Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Why hast thou forsaken me?

One day, if I ever become a great writer, I’m going to write a short story about my grandmother. This story, genius though I am not, will aim at reading somewhat like Absalom, Absalom!, in that it will be made up of listening to the same story told at different times and unfolding in such a way as to make the actual facts unclear (and, truth be told, irrelevant).

Were I a genius, these stories would fill the air of my grandparents’ living room like the smell of stale tobacco and cat urine that a child’s brain could not isolate as a doctor isolates a disease but rather enters into unquestioningly every Christmas knowing that unlimited television privileges and brightly-wrapped cheap cardboard boxes await inside. My grandmother’s voice would reign in the dingy air of the dark family room like the royalty she knew she was by the proud merit of her suffering, of the mistreatment of her parents and the humiliation of their reputation that made her almost as low as the colored people, of the doctor who eloped with her on a cruise but was too much a coward to stand up for her before his mother’s demands for annulment of the marriage he would never know was already incarnating itself in her first daughter, of the navy men who pledged their troth to the belle with the babe until an explosion years after the War took her second husband who left her with her second child whom her second mother-in-law would likewise wish away as a monster under a child’s bed whose existence is dependent upon acknowledgement, of the last navy husband who drove her daughter away but gave two more in return along with bruises and a lost fortune and social humiliation by his drunken antics. My grandfather might enter and make a fondly sarcastic comment as he placed his weathered hand on hers to be harshly shooed away as a housefly my grandmother could never hurt no matter how horrifically repulsive, and would inhale another pack of Camels into his puttering lungs as she continued on with her recommendations to the world to sterilize all the poor people in Africa who couldn’t support the multitude they were breeding under the scorching sun of a god who had his chance and abandoned her like another ill-fated husband.

I am not Faulkner, so I don’t know if I’ll be able to weave those stories quite so seamlessly into the ones that follow as he would have. Perhaps if I could, it would not be true to life, because the old stories didn’t evolve as I grew up; they never existed. Instead, there would be stories of the man whose love for her could outlive her other marriages and his own engagement and survive long enough to give her some gold on their 50th wedding anniversary right before his faithful heart quietly stopped one afternoon as his spirit rose to be with the God whom she had always known would never let her down. Gramma does not learn from the past; she rewrites it.

“And what do you think of our new president?” the old Southern woman would ask me this Christmas, not as a question that suggested a response but more as a statement of intention to announce where the conversation was heading.

I might say something meaningless like “He seems like a decent fellow” that might as well be nothing more than a nod or a “Yessum” that allows her to continue.

“See, Sweetie,” she would chide me as if it were a point she had been trying to teach for years, “not all colored people are bad.”

And I would listen with mixed emotions, emotions that would never have the consolation that the Halleluiah-praise-Jesus-I’ve-been-delivered! of my grandfather provides its family but must instead stand amazed that a woman’s spirit could be large enough to encompass these two separate worlds, one in which colored people need separate bathrooms because they are naturally dirtier and another in which the first African American president is the best thing that happened to the country since Roosevelt himself, one in which she is married to a monster and another in which she is married to a prince, one in which she cries with the psalmist “My God my God why hast thou forsaken me?” and another in which she declares with the same psalmist “I have been young, and now am old; yet have I not seen the righteous forsaken.”

Just like in Faulkner’s novels, I am not sure what the actual story of my grandmother’s life had been. But unlike Faulkner’s novels, I am sure it is redemptive, if only because the flavor of the past she writes has sweetened over the years, because the world she can hardly see anymore through her failing vision is so much more beautiful than the one she saw when her eyes were younger. The redemption that for my grandfather was a matter of the will as he put the bottle away and praised the God who delivered him is for my grandmother no less a matter of the will as she changes the past in the world she can no longer see. Or maybe in neither case it is a matter of the will at all.

Anyway, if David doesn’t have a problem declaring that he has never seen the righteous forsaken as he himself had cried out in anguish that God had done to him years before, I suppose my grandmother is in good company. That is enough for me.


Wonders for Oyarsa said...

Wow, Em. You're a good listener.

Anonymous said...

I can't wait to read the book!