Image courtesy of TGKW at flickr.com
Got up this morning with Memphis and my grandmother on my mind. Not quite sure why. Seriously contemplating a move back to Memphis. Maybe I’m just homesick. Maybe I’m still getting over my grandmother’s death. I don’t know.
But anyway, just stopped by to drop this off. It is not what was scheduled for this morning, but for some impetuous reason, I decided to go ahead and run it. I penned it last month when I was at home, but for whatever reason, didn’t post it then. I think it was because it lacked a title. Please enjoy, and don’t hesitate to tell me what you think, whether good or bad.
I have related to you how my wife and I practically eloped. [Click here for post.] But there is more to the story. For any story, there is always more.
Once we were married and the whole excitement of the moment wore off, reality finally set in. At once I realized that at some point I would have to inform my grandmother, and as grand matriarch of our family, if she didn’t approve, “‘til death do ye part” might just become a long, long time indeed. So about a month into our marriage, I took my wife home to meet my grandmother.
We flew into Memphis, Tennessee, my hometown, on a Friday, and we spent Friday evening and all day Saturday visiting a few of my old friends and old classmates and touring the city since she had never visited the city before. In reality, perhaps, I simply kept myself busy with avoiding the inevitable by doing anything of any real consequence or import. However, the moment could not be avoided, and early Sunday morning we set off on Interstate I-40 East toward Bemis.
After about a ninety minute drive—it usually only takes about an hour to drive from Memphis to Bemis, but I took my time—the roads began to become more narrow and the houses fewer and farther between, and when the low, reassuring, almost hypnotic hum of automobile tires on asphalt gave way to the disconcerting and disarming crunch of automobile tires on a gravel road, I knew we were close, and my anxiety level began to rise in direct proportion to our proximity to our final destination. And when we pulled up in front of the house, my new wife’s reaction caused my anxiety level to edge even more acutely upward.
She took one look at the house and its surroundings and frowned, and just then I think that the very first thought that happened to pop into her mind, found its way to her lips, and before she could bade it return, it found its way to her lips and out into the open.
“The way you talked about this house,” she stated, “I thought it was some huge mansion. That’s just a plain old two-story clapboard house off some old dusty, unpaved country road.”
She must have seen the hurt in my face because she attempted to take some of the sting out of her remarks.
“I’m sure on the inside it’s much bigger than it looks from the outside. That’s how it usually works.”
My mother and her two sisters met us at the door. Even before I could knock, the door swung open, and almost if by magic, there the three of them stood in the doorway, blocking our paths with their round brownness. They appeared almost comical—three rather large women, each a reasonable facsimile of the other, seemingly made up entirely of a series of perfect circles strategically placed, positioned, and interposed on each other to form a person. Just imagine three jolly African American Mrs. Clauses.
They practically overlooked me as they reached out and embraced her, enveloping her in their more than ample girth, almost smothering her in a big, crushing, three-way bear hug. Then they individually hugged her so tight that her face flushed red and her feet barely touched the floor as they passed her from round circle person to round circle person before depositing her with incredible gentleness on the opposite side of the threshold.
“You must be Max’s little wife. Come on in here girl! We just getting things ready for dinner this evening.”
They left me just standing there on the porch. And when I finally caught up with the trio, they were sitting in the den with my grandmother. My grandmother was in her usual locale, in a big, over-sized, tattered Queen Anne chair given to her by a white family she had worked for as a domestic for years. The chair was positioned so as to have access to every corner of the room. And she was holding court.
My grandmother barely looked up at me. She just gave me a cursory greeting, instructed me to take some money out of her purse, and sent me into town on some errand of some kind. Obediently, I complied.
I was at once frightened for my wife. Now, my wife is not a timid woman. She is not a dim-witted person. In fact, she is very bright, very sharp. The depth of her mental acumen is what attracted me to her in the first place.
But these four women were pros. They were privy to interrogation techniques passed down from the ancestors. I had seen them break people before. It was not a pretty sight.
But when I returned, everything seemed alright. She and my mother and my aunts bustled about in the kitchen, laughing, fussing, having a good time. They acted like four old friends who had not seen each other in a long time and were making up for lost time.
So far, so good. But I still worried. My mother and aunts talk a lot. Too much. And I wondered what they might be telling her.
I found my grandmother in the same spot, only now she was watching her favorite show, Walker, Texas Ranger. She was a big Chuck Norris fan. She retrieved her packages from me, set them aside, and ordered me to sit down.
“Max,” she said to me, “the Lord was looking out for you this time. You finally found yourself a good woman. A very good woman. This had to be the Lord because—and I don’t mean no harm, son—you ain’t got good sense when it come to women. So you treat her right. Y’all be nice to each other. And don’t ever go to bed angry.”
With that, she went back to her TV program.
For the rest of the afternoon, family showed up. Aunts. Great aunts. Uncles. Great uncles. Cousins. People I hadn’t seen in years. And I must confess, I began to get a little jealous. On those occasions when I returned home, I was usually the center of attention. But on this day, all the attention was focused on my wife.
And we all ate together. We joked together. There was no shortage of “Little Max” stories. And you have to understand. I come from a long line of story-tellers, so embellishment ran rampant, bordering on outright lies. But everyone had a good time.
Finally, the time came for us to leave. But before we could depart, my grandmother instructed an aunt to retrieve a bag from the top of her closet. And from this bag she produced one of the most beautiful, ornate quilts I had ever seen.
She said to my wife, “This, baby, is your wedding present. I didn’t know if I was going to give it to you or not because I didn’t know what kind of woman Max was bringing home. But I think Max is blessed to have you. And this family is blessed to have you as well.” The family murmured in agreement.
She handed the quilt to my wife who looked absolutely amazed. She just stood there dumbfounded for a brief second.
“This must have cost you a fortune!”
My grandmother replied, “No, baby. I made that. I sat here in my chair, and I made it with my own hands. I wouldn’t insult you by going out and buying something. Whenever I give someone a gift like that, especially when it is a gift of love meant to have as you set up your new home, I don’t buy it out no store. Store bought thangs can be pretty and all, but when you putting your house together, building your household, you can’t buy it all from the store. Those most precious thangs you have to make with your hands.”
She extended her own hands, which appeared to be swollen and knotted from arthritis.
“Look around you,” she bade us. “Most everything in this house is second hand, somebody’s cast-offs. Even the lumber my husband, Max’s granddaddy, was second hand. But those most beautiful thangs, those thangs my children and grandchildren love the most, are those thangs me and my husband made with our own hands with love. That what make a house a home.”
Later, as we sat in the car preparing to leave, four round brown circle people crowded the front window, waving frantically. My wife just sat staring at my grandmother’s home and hugging her new quilt. She buried her face in the quilt just enough to inhale its scent. She then turned to me, her face shining wet with tears that she did not bother to wipe away. She instead reached over to hug me, drying her tears on my face, which I then had to wipe away. Or were the tears mine? Nevertheless, she finally said, somewhat incredulously, “You were so right. This house is huge, absolutely huge. There is no way you could judge just how huge it is from looking at it from the road.”
She smiled, and I kissed her once more before pulling away. And I kept my eyes fast on my rearview mirror so that I could see at the vast expanse of my grandmother’s estate as I drove away and take just one final glance at the towering gleaming columns of my ancestral manse. And soon the comforting reassuring crunch of automobile tires on a gravel road gave way to the lonely hum of automobile tires on asphalt, and the houses got closer and closer together, and the road widened until finally we were back on Interstate I-40, this time headed west.