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My Grandmother

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My grandmother, my mother’s mother, was the most beautiful woman I knew. As a little girl, I saw her that way. She had a mystical, whimsical way to her, a former magnolia skinned, never without her lipstick Southern debutant, always smelling of the most beautiful perfume and wearing a string of pearls. All of my “sister-cousins” and I
(there are five of us girls, my sisters and my cousins, no boys) fantasized about her smell, a smell we smelt when we excitedly opened a package in the mail from her, (“Smell her! Oh it smells like Mema! Oh it smells so good!”), when we stepped into her light-filled house, when she hugged us to her.

In all essence, the women in my family, on my mother’s side, have the strongest hold in my soul. There are only us women, and we all have a bit of Mema in us. We are the Angels. The surname Angel was Mema’s mother’s, my great-grandmother, Alma Angel. She had nine sisters, and they were known around the small town they lived in as angels, the most beautiful women anyone had ever seen. They all had the same hair. Dark, thick, wavy, striking. The “Angel Hair.” It was the Angel Hair that I myself inherited. As a young girl I would sit idly in front of my white mirror, that had once been Mema’s, and run my fingers through my hair, put it up, put it down, wonder at it, feel safe with it upon my head, knowing that with it I was an Angel, I was my mother’s daughter, I was my grandmother’s daughter, I was my great-grandmother’s daughter. I thought my great-grandmother was my guardian Angel. They gave me their face, their hair, their legs, their blood.
Mema was also Barbara Ann. She wasn’t everyone’s Mema, to most she was the beautiful Barbara Ann, the debutante who was the daughter of one of the Angel women and with the name of a peppy, happy Beach Boys’ song. She had married a Clark and borne my Uncle, my Aunt, and my Mother, and when he left her she worked three jobs for years, to support her children. In later years she married again to my step-grandfather, and they moved to a beautiful house surrounded by hills and acres of pastures and forests. My step-grandfather stayed with her until the day she died.

In the days of my Southern summers with her, away from the hot dry winds of the West and into the protective, lush hills of Tennessee, I found salvation. California was like a distant father who drank and Tennessee was a mother who just wrapped her arms around me and rocked me to sleep. It was home. We ate watermelon on the front porch while a hot summer storm raged its anger, its sadness around us and rumbled in the distant. “ One! one thousand, Two! One thousand, Three! One thousand! Three miles away, girls!” The trees would bow low in those storms, their leaves singing in the humid , wet air. The horses huddled together for protection, just as us women sat together on the front porch, watching it all. She told me spiritual stories while I sat in her lap, family stories and Southern stories that never left me. My Mema was a writer, a true and authentic storyteller, and I became the same way , in her lap, wishing I could one day be as worldly and beautiful as she was.

Her body was what began to fail her, not her soul. Her young-looking body, that people in the town would exclaim about, mistaking her for my mother and not my grandmother.
The last summer we were all of us women together , was one of strange weather. The south was not green, not lush, not alive. It gave a dry breeze, unusual brown leaves crackled from branches and fell to the ground, something was dieing. That winter, I returned to Tennessee, alone, to be with her. The day was bitterly cold and even inside my mittens my hands were numb. A long walk up the driveway, through the forest, beside the pastures, I saw her two beautiful horses grazing. No one answered at her door as I knocked, holding my bags. I finally walked in alone, and she was there, waiting.

She was weak. I had never seen anyone close to death in all my years and my soul churned. She had been waiting for me. She was so close to death, but she had waited. She held my hands, she told me I had my great-grandmother’s hands. She was tired, she was almost ready.

The next day, we bird-watched. We were alone and we sat close to the window, watching them fly about, it was redbird time. Redbirds were her favorite, and she named them. As she slept that afternoon, I braved the cold weather and walked outside. Walking through the quiet woods, through the leaves, the bare arms of the trees, no buds of life yet growing upon them. I felt eyes upon me, so I turned sharply and drew in my breath. Two beautiful horses, hers, stood between the trees and lifted their eyes to mine. It felt like a dream as I walked towards them and they didn’t shy away, I put my hand to their noses and they looked into my face like humans would, they knew things about the world that I didn’t know, they seemed as if they understood.
Barbara Ann passed away five days after I left. I was the last of the granddaughters to be with her. It was said that as she lay in her bed during those last hours, the wind began to howl and moan and redbirds flung themselves at her window, falling to the ground outside. A few redbirds actually sat on the window panes and looked in, cocking their heads, watching. Minutes after she passed, a hurricane hit, that same lightning and thunder from the summers before, and a day after she passed those two beautiful horses that met me that day in the forest, were struck dead by lightning, both of them, side by side in her pastures.
I know my grandmother waited for me, loved me and my sisters, and we loved her. She was buried with her Angel pin on her right shoulder. I have my own Angel pin, which I will keep until the day I die, too. Blood is thicker than water, and I feel it. I feel it in the way my cousins and sisters all have the same face, I feel it in the way we have the Angel hair, in the way that we all have one thing in common, our Mema. The bond between mothers and daughters and women in families are the strongest of all.





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