Change of Viewing
“Her mother was an Indian, you know,” she said.
“Maybe that explains her odd behavior,” replied her companion.
The women in line ahead of me at the viewing don’t realize she’s my grandmother and that I, too, have wondered about her personality my entire life. My memories of her are dim, covered by the haze of youthful indifference to older folks. I don’t remember the last time I saw her before my visit at the nursing home several weeks ago. She didn’t recognize me but that was no real surprise as she’d had trouble recalling my name as long as I could remember.
The ladies are right. Her mother was a Native American, at least according to my cousin who has done extensive family research. Since Elle is a member of the Mormon Church, I trust her knowledge as tracing ancestors is a key tenet for people of that faith. My research has confirmed that Grandmother C was born in Virginia, supporting Elle’s contention that Grandmother C’s parents were forced to move there to be married. According to Elle it was illegal for a white person to marry an Indian in North Carolina at that time. I still need to look that up sometime when I have nothing better to do.
In the time spent shuffling in this slow moving line I could accomplish a great deal of research. My dread builds with every baby step forward. I don’t care for the tradition of viewings and am glad Mom and Dad aren’t in attendance so I don’t have to hear Mom’s standard comments. “Doesn’t she look pretty?” or “Didn’t they do a good job considering what she’d been through?” I have yet to view a pretty corpse regardless of how good a job the mortician did. I just want a closed casket gathering with a reasonably good photo of me placed strategically near said wooden container. That way people will not be telling lies about how I look and the lid will buffer any gossip they have to share with each other about my life.
I almost wish these ladies would continue to discuss Grandmother C. It doesn’t help my uneasiness that I never really got to know her or that some of my aunts don’t think I should be here at all. It’s not that they dislike me. I think I remind them of losing their youngest sister and the pain is still too great for them. Even now, 21 years later, the relationship between them and my father remains strained. When I was young and Daddy didn’t want to be around my birth mother’s family I had very little say in the matter. But even after I was no longer under his control I was reluctant to try to establish relationships with Grandmother C and her other children. I couldn’t quite figure out where to start and shrank from the possibility of complete rejection. So I kept my distance.
By the time you realize the value of knowing your family it’s often too late. That’s the case with Grandma C and most of her daughters. But Aunt Vee made it a point to stay in touch even if the rest of her siblings resisted doing so. The only child of Grandmother C’s to do so, she has talked to me about my mother over the past few years and I cherish the information she has shared. We’ve talked a lot about my mother but very little about hers – my grandmother.
So now I’m standing in line to pay my respects to a woman I barely knew and console people who are inconsolable when it comes to me. Aunt Vee has told me that I have my mother’s smile so I’m thankful this isn’t the most appropriate time for smiles. They are having a hard enough time with their current loss to be reminded of their previous loss when their baby sister died giving birth to me. I can only imagine what goes through their heads every time they see me.
The thought of turning and leaving crosses my mind. But I’ve been raised too well not to stay and only my mind moves. I think about what I do know of the woman laying in that casket hands folded, eyes shut forever.
For most of my life I thought she was crazy; not just eccentric but certifiably insane. I was too young to understand the reason for her blue-bordering-on-purple hair. In my child’s mind my Grandmother C had purple hair. Nobody in my little world had purple hair. She was odd in ways that puzzled me.
For instance, on the rare occasions we’d see her, she couldn’t remember which one of her three granddaughters had rights to which name. So sometimes I became my sister Melanie and others I was my sister Emily; now and then she’d luck up and actually call me by my real name. Those occasions were accompanied by a cold sadness in her eyes as she mouthed that name. I thought she didn’t like me or didn’t like the name. Maybe that’s why she didn’t call me Leigh – she didn’t like my name. It was not until much later that I learned the truth. Her youngest daughter’s name was Leigh. My name is Leigh. Her youngest daughter had died shortly after pushing me out into this confused world.
My sisters gave me this news abruptly one day after school when I was eleven. I was threatening to tell Mom about some infraction they’d committed so trivial I can’t even remember the details. I do remember where we were – standing outside the elementary school at the water fountain waiting to get on the school bus to go home. That’s when they lashed out and enlightened me about the family charade about my birth.
“She’s not your real mother. Your real mother died when you were born.” I couldn’t believe they would tell such a horrible lie. I was the first one in the door when we got home, running to Mom to tell her what they’d said. But Mom didn’t deny it. She had this strange, hurt look on her face when she confirmed their assertion. Dad had married her when I was not quite two years old and, yes, my birth mother died shortly after I was born. I remember the shock and loss I felt. I can only imagine what it did to Grandmother C to speak that name no matter how rarely.
The ladies in front of me have changed their focus from my Grandmother C to the flowers and cards so they can compare their bouquets to those of other friends’ and family members’. I wonder how many flowers they gave Grandmother C when she was alive. But knowing Grandmother C she’d have called them by the wrong names….a daisy would become a rose when she looked at it. Just like the cards we’d get for our birthdays. I never remember getting an actual birthday card from her. There were plenty of cards, arriving on the precise day they should, but they were cards that stated “Get Well Soon”, “In Deepest Sympathy”, or “Happy Easter”. This seemed further proof that my Grandmother C was either insane or an alien with no comprehension of customs on this planet.
As I look down at her now I wonder about her life. I wonder about her mind and behavior. I regret not having tried to reach her and figure out what she really knew. Although tears flow down my face they are not for the loss of this woman but for the regret of not knowing her. From the corner of my eye, as I dab the tears away with a tissue, I see the frown on Aunt Lily’s face.
She really wishes I hadn’t shown up. But I turn and reach for her hand which she grudgingly allows and tell her how sorry I am for her loss. Her current husband pats her arm and reaches out to mine to do the same, as if by his actions he’s somehow connecting us. Sorry, Uncle Jerry, she’s not ready for that yet. But I appreciate the gesture and lean forward to lightly kiss his cheek.
And then Aunt Vee is pulling me into her arms, giving me a big hug, comforting me instead the reverse. I see her glance at her twin sister as if to say, “This is how you treat your niece.” Aunt Vee never gave up on me even when it would be months between visits. She always had a ready smile and welcoming nature. I stand back searching her face and the wrinkles forming on it. She has no husband with her. Uncle Arnold moved on to a younger woman a couple of years ago after their 28 years of marriage. Her voice is as gravelly as ever from chain-smoking her Salems as she thanks me for coming. Her eyes are tired behind the tears and attempted smile. She tells me my cousin Dina is outside, “It’s been too hard on her – you should go find her. She’ll be so happy to see you.”
Aunt Dahlia is nowhere to be found, so I’ll have to catch up with her later. I wander past the remaining funeral flowers my vision still a little blurred. I turn the corner to see Cousin Dina outside having a cigarette. Suddenly, I need a cigarette myself and head toward her through the cold glass and metal doors. Dina doesn’t turn to look when I come out, so I walk up to her side to put an arm across her shaking shoulders. Dina’s always the bubbly cousin (like I’ve been in my Dad’s family) but today her usually broadly smiling face is contorted with loss. We don’t talk; we just breathe in each other’s smoke sharing that instead of how we feel. She calms a bit and manages to get out an invitation to her mom’s house after the funeral tomorrow. I tell her I’ll try to come. But her pleading eyes ensure I’ll change any plans I have and brave the family circle once more.
As I make my way out, I’m introduced to relatives I didn’t know I had and will probably not remember once I get out of the parking lot. The one exception is the little lady named Mamie. She is petite, in lavender hat and gloves that coordinate with her floral chiffon dress. She has the most beautiful white hair I’ve ever seen. She’s there to gather information on my Grandmother C’s father’s family. I just can’t turn her down when she asks how I’m related her gloved had patting the sofa beside her.
Yes, I’m related to Mabel, she was my Grandmother. Her youngest daughter was my mother. And then there it is – that pitying look that people embrace me with when they know ‘the story’. She turns back to her notebook and takes down my information. Neither of us knows quite what to exchange except my name, my address, and my relationship to the deceased…..
‘I’ll fly away, Oh Glory, I’ll fly away….” We’re standing singing together to my dead Grandmother C. I’m sure the volume is sufficient for her to make out what we’re saying from under that polished oak covered bed she’s in. I’ve made it to the funeral after all and have been ushered, surprisingly, to the family section and am seated beside Cousin Dina. She’s a bit better than yesterday but I think that’s because she’s had a little something to drink. I smell the liquor, her Chanel and my Vanderbilt…a mixture of scents that will stay with me forever.
Afterwards I follow my cousin to Aunt Vee’s house since I haven’t a clue how we got to the church. We go in through the breeze-way which has always been my favorite part of her home – tile floor with doors and windows on either side all with panes of glass that roll out to let any summer breeze that might pass flow across you. Inside people are filling their plates; smiling and laughing. It’s amazing how quickly the mood changes when you leave the somber ceremony. The smell of the food drifts toward me and I realize how hungry I am.
The table is full of casseroles, meats, potato salad, which flows over to the bar that splits the dining area and the kitchen. Beside the sink are several gallon milk jugs filled with iced tea a staple here even in October. I manage to make my way through this line a little faster than the one last night but not by much. Aunt Vee is motioning me to join her out on the porch on the other side of the house. I make my passage among the people filling the living room focused on not spilling my tea and balancing my crowded plate.
I successfully maneuver to the porch where she, my sister, my Aunt Dahlia (in from Santa Fe) and Aunt Lily are seated. Aunt Lily still doesn’t look me in the eye but I figure after a few more of her mixed drinks I’ll get some response from her. I look around the table and wonder if I really belong in this family. My gaze floats from my sister Emily, who had arrived before me, to each of our aunts and I realize how strikingly similar their complexions are; even their hair color is the same. Well, all but Aunt Dahlia who everyone knows dyes hers black. Not sure what she has against the red and auburn colors that would match hers, my sister’s and her sisters’ locks. But my complexion is not the clean, white porcelain they have and my hair color is what my mother calls ‘piss burnt brown,’ a nondescript brown with random highlights of blond. Their voices blend in the conversation of people trying to fill in years of events in a few hours.
The murmur is soothing and I try to catch up on conversations. I hear a reference to Grandpa C whom I barely remember as he had died when I was only six. My ears perk up to hear more about the patriarch of this little clan. “He didn’t believe in doctors so when your mother got strep throat it ended up in rheumatic fever before he took her to see one.” Aunt Vee continues, “That’s why her heart was weak.” Aunt Lily lets out a snort. “‘If Billy hadn’t punched her in the chest her heart would’ve been fine,” she retorts. “Are they talking about my parents?’”, I wonder silently. I look at Aunt Lily waiting for her to continue but Aunt Dahlia elbows her and she retires from the discussion.
“Your grandmother loved you girls so much,” says Dahlia. In an instant I realize this is my chance to find out exactly how she could tell. So I mention the fact that I wish we’d seen her more so she could have kept our names straight. “Oh honey, her memory was always bad – had been ever since your mother was small,” says Aunt Vee.
Apparently Grandmother C was in opposition to the standard female roles of 1942 women, especially that of continuous child bearer. She and Grandpa had 5 children – one son and 4 daughters. When my birth mother was two, Grandmother C had grown tired of having babies. So she took the only path she saw out of the dilemma. Get away from Grandpa.
She took my mother and left Trap Hill making her way to a family friend’s home in Winston-Salem. Such an action was apparently sufficient to deem her insane at that time. Grandpa tracked her down and took Leigh back to with him and then packed Grandmother C off to an asylum in Tennessee.
Her daughters at the table are smiling. Why on earth would they see humor in that? Aunt Vee sees my confusion and starts to chuckle.
“She didn’t stay there long. She escaped and had your Aunt Violet come get her somewhere along the road in the mountains. But she stayed long enough for the electroshock treatments to affect her memory the remainder of her life,” she says.
“She escaped?” I ask.
Aunt Dahlia responds, “Well of course, no one could keep that woman locked up if she didn’t want to be just like she wasn’t going to have any more babies if she didn’t want to.”
Finally, sitting there watching the faces of my aunts, I laugh, too. There we are, all of us loudly laughing until tears are streaming down our faces, I realize Grandmother C wasn’t crazy after all. Although, everyone else in the whole house now obviously thinks the lot of us are.
Author: Lea Coe
I am a visual artist and poet venturing into the creative non-fiction/memoir genres to capture a long history of strong-willed, determined female ancestors. Those characteristics aid in cultivating my ability to survive the varying weather and culture of this beautiful place I will always call home - the South. I'm as much a product of Carolina red clay as the crops carefully grown in it. To trace any of my relatives that weren't born in mountain or Piedmont counties of North Carolina and southern Virginia you have to look back to the early 1700's. I have carried on the traditions of my paternal grandmother by making my own chow-chow, apple butter, fried apple pies and canning my home-grown vegetables. Born in Winston-Salem, North Carolina to parents from Yadkin and Wilkes counties, I have lived within 30 miles of my birthplace all my life. When I was a teenage girl, springs involved picking strawberries after school and were followed by tobacco-gum-covered summers. I have just begun to document the various stories of my female relatives. This is the first of this series.