Part Two | Lone Star
“Happy or unhappy, families are all mysterious. We have only to imagine how differently we would be described – and will be, after our deaths – by each of the family members who believe they know us.”
I never knew my paternal grandfather, or what became of him. I don’t know if my grandmother was left a widow, or just left behind as Jefferson Friday moved on to a woman with more passion and zest. Whatever the reason, Mary was left with two young children to raise on her own in Sherman, Texas.
My grandmother was a tall, slender, stoic woman. As far back as I can remember, she had gray hair that she wore in a braided crown atop her head. At night, she would unpin the bun, the silver threads streaming down to her waist as she faithfully brushed it 100 times and then re-braided it for bed. Even in sleep she was contained.
Grandma was a stern Southern Baptist. When she stilled lived in Gardenia, I remember walking to church, past the grove of whispering eucalyptus trees, their pungent camphor filling the air. The austere Baptist church and the hell and damnation sermons were in sharp contrast to the opulence and mystery of Catholic Mass, still in Latin in those days; or the cordial hospitality of the LDS Sunday school I sometimes attended with my friend Suzie’s family.
After Dad had replanted my grandmother in Compton, “church” was some impassioned pastor on the radio that she listened to for hours every Sunday while I was expected to play in somber silence. The dichotomy of those religious experiences helped generate a reasonable amount of calamity within my impressionable psyche.
My father left school in sixth grade, got a job and supported the family. Although he housed and supported Grandma as long as she lived, he merely tolerated her as a person. He became the antithesis of everything she stood for: her puritan ways, her judgment, her faith, her meagerness. Although he and his last wife, Mabel, lived in the converted garage just behind Grandma’s little house for years, Dad had little to do with her, using Mabel or me as surrogates. He began plotting his exit almost as soon as walked in the door.
Everything about my grandmother was old. She had a hard old-fashioned tapestry love seat covered in plastic with starched doilies on the armrests. There were two beautifully tinted vintage paintings of young women in flowing gowns, dancing (I think) with their handsome suitors. Across from the love seat was an old upright piano—one of the few entertainments I had there. As I played, her crackly voice commanded, “Back straight, Linda. Keep your wrists up. Fingers curved.” I honestly don’t remember if she had a television, but I do remember a lot of boredom at Grandma’s house. A lot of quiet. Her dour home was so different from my house, or my maternal grandmother’s house, both of which were filled with conversation, music, decoration and sunlit rooms.
Grandma was thrifty. And a terrible cook. Her fried chicken had limp, greasy skin that I couldn’t swallow no matter how hungry I was. Mercifully, she always had frozen Xlnt tamales. If I was lucky, she’d give me enough change to go to the burger stand a block away to buy hamburgers and an order of fries to share. She fretted over my seemingly poor appetite, never truly realizing I would rather starve than eat most of what she cooked.
The only evidence of a frivolous side—or maybe a life before it had the color and joy beaten out of it—were the dozens of vintage Kewpie dolls perched atop wooden valances over the bedroom windows (Grandma had promised them to me, but my father THREW THEM AWAY when she died). In the kitchen stood two whimsical figurines of the Campbell’s soup kids and cheery red and yellow dishes that held her dull, unpalatable food. Those bright spots were incongruous to everything else about my grandmother.
I do not remember a time when my aunt wasn’t confined to a hospital. An accident, followed by a series of brutalizing strokes, followed by epileptic seizures, had irrevocably altered Aunt Jackie’s life, my cousin Polly’s life, and brought further sorrow and responsibility to Grandma’s perfect carriage. For nearly two decades, Grandma took a series of buses—and the Red Car when they were still running across the county—to Long Beach Memorial Hospital where she dutifully visited her daughter each week.
I don’t know how old Polly was when the accident happened, but Grandma raised Polly as her own until she married her off at 14 to the neighbor boy (the full story of which I only recently learned). Luckily, Polly and Tom had a long loving marriage in spite of learning to know one another and growing into love after the vows.
In spite of debilitating health issues: the seizures that had forced the hospital to remove her teeth so she wouldn’t bite her tongue off, the paralysis that had taken one side of her body, my Aunt Jackie was a marvel of good spirits. Her face would light up whenever I visited with Grandma as she proudly told anyone who would listen that I was her “one and only” niece. She had a love for embroidery that even her broken body couldn’t dampen. The nurses would help place the hoop in her paralyzed hand so she could use her good hand, creating intricate stitches. She would make space for me to climb on the bed and taught me how to pull the fabric taut as I learned how to make French knots and plump satin stitches. I loved her with all my heart—and loved the joy that she brought to my weekends with Grandma.
Grandma never spoke of any of the failures, losses or sorrows that had emptied her life, but I know the world took its pound of flesh. I don’t think I ever heard her sing a song, or laugh out loud. All she knew was how to keep her back straight and carry on. She had no friends, save for the long-time neighbors on San Luis Street who shared the leafy cul-de-sac, butted against the Long Beach Freeway. In all the years she lived there, I doubt she shared more that a borrowed cup of sugar with any of them. The surrounding area in Compton changed, but my grandmother never knew anything but kindness, particularly in her waning years when the neighborhood boy would frequently be enlisted to climb through the kitchen window whenever she forgot her keys.
Until dementia started stealing her present, I knew nothing of her past. Suddenly she spun vivid tales of her girlhood in the previous century. It was the first time I remember her speaking in a casual carefree way—a lightness impossible when her memory still fathomed the breadth of heartache. I was still part of her memory cache then.
The last time we spoke, she thought I was Polly. I had vanished, as did my mother and Polly’s two children, her great-grandchildren. I will never truly know her backstory, but I know that Mary was more interesting than she let on—Ancestry.com records pose some intriguing questions. Alas, there is no one to provide any answers. I am fairly certain that is just how Mary wanted it.