If I tell you that my grandmother is a strong woman, what will you picture in your mind? Will you think of a fit granny wearing breathable spandex and flexing her biceps? Or will you conjure up someone who has held her own through a hard life? Maybe you will imagine a woman whose heart is 98.5 years old but still beats when it should. Don’t forget the deep wrinkles such a woman must have, and a cheek with skin so thin you want to place it under glass in a museum, or at least lay your own relatively taut cheek lightly against it for a moment. What will the feel of this cheek, almost a century old, tell you about your own mortality?
My grandmother’s name is Mary Rose Gisclair Broussard. We call her Maw-Maw. She still lives where she always has: on the bayou in southern Louisiana. The filmy cataracts that cover her eyes remind me of fog on the hills of Portland, Oregon, where I live now. The soupy, heavy mists force me to drive painfully slow, squinting for cyclists. (In Portland bicycles abound.) A white-gray-bluish tint unevenly blots my grandmother’s irises and pupils, which used to be clear blue and keen black. The cataracts give her an otherworldly countenance, like a blind prophet who gazes more easily into the past than into the present. She is otherworldly, because she isn’t a part of this time where I dwell — not fully. She floats closer to us and then away again before we can grasp her. We, her family, listen for clues when we speak to her, rickety road signs to let us know if she’s a young newlywed, or a hassled mother with several small children underfoot and one cradled in her body, or a widow with many grandchildren, or her most current self: a great-great-grandmother nearly a century old, confused but fierce as ever.
My mind plays tricks on me, and not the funny kind. It forgets how old I am. A few days ago I opened the calculator app on my phone and typed in, 2016 – 1978. Thirty-eight is what I got back. I sighed with relief because it didn’t say thirty-nine — not yet.
My grandmother gave birth to seven children. The first was male: a large, perfect, blue boy who would never take his first breath. Her other six all lived well into adulthood. Her eldest, a daughter, died a few years ago. Cancer. The next-oldest, another daughter, is alive. The third, a son, is dead. Heart attack. He was my father. The last three are all living. And Mary Rose herself is alive, she of the strong womb and backbone, the breasts that nurtured, the time-tested heart that goes on.
What have I done so far with my first four decades? Some years have drifted by in a haze. One baby after another lay beside me — co-sleeping was the easiest way to manage — my nightgown soaked with breast milk and sweat and sometimes baby urine or spit-up or postpartum blood. An organic aroma rose from my skin in those days, a mixture of waste odors and life. Once, my firstborn got thrush, her tongue an alarming white. A yeast infection of the mouth, thrush is hard to cure when your baby’s only food is milk. I consulted my online natural-mothering community (the thing to do in the early 2000s), and tried to cure the infection with gentian violet, a liquid antiseptic. My daughter’s mouth and tongue turned a royal purple, along with my mangled nipples. I called her, my first child, “Young Hoover” for her amazing suction power. The gentian violet worked, and being purple didn’t bother me. I rarely left the house anyway. I was on call 24/7 as diaper changer, milk provider, baby burper, and rocker. I lost myself in those exhausted hours.
1. an animal of a large group distinguished by the possession of a backbone or spinal column, including mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and fishes.
I was thirty-five when I took my first biology class and learned the taxonomy of myself:
I was struck by the order of this, laid out so precisely, like a map. We all have a place in the world family. I could breastfeed my children because I was a member of the class Mammalia. But before that membership came the requirement to be a chordate: to possess a backbone. My own spine is imperfect, bent by scoliosis, but it is an indispensable gift to me, allowing me into my phylum.
Sometimes I can’t tell if my grandmother is looking at me or at her oldest daughter, who died four years ago. If she doesn’t speak, I don’t know. If she calls me a name that isn’t mine, I answer anyway, desperate to communicate with her.
It’s been too long since I’ve seen my own mother. Our paths haven’t converged for two full years. I didn’t plan it this way. Time just slid by, as it does. I’m buried in school, and she’s buried in grief for my dead father. He was her backbone, bolstering every part of her identity. She was his wife, his best friend, his love, and she made every decision with him, and every day was either spent with him or looking forward to the moment they would be together again.
In his poem “The Good-Morrow” John Donne writes, “I wonder, by my troth, what thou and I / Did, till we loved? Were we not weaned till then? / But sucked on country pleasures, childishly?” My life did not really begin until I met my husband. We were only eighteen, so there had been little time before that, and what time there had been we’d spent being homeschooled. We grew up together, which means our first fights were masterpieces of pettiness that lasted way longer than they should have: Who was supposed to set the alarm clock? Why was he taking so long in the shower? Was he or was he not using his “cute look” on our coworker at the restaurant where we both waited tables? Why was he wasting money on new jeans when I didn’t think he needed new jeans? That last one turned into the fight about how I was practically wearing rags because I so rarely bought new clothes. Sometimes we still produce such masterpieces. We are still ungrown.
Microsoft Word is insisting that ungrown is not a real word. It says I must mean ingrown, uncrown, undrown, or unfrown. I am frowning because Word doesn’t trust me. I am frowning because the dictionary says ungrown is a word. I am frowning because I didn’t trust myself, and yet I was right.
When I was a child, my grandmother’s hair was a blue-gray helmet, washed, set, and sprayed into place every Friday at the hairdresser’s so that it looked perfect for the weekend, when most of her children and grandchildren would visit. It fell slowly limp throughout the week until, by Thursday, it was oily and flat. The hairdresser has not been a priority for years now. Maw-Maw’s hair is a dull, iron gray and without body, but always clean. The world gives women her age a break from the demands of beauty.
I don’t feel thirty-eight years old, but my body does. My knees sometimes ache, and of course the scoliosis doesn’t help. My mind, however, still feels ungrown. As a child I had a fantasy of marrying, having children, buying my own house, and making it a comfortable place to come home to. I assumed that once I had those things, I’d know my purpose in life. But here I am, halfway through life — if I’m lucky — and I still don’t know what my purpose is.
I was at my grandmother’s house to say goodbye. I didn’t know when I would be back; this visit had taken three years to arrange around my busy life. I didn’t lay my cheek against hers, although its softness was inviting. She was sitting peacefully in her wooden rocking chair, staring at the brown-paneled kitchen wall, or perhaps at something the fabric of time and space doesn’t strictly allow. She wore a pale-blue cotton nightgown with a white terry-cloth robe over it, tied in a limp bow at her collarbone. She had, with the same modesty she’d always displayed, pulled her nightgown over her knees and tucked the excess fabric under her legs, which were roped with blue veins and culminated in neon-orange Crocs. Her lavender rosary beads lay on a side table within her reach, in case her mind became agitated and she needed to hold them. I was afraid of what Maw-Maw might do if I laid my cheek against hers; she didn’t know who I was at that particular moment. I didn’t want to frighten her. I didn’t want to frighten myself.
Sometimes backbones bend or break. The spinal column is fragile. My grandmother has osteoporosis, which means her bones are thin, brittle. She falls at least once a year. At her age she has to live with any fractures she suffers. It’s too dangerous to undergo anesthesia for surgery; she could fail to wake up.
As far as I know, my grandmother never complained about my grandfather Louis when he was alive, but now that he’s been dead for more than thirty years, she complains about him all the time. She drifts alone through the decades, then emerges unannounced to interrupt conversations, demanding of anyone in the room, “Children, where is your father?” No matter what she is told, she will say it’s a lie. “Oh, I know where he is, believe me,” she says bitterly. But she will not say where. Her blurry eyes dart around as if she wants to blurt it out, but she refuses to break the hearts of her children with the truth. “I’ve done it all myself,” she says, as she folds her hands around her lavender rosary beads. “He was never here, and none of you cared if he was there or not!” She lifts her chin proudly, clutches her beads tighter, and turns to face the wall. The children have been dismissed.
My father died when my son Eli was five. Eli is now seven and still can’t hear the name Paw-Paw without tearing up. I envy my son’s easy-welling tears. I rarely cry, but when it starts, it’s an ancient spring that can’t be stopped: tears for my father, who is gone; for my mother, who hurts every moment he is absent; for abused children and raped women; for everything that is a shame in this world; for the loneliness we all feel sometimes; and for something else that I don’t understand, because it’s too large and universal, but that I know is terrible.
Even if Maw-Maw does call me by my name, I don’t know if she is speaking to eight-year-old me, eighteen-year-old me, or present me, the thirty-eight-year-old mother of four of her great-grandchildren. I am the conduit through which they will know her. I am incapable of doing this task justice.
My grandmother doesn’t seem afraid to die, though I think she must realize death isn’t far away. One glance at her hands — ropy blue veins visible through liver-spotted skin — would let her know if she forgot. I’m thinking now of what the writer Timothy Egan said about the Pacific Northwest mountain climber Fred Beckey: “It was not so much the conquest of the peak that got Beckey excited as it was the conquest of his own fear. What triumph: to be unbound from the leash of mortality.” Is this what Mary Rose feels: that she can now be free with her words, unleashed from propriety, from fear? Who will tell her that she is a liar, that she is wrong, that she should hush? We are all just so glad she still breathes. I accept whatever she chooses to say to me. At this point she can do no wrong, cannot offend anyone enough to make them stay away. Every time we see her could be the last.
I found out I had scoliosis when I was twenty-two. I went to a chiropractor after our car was rear-ended, and he asked why I hadn’t disclosed my scoliosis in his medical forms. I hadn’t known. My back had never hurt until that car accident. The chiropractor showed me black-and-white pictures of the S curve in my spine. Now I go to a different chiropractor once a month to control the pain. My husband says they are witch doctors and it’s all in my mind. He gives my mind more credit than I do.
I am a college undergraduate these days — yes, I know, I’m very late getting my degree, but I rarely do anything at the “right” time. Sometimes I’m too early, like when I married at twenty-one. Sometimes I’m desperately past due — getting my first pedicure in my thirties; watching Sex and the City in a monthlong marathon eleven years after the series finale. Either way, early or late, I always feel abnormal. Part of this stems from my K-12 education, which took place in my childhood bedroom, administered with Christian textbooks. My sister sat at her desk while I sprawled on our bed. We both read library books for most of “school time,” shoving them away when the bedroom door creaked open for Mom to check on us. Maybe I feel ungrown because so many ideas and facts most people learned in middle school were introduced to me when I was in my twenties, and sometimes even in my thirties: the Trail of Tears, evolution, Christopher Columbus as a villain, missionaries as destroyers of native cultures, the fact that it is possible to believe in God and also believe that some of the Bible is not literally true.
My grandmother had been several versions of herself during that visit, and maybe I had been multiple variations of myself to her. It is not something I can know; her thoughts are fluid, and I could not grasp them as they floated by. When I said goodbye, she looked at me so hard with her cloudy blue-gray eyes that I thought maybe she was really seeing me. I thought maybe she could see through to my fears: that this would be the last time I saw her; that she would never again know me to be Sarah, her granddaughter. “Don’t forget me, now,” she said.
“I would never forget you, Maw-Maw!” I choked out through sudden bright tears.
“You know I’m your mother,” she continued. “That’s all I can tell you. Don’t forget me; you know I’m your mother.”
I thought quickly about what to say: Should I remind her of my identity or just pass over her assertion? Her cloudy eyes gave me my answer. “You are my mother,” I assured her, as though I could inscribe it on our bones by sheer force of will. Because she is my mother in a way, although she didn’t birth me. My maternal line ties me to my grandmother just as firmly as if I had passed through her loins. My matriarchs are many, and they are all my good — no, grand — mothers, and some are great, and I feel tied to them, too, although I was born decades after many of them were in the ground. “I know you’re my mother, and I will never forget you,” I said to Maw-Maw, and I did not lie.
Listen: I am going to tell you something I know. This knowledge is proprietary to women and has been with us so long that it resides in our amniotic fluid, marinating our daughters, flowing through our milk ducts, feeding our baby girls, reddening our menstrual blood with wasted iron. Here it is: Women are the gravity stopping humanity from drifting off aimlessly into the void. We mothers, sisters, daughters, aunts, grandmothers — women — are the backbone of the world.
When my grandmother becomes upset, it is no use arguing with her. If you tell her that her husband is dead, she will either call you a liar or accuse you of killing him. Both possibilities make my grandmother equally upset. She will threaten to call the police, to report you for being a liar or a murderer. It is best to distract her, lure her into another time by asking loudly if she remembers Harry Champagne, the man once known on the bayou as the “jitterbug king.” Watch her brow smooth as her troubled time frame fades away, replaced by a bright, youthful one.
I’m reduced now to asking my father’s siblings for stories about his past. Their tales are, frankly, unsatisfying. They tell me a story about my father running with a ruler and falling and puncturing his neck. Then they wonder aloud, “Was that Glenn? Or was it that neighbor boy?” It happened to someone. Someone’s neck — and it seems unquestionably to have been a male neck — was stabbed by a child’s wooden ruler. The neck bled everywhere, and the ruler took out a tonsil — just one — and everyone is clear on the fact that the doctor said he couldn’t have made a finer cut himself. But whose neck and whose tonsil was it? Nobody is sure. My dad is dead. He and his tonsils — or tonsil — were cremated. Surely a good daughter would know how many tonsils her father had, and if a ruler had ever stabbed his neck.
It doesn’t feel good to wonder if you are a bad daughter, but it feels worse to wonder if you’re a bad mother. In really hard times I wonder if I’m just a bad person. Do all people have such unkind thoughts about themselves? Is it normal to feel bored when people are talking to me for too long and I wish they would just stop? Is it OK to hate small talk, to fantasize about telling the hairstylist when I arrive, “Please don’t talk to me; just do your job well and in silence”? But then I wonder if terrible people even worry they are terrible, and I think I must not be that bad.
Which brings me back to feeling ungrown. I thought I’d trust myself more when I was older. I thought I’d have firm opinions on things — political parties, dating ages for my kids, my favorite color. Instead I am still evolving, still changing my mind, still having to search for answers. I’m exhausted sometimes by all the searching, all the evolving. Sometimes I just don’t care anymore. If I don’t know what I believe, I can still be a good person, right? Must I continue to puzzle it out?
On the sweaty day I said goodbye to my grandmother, I had to fly back to Portland because my fall-semester classes were about to begin. It was humid, as Louisiana summers usually are, and I dreaded opening my grandmother’s screen door to exit into the heat: the sweat that would immediately dot my body, the blinding sun that would pierce my pupils. Her house was pleasantly, artificially cool. Chicken, sausage, and okra gumbo scented the air. The window shades were down because lamplight is easier on the eyes of the elderly. It felt unreal: the coolness, the lack of humidity, the blue-tinted light instead of fiery orange. The gumbo was not quite right because it was no longer made by my grandmother, as it should have been, as it always had been in my childhood. My aunt Maureen had set the gumbo on the stove to simmer early that morning, in the same heavy stainless-steel pot my grandmother always used. The gumbo was served in the same ceramic bowls (cream colored with a forest-green stripe), eaten with the same floral-patterned spoons, at the same table with a wood-grain Formica top. But the wood grain should not have been showing. My grandmother had always, without fail, spread a cheap tablecloth over it — the thin plastic kind backed with cotton batting. I don’t know what she was protecting; the table is indestructible. Maybe the tablecloth brought her some cheer. The feeling I have now, noticing the table’s nakedness, is that something is terribly wrong. My grandmother is no longer in charge of her household.
When you first become a mother, you go from being a person to being a supplier of life. For years I felt that nobody actually saw me, only the adorable, chubby bundle in my arms. I rarely received eye contact, because my baby had huge blue eyes and skin like dewy petals, while I looked like death. I answered strangers’ questions in the grocery store: “Yes, my husband has blue eyes. She’s five months old. Yes, she’s my first child. Thank you. Thank you.” There were always a lot of thank-yous, a lot of faux gratitude given to people who were stopping me from getting the groceries into my cart in the fifteen-minute window before I would need to whip my boob out again. I had to smile a lot without feeling it. I had to stay calm when people touched my daughter’s luminous baby skin without asking, without washing their hands, without thinking.
Of course, I didn’t have to do any of those things, but I didn’t know that yet. I was raised to be nice, to be meek, to put up with things, to believe that feminist was a bad word that meant an angry, vicious, ugly woman who ripped her bra off to fuel a fire. It meant a heathen who hated both men and God. Now I know it really just means a person — any person, not only a woman — who thinks being born with a penis shouldn’t give someone special privileges. But that’s not what I was taught.
My last visit with my father was Thanksgiving 2013. It was just a normal holiday. I didn’t ask him any of the questions about his youth that I’d always planned to ask. He was only sixty-nine, and there was plenty of time. Until there wasn’t. Until I’d wasted the last moments like a fool. My dad never got to feel unleashed, like my grandmother. He watched his words carefully, because he thought he had decades left. Maybe I should be gentler on myself. Maybe I should forgive myself for losing his stories. But we would have treasured them, myself and my children, and that’s hard to forgive.
Nobody knows why Mary Rose says the things she says. If I believed in reincarnation, I would consider that she might be remembering a past life. She is reliving past versions of herself, sometimes on fast-forward, slipping in and out of the decades: dancing with an old beau, opening a letter from her husband stationed in France during World War II, kissing her own mother good night as a child — all within an hour. I wonder if she chooses which time to relive or if she is thrown into the past, disoriented and dizzy, just getting her footing when she’s pulled painfully back to the present by my aunt calling her “Mama” and asking if she’s ready to eat lunch.
I miss my father, but I can’t match my mom’s deep grief. He was not a part of my daily life the way he was of hers. For my mom, my father was more constant than the sun, more faithful than his own heartbeat — a heartbeat that decided to stop before its seventieth birthday.
To summarize my religious upbringing: I was told I lived under an Umbrella of Protection. I had an illustration of it in a book. Christ played the sheltering canopy, spread over everyone, even if they didn’t believe in Him. Right under the Umbrella of the Lord, at the top of the handle, was Husband. Husband’s jobs were listed as “protect family” and “provide for family.” Below Husband lived Wife, whose job was “manager of home.” And below Wife dwelled Children. So everything was laid out for me — no decisions necessary, unlike what those women’s-libbers would have me believe. But if I’m not evolving, changing, and searching, I might as well be dead. Maybe fully grown equals dead. Dead certainly equals growing no more. Life means growing and changing.
Is there a way I could have known to ask about the tonsils story when my father was alive? Could I have stumbled upon the right questions? “How many tonsils do you have?” Or “Have you ever run while holding a knife, a stick, or maybe a ruler?” Reader, I want you to see me as an example of what not to do. Mine is a cautionary tale. Visit your parents. Ask them if they were ever stabbed by a ruler, or if they ever stole a sip of wine from a pantry bottle, or if they ever loved a boy who didn’t love them back. You don’t know which visit will be the last. If you waste it, regret will keep you up at night. Don’t procrastinate, and remember: you never know you have waited too long until it’s too late.
When my grandmother gets upset, it’s not for the same reasons I get upset, like I’m famished, or I can’t find my car keys, or my son lost his shoe somewhere in the house when we are already late. Maw-Maw gets upset because she sees a little girl in her kitchen, and the little girl won’t sit down. The little girl stands there, staring rudely, making my grandmother anxious, and my grandmother demands that my aunt Maureen make her stop.
The little girl is not really there. We don’t know who she is, and just between us we call her a hallucination, blame medication and insomnia.
My grandmother gets upset because her dead husband isn’t home yet. She gets upset because her great-grandchildren, who are really there in the flesh, walk loudly back and forth in front of her, rousing her from her reverie. She gets upset because she thinks someone will steal her precious rosary beads. When my uncle asks her to put the beads down so he can help her walk to the bathroom, she says, “Aw, I know what you want, you! You want to steal my rosary. You gonna see what happens to you if something happens to these. You gonna see, mais yeah!”
Her son tries to reason with her: “What do I want with that, Mama?”
My grandmother moves on to accusing him of having already stolen her gun. My uncle looks confused and tells me that she has never owned a gun.
My mother is still alive. I do not know if she still has two tonsils or when she first fell in love. You see that I have not learned my lesson. Use this as an example, too.
My children sometimes tell me that they hate me. When they really want to hurt me, they yell that I am a horrible mother. They know where my soft spot is. It’s in my belly button, where I was once attached to my own mother when I used to get nutrients from her with no effort on my part, when I was loved even while being a tiny, selfish leech. I feel a twinge at that exact spot when they say I’m no good at mothering. It reminds me that I have a good mother, and that I want to be a good mother. The twinge travels from my belly button to my uterus, where my children once lived, attached by their own cords to me, and I fed them and loved them, expecting nothing in return. My children later say they did not mean it when they said I’m a horrible mother. They were just angry. It’s easy, maybe easiest, to get angry with those you love the most. I know this well.
My aunt Maureen is careful not to lie to her mother. When asked, “Children, where is your father?” Maureen says she doesn’t know where her daddy is, although she knows his bones lie in Cheramie Cemetery, two and a half miles away, where they have lain for thirty-two years. “Daddy’s coming back soon, I’m sure, Mama,” Maureen says. Muttering to me, off to the side, she justifies this lie by saying that we will indeed see him in heaven one day. Once, I asked my aunt and uncle if it was true that Paw-Paw was never home, that Maw-Maw raised the kids alone. They insisted it was not true. So I don’t know if Maw-Maw is misremembering or if she’s somehow freer now to say how it was then. I am not one to deny a woman her truth. The truth is, he isn’t here now, and she is left alone to do it all. But in her mind he lives and does not bother to show up to be with her or help her with his children. She needs his strength, and he withholds it. She has created a hybrid reality: Louis is alive in her mind but not in his body.
I sometimes hope that, if my own husband dies, my life will be like Mom’s — no, not if; when. We are all dying, remember? I know, it’s easy to forget that each breath both saves our life and brings us closer to our last. Anyway, I hope my life will be like my mother’s when my husband dies, but I will also be glad if it isn’t. I want to love my husband so much that I will be destroyed if he dies, but I am scared of being destroyed. I want my marriage to mean that much, but I don’t want it to be everything. Because if it’s everything, I can be left with nothing.
I’m OK now. I really am. I’m learning some things that were once hidden from me, or distorted when taught to me. I’m claiming the title of “feminist.” I’m reveling in my ungrown state: drinking too many cups of too-sweet coffee; taking off my bra the minute I get home; not wearing makeup unless I feel like it, which is rare. I’m trying new things, one of which is not caring so much what people think. My husband has hired someone to clean our home because I reject that wife means “manager of home.” I’m getting my undergraduate degree in two weeks, which is still before I turn forty, so I’m not old yet, and I’m never going to stop learning. I’m never going to be fully grown until my heart stops. And I like myself now, which wasn’t always true. My hair grows gray; I am alive. My knees hurt; I am alive. My spine is bent; I am alive. I feel ungrown; I am alive.
On Friday nights Mary Rose used to go to Lee Brothers Dance Hall, a large wood-frame building down the bayou a ways from her house, where only the men had to pay for a ticket to get in; women entered the hall for free. Once inside, the women sat in chairs around the perimeter of the room, waiting to be asked to dance. Mary Rose sat with her older sister — her chaperone — and never waited long, because she was light on her feet. My aunt Maureen brings these memories up when my grandmother gets agitated, when her knotted fingers run up and down the rosary too quickly, when her words get extra cruel. Maureen is a hero, a rescuer. “Mama,” she calls out loudly, “you remember when you were the jitterbug queen and every boy wanted to dance with you?” and my grandmother pauses in mid-diatribe about the little girl, the stolen gun, the absent husband, or the neglectful children, and she considers what this strange woman who calls her Mama just said. She smooths her nightgown over her knees, folds her hands in her lap, and lifts her chin. She suspects she is being mocked. “I never said I was the queen. Lots of girls could dance good, too. I just wanted to have fun, you know. That was what all the young people liked to do.”
Aunt Maureen laughs and says, “But Harry Champagne was the jitterbug king, and he liked to dance with you the most! I think maybe he liked you, Mama.”
“Oh, no, he just liked me as a friend, beb sha!” — dear baby in Cajun French.
But I look closely at my grandmother and see the corners of her mouth rise as she remembers Mary Rose and Harry, jitterbugging across the room while the band played on a muggy Friday night, her sister-chaperone watching carefully. Maw-Maw looks down at her legs, and her vision is probably blurred enough that she can barely see their pale color and shape, the unfamiliar orange Crocs on her feet. I like to think that my grandmother’s mind can see those legs as Mary Rose’s shapely, youthful limbs, and that she can reach out and grab the right memory, and that it smells like the sweat earned by dancing, and that it feels like Mary Rose’s baby-blue skirt swishing against her fast-moving legs as Harry Champagne leads her the other way suddenly and without warning, and that it sounds like the laugh Mary Rose offers to Harry, right into his grinning, unapologetic face, because she knows very well that any other man there would have stepped on her foot pulling off a quick change like that. But there’s no pain when you’re dancing with the right person, and there’s no pain for her in this memory, and there’s no pain for me in watching Mary Rose remember.