say no because I have a root beer barrel candy in my mouth.
When we get to Grandma's house we all tell how much we made and give her our sacks and cans. She loads up plates of red beans and rice for each of us, and we eat and drink orange and red Kool-Aid. After the other kids leave the kitchen, I show Grandma the arrowhead. She looks at it for a long time and then a tear comes in her eye. I look at it and feel tears coming to my eyes too, but I don't know why. For a brief moment we go away and we are Indians; then we come back. Grandma sits down in her chair and lights her pipe with a rolled-up piece of brown paper lit from the stove.
"Use to be lots a Indians around here," she says, puffing on her pipe. "Indians always respect their elders; young people never do anything without first consulting the elders. But nowadays, your aunt, this man," she shakes her head, "they don't listen."
I shake my head in agreement
"But that was long ago," she says. Then she starts rocking and mumbling. But this time she is mumbling about life before I was born. I listen and we go away together.
The Last Days of Summer
There was a particular sadness hanging over the earth; sadness that reeked of some inner pain. Its surface appeared to be bleeding and aching at the same time. The water from the old cistern leaked like tear drops onto it, and the earth drank up the tears as if they lessened the pain. The oak tree bent over the earth and cooled it. The shaved surface under the tree lay cold and ashen, as if with fever. Soft green moss grew in patches like a child's blanket to warm the ailing surface. Every now and then the earth moaned softly the wind swayed the tree, the tree brushed her lower branches against it and soothed it with a cooing sound.
From a distance I could hear Grandma putting out the lunch dishes, but I wanted to stay and help the earth. I wanted to reach out and find the aching spot of the earth, but it was a vast hurting and I could not find the center. I pulled off my shoes and walked carefully on the earth with bare feet; I lay flat on its surface and tried to soothe it with all of my being but I was not enough to stop the crying of the earth.
All the earth-colored things under the tree moaned with the earth and were also sad, as if by being mud-colored they were bleeding with her. The old wheelbarrow, the boards from the hog pen, my brother's broken toy truck, and the limb,; of the oak tree all bled quietly with her in silence. I took a pin from my dress and pricked my finger and gave the earth my blood so she would know I understood and bled with her. My red blood mingled with her mud-gray blood and disappeared inside her wound of dried soil covered with a crusty scab of dirt.
There was a perfect stillness for a long while; then slowly the sun came. It covered the earth with warm growing hands that rubbed her like a grandpa rubbing ointment on the tired bones of a grandma. The sun went around with its many golden fingers: touching everything from the old wheelbarrow to the boards, the toy truck, the tree trunk. Finally it rested on my pricked finger and healed it.
I heard Grandma calling me to lunch. I patted the earth once more, then bent down and whispered to her through a hole in the ground.
"Don't cry, here; I'll pray for you." I got up, grabbed my shoes and ran to the house without looking back, believing the sun would lull the earth to sleep.
I loved the earth and all that pertained to her. I felt I was related to her because we were both mud-colored and we both loved beautiful things. I often saw the earth cry when I lay a lovely dead butterfly inside her bosom to love back to God. The sky cried passionately, with a rage or a dripping. The earth moaned quietly for dead things, for hurt trees and broken flowers. She didn't cry with tears like the sky, but she moaned with sighs and groans like black women working in the fields moan. I tried to keep her clean and lovely. I picked up the trash people threw on her, but she didn't mind the trash much; she seemed to think it was some colorful gift that people gave her to play with. I guess she was lonesome.
When my brothers came, they liked to dig up the earth and make tunnels in it, I would fight them off to protect the earth. They usually won and I had to come back later and apologize to the earth for them. Once when they had dug I found broken pieces of ceramic dishes with chickens and flowers painted on them. I asked the earth if she wanted me to dig them out and throw them away, but she said they were gifts men had given her and she was saving them like treasure. So I buried them again for her.
There were many holes in the floor of my grandmother's house. I would peep through the holes at night and wonder if t he earth was dreaming. If so, what did she dream about? When I had a good book I would sit quietly under the oak in the spot where the earth was hurting and read to her. I finally learned that the reason she ailed so was because she was dying of some terminal disease. I knew this because she told me these things when I sat under her and talked with her.
I tried to find a place where I could reach the earth at my mother's house, but it was only here at Grandma's house that I could communicate with her. Wherever I went to other people's houses I would ask to see the backyard. I would look to see if there was a clear spot under a tree where the earth was hurting. But I never found a spot like that anywhere else.
Once some men came to cut down trees. The land did not belong to my grandmother; she rented it. The owner sent men to cut wood for winter because there were many trees around the place. I leaned against the oak tree to protect it. I was not wide enough to hide it, bu t I was determined to prevent them from cutting it down. The men laughed at my trying to guard the oak; they made jokes about cutting me in half with their saws. I knew they were lying because Grandma was watching from the window with her pipe and her cane knife. The cane knife was long and had a big handle and a wide blade ending in a hook. She said she used it to swing down sugar cane and rice when she was young. Now she used it to cut off chickens' heads and to cut switches if we were bad. She always carried it around with her and sent us to look for it if she misplaced it.
I watched them cut down the trees with their saws, and I watched the trees cry out and scream, but the men did not hear the trees screaming. The earth was very upset and cried whenever a tree fell. I hated the men with their big saws, and I cried for the trees and prayed for their souls to go to a tree heaven where there were no saws and cruel men.
I was twelve then; I still played with my dolls and toys. My mother told me that soon I might start bleeding and if I did I should tell her. I wasn't sure what she meant, but I figured it was the same bleeding the earth did; then I too would have a terminal disease and spend the rest of my life slowly dying. I remembered the girls at school saying it was blood that made babies, so I was confused and hoped my mother would tell me what I was supposed to do when it happened.
I brought my dolls to visit the earth at Grandma's house when my brothers weren't there. I told the dolls that the earth was dying, and we had a prayer meeting for the earth. I brought oil from the kitchen and rubbed it on the earth like the preacher did when old people were sick. Then I prayed and sang hymns for the earth.
Near the end of summer Grandma got sick and I sat under the oak tree and prayed for her. I asked the earth if Grandma was also dying. The earth said yes, she would receive her soon. We were at Grandma's house every day, and every day I visited the earth. I asked her what she did with dead people, and she said she rested them in her bosom until Jesus comes.
When my Grandma died I asked if they could bury her under the oak tree, but Mama said no, because it wasn't her land. So they brought her to another piece of earth behind the church. There we prayed over her and put her in the bosom of the earth. I touched the earth and dropped my tears on it. I asked Daddy why they didn't let Grandma keep her cane knife with her. He said she wouldn't need it anymore. Then we put her box inside the earth and the earth received her. The earth didn't cry like it did when the trees were cut; it just hummed a quiet song that the people must have heard because they began to sing:
There'll be peace in the valley for me someday, There'll be peace in the valley for me. I pray no more sorrow and sadness or trouble will be. There'll be peace in the valley for me.
We went back to the house for the last time to clean it up and pick up Grandma's things. My mother took the cane knife, and I asked her if she would pass it to me when she died. She said yes. I went alone to the oak tree and kissed it and lay on the sad earth and told her what had happened. I asked her how I would know when she died, I wanted to know if she would stop breathing. She said that at first no one would know, but slowly the earth would dry up and there would be no more blood in it and things would no longer grow from it because there would be no moisture. I asked her when it would happen, but she said she couldn't tell me.
I asked permission of the earth and put some of her being into a baby food jar along with an oak leaf and an acorn from the oak tree. I lay on the earth once more and comforted her. She promised me that, as long as I lived, the earth would always be my friend and receive me when I died to keep me till Jesus comes. I kissed her goodbye. The next day I started bleeding.
Malaika Favorite was born in Geismar, Louisiana, and received an M.F.A. in painting from LSU.Ms. Favorite is both a visual artist and a writer. She has published Illuminated Manuscript, a collection of poems.
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|Title Annotation:||Section 1: Black South Culture|
|Publication:||African American Review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 1993|
|Previous Article:||The autobiography of an idea.|