Oral History

A couple of days ago, my mom and I drove the two hours to visit my grandmother for her birthday. She lives with her cat in a little old house full of antiques. Every item has a story – the slotted spoon that her mother learned to cook with, the doll she played with as a child, chairs and sofas from antiques stores that she re-upholstered herself, 19th century editions of Grimm’s Fairy Tales that I used to curl up on her bed and read as a child, the quilt she sewed as a young woman. Photographs line the hallway, moving from sepia to black and white to color. In one, she and her sister – little girls in cotton dresses, bobby socks, and dark pin curls – stand in front of a replica tee pee in Cherokee. My grandmother wears a feather headdress and pulls back on a bow and arrow, squinting at something out of the frame. In another, her four children smile for the photographer, my mother in the middle, her dark curled ponytails the twin image of my grandmother as a little girl. At the end of the hallway, there’s pictures of me as a baby, in a ruffled white bonnet my mother wore, and as a little girl, riding my horse or smiling for school pictures. It’s the kind of house you could get lost in – and as a child, I always did. “Plunderin’,” my grandmother called it, with a smile. “Let her look, Arlene. She’s not hurtin’ nothin’.”

On our visit, my mom and I sat down on the hard, doily-covered seats in her living room, and listened to her tell stories about her childhood. Most of them were stories I’d never heard before – when I was younger, she never talked much in front of me about her childhood in Virginia, on the edge of the mountains, or the time when she was an older pregnant teenager and married to Jimmy, and lived with his parents on their farm, where his mother taught her to cook cornbread, and his little sister set her hair on fire and ran through the fields. These were stories I’d glimpsed in the photographs in the hallway, but never heard told.

Grandmother’s father was raised by his three aunts, tall, gruff women with long skirts and long braids swinging behind their backs, who spit chewing tobacco and cursed like a man. The family home was a tiny clapboard house in the Appalachian mountains, with no indoor plumbing.

“Wait a minute,” Mom interrupted. “Wasn’t your dad’s mother a Cherokee? Or his grandmother was, at least.”

“Oh no,” Grandmother said, reaching up with her bent fingers to pat her curled hair, her rings clacking together. “They were all white folks. Where did you hear that? His momma was a young thing that got pregnant out of wedlock, and died giving birth to him.”

Mom gave me a knowing look. “I wonder where all of us women got this dark hair, then.”

The first time Grandmother met her father’s aunts, she told us, she was seven years old, and her father had taken she and her mother and sister up into the mountains for a family reunion. I’ve never seen a picture of her father, but I imagine him as a little man with dark hair and skin, and lots of laugh lines around his eyes. There were tables and tables of food set out under the pine trees, Grandmother told us, so many that it looked like 10 or 12 to a child. They’d been driving for hours, Grandmother and her older sister bouncing up and down in the long backseat of the car, and Grandmother had to pee so bad she was crossing her ankles.

She tugged on her father’s sleeve, shy in front of so many strangers, and whispered, “Daddy, I have to go to the bathroom!”

Her father grinned, and flagged down one of the aunts to take her. My grandmother still remembers how shocked she was when the aunt silently led her out of the house and into the woods, when she hiked up her skirt and squatted in the fallen leaves.

“She didn’t even have anything on under her dress!” Grandmother cackled, even now, telling it.

Every time I leave my grandmother’s house, I leave with another story, and just a little more family history. She’s promised to make me, her plunderin’ granddaughter who carries her name, the executor of her estate, a job all of her children were afraid would be given to them, but that I would love. Who knows what other stories she has to tell, or that might be hidden in the corners of the cluttered little house?

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