By the time I learn about my grandfather, my relationship with my parents has so deteriorated that we haven’t spoken for nearly a month. One July morning I stumble out of bed toward the living room where I ditched my purse the night before, and squint at my beeping phone. There’s a text message from my father: “Family: Ashley’s father has taken turn for worse. Pls keep her family in yr prayers.”
I don’t like talking to my mom. Whenever we talk I wind up feeling like her spunky sidekick, or a failed version of the person she wanted me to be. But I know today is not a day to maintain the distance I’ve put between us. If I don’t call my mother, I will probably regret it. I scroll through my contact list for her cell number. She answers, we speak briefly, and then stunned and silent, I sit on the couch, bathed in morning sun.
Her father is dying: Will Roy Smith, a man I can’t remember, whom I wouldn’t recognize if I saw on the street. On the phone Mom called him my grandfather; but grandfathers are men you see at holidays who carry hard candy in their pockets, who are looking for reasons to give you money. Will Roy Smith is not these things. He is a name only. Now that he’s dying, I feel confusion and deep curiosity. What part did this old man play in making my mother the woman that she is today? Was he kind to her or cruel? Is my relationship with Mom anything like his was with her?
One at a time questions step from behind the couch. They sit on their haunches, tails curling around their leathery bodies. We consider each other as if for the first time. One question cocks its head at me expectantly and a spiny membrane around its head pricks up. From down the hall, I hear my husband’s clock radio going off, and in the kitchen, the alarm on the coffee pot beeps, signaling the pot is ready. The day is starting and I don’t have time to sit around playing with questions. But as I pry myself off the couch they follow me, their tails swiping the dusty hardwood floor.
Growing up, I never got a lot of information from my mom about her family. I always wanted to know more: about small-town life; how she handled having so many siblings; what her mother was like, and her father, this Will Roy, with a name that rolled around in my mouth like a grape. But as far as Mom was concerned, Will Roy was just another black man who wasn’t around for his family, and when she moved onward and upward he faded into the sepia-colored past. So, I went to his wife looking for good dish.
“He promised me the moon, and all I got was a plate full of shit.” This is what my grandmother, Annette, said about Will Roy years ago when I went for a visit just before the holidays. She took me for a drive through Danville, Illinois, the depressed hamlet where she raised seven children. Out the passenger window of her car, an old-model Cadillac befitting her old black lady status, there were four-room cottages squatting on cinder blocks among autumn orange and yellow trees; empty lots and abandoned buildings, smokestacks and rail yards; black people with angry, sullen eyes. As we drove, I asked my grandmother how Annette Alexander became Mrs. Will Roy Smith. She said little about their courtship or marriage and so, in the quiet of the car ride, I imagined their story.
Will Roy breezed into her life handsome, confident, and full of false promises. He was 26. She was 14. I’ve never seen any photos of my grandmother as a young woman, but I imagine she developed early, like many women in our family, and looked ripe and mature. He wandered into her corner of Mississippi, and she thought he was a stone fox: skin the color of onyx, a fine little goatee, and tight brown slacks. When he opened up his handsome, full lips and told her she was pretty, she was bewitched. For what dirt-poor, brown girl, the offspring of sharecroppers without a high school education, hell, what girl of any shade or sort wouldn’t want to be told she’s pretty? It makes you feel good to be told you’re pretty. For that good feeling, Annette would have followed him to the ends of the earth: to the ends of the earth, or to Danville, whichever came first. Her first child, Eddie Smith, was born in 1954, and my mother came a year later. Together they had seven children: Pookie (Eddie); Bea (Ashley, thanks to a name change when she married my father: don’t ask what Bea is short for because she won’t tell you); Annie (Nancy); Penny (Glenda); Teddy (Edward); Kimmy (Patricia, born with a heart condition, died in her late twenties); and Derrick. Will Roy worked at the GM plant and moonlighted as a cab driver. Grandma said that he wasn’t around much for his family, that she did all the hard work raising their children, and Will Roy didn’t do much of anything in their regard. She was lucky if he brought his paycheck home. At some point he walked out of their house and never came back.
I wonder how Will Roy would defend his role in their failed marriage. He might say that he knows he didn’t treat his wife right, that innocuous phrase that covers a multitude of sins. Maybe he’d say that if she hadn’t been such a spoiled little brat she’d have been happy with their lives. She was lucky to have married a man who earned what he did, who provided for his children the way he did. I don’t know much about how he treated his wife or his children. I don’t know if he’s thoughtful or remorseful. I only know that he abandoned his family and he beat his wife.
Mom told me about his abuse one afternoon in her drive-by fashion, a kind of half-telling that exists in my memory like a dream. We were sitting at our round kitchen table some Sunday afternoon while my father was at work. I was 16, and we’d been talking about boys and dating. Not to be outdone by her daughter, Ashley talked about men she’d known in high school, college, which spun into a lesson of how men should or shouldn’t treat you. “My father used to hit Mom,” she’d said. Her chin rested in her hand, her eyes were open with frankness and she stared at a spot on the table near my right elbow. “She hit him back, too.”
I imagined my grandmother forty pounds lighter, thirty years younger, squaring off against a man who almost certainly had a height and weight advantage on her. I imagined her falling down under his fist. I imagined her wielding a skillet or a clothes iron as a weapon. I imagined her with a split lip and a black eye.
“Did he ever hit you?” I asked my mother. I sat back in my chair and put my hands in my lap, one thumb squeezing the other. I was witnessing something rare and if I made any sudden moves, the spell that had lifted my mother’s veil and made her so forthright would shatter.
“He touched me once.”
“What do you mean?”
“It was in high school and I’d just graduated, and he—rubbed up against me.”
“How? What did he do?”
“Oh, you know. He said, ‘Look atcha, you’re quite a woman now,’ and he”—here she grabbed my arm with one hand and with the other she began to rub her hand across my chest like she was scrubbing something off it.
“Mother!” I shrieked, and pulled my body back.
“I was just tryin’ to show you. Like this.” Then she mimicked the gesture on her body, her face screwing up into a tight knot of dark wood.
“Did you ever tell anybody?”
But she never answered this question. Her gaze fell on me, as if for the first time she’d seen me in the room with her. “Oh, I don’t know. How did we even get on this subject?” With a shake of her head, she pushed herself up from the table and shuffled off down the hall to her bedroom.
For as long as I could remember my mother had poured a fear of men into me. Some violent masculine specter had always haunted her and I’d never known who he was. But this was him: the square-knuckled, foul-mouthed monster that had been troubling my mother her whole life was her father, the first man she’d ever known. I wanted to howl. Why hadn’t she told me about her father? I wanted her to share the truth with me, so that we might both acknowledge where we come from and try to heal.
This kind of honesty was impossible for my mother. She worked so hard to hide that part of herself; she couldn’t acknowledge that the self-possessed, capable, socially adjusted person she seems to be and the weak, frightened, furious victim that she used to be were the same person.
Now her father—the abuser who’d plagued her all her life—was dying.
About a week after I get the text message from my dad, a voicemail from my mother says my grandfather has died in his sleep. His death fills my apartment with questions. They are everywhere: their toothy faces peeking out of kitchen cabinets, crawling under the coffee table, on a shelf in my closet chewing a hole in my favorite sweater. I fear I will never know the answers: what was the exact nature of his relationship with my grandmother; why did he abandon his kids; what did he do with the rest of his life, and did he ever regret the choices he made, or was he living in denial up to the end. It’s possible that I might be able to learn more from my relatives, but that’s hard to believe. He’s dead now. People don’t like to look back at a man’s life and remember him as stingy, rude, violent, incestuous, or neglectful. They’d rather remember his laugh, his charisma: they’d rather tell themselves stories that make them feel nostalgia, even if it’s artificial.
Rather than flying to Hazlehurst, Mississippi, to stand beside my estranged mother and grieve a stranger, I drive south from Chicago to Danville. Annie, my mother’s sister, has also organized a memorial for Will Roy Smith, the patriarch, and I’d sooner go through the motions here than there. I’ve driven to Danville many times, but today I make a wrong turn and wind up lost in a maze of cornfields where roads have names like 850 E and 1600 N. I blame the questions. They’ve been following me everywhere since I found out Will Roy was sick, and the car is full of them, with their scaly skin and sharp tails. The first couple hours, they were good company; they slept in the sunshine or played with the contents of the backseat, and when I turned the radio up, they’d sing along—Michael Jackson, Adele, Earth Wind & Fire—until the car was full of joyful, sulfuric howling. But somewhere between Champaign and Danville the questions got mad, flapping short, translucent wings, snapping at each other, tangling their talons in my hair, grabbing at the steering wheel. They want my attention. By the time I get to the church, the service is a half-hour underway. I slam the car door in the face of questions that want to come in with me. I told them I’m not going to this service looking for answers, but they know better. They know that their urgency is my urgency. Sweaty and distracted, I sneak in and perch on the very last pew.
The church is nearly empty: a 20-foot aisle flanked on both sides by red-upholstered pews, and only one quarter of them is full. In front of me I recognize my family: Uncle Teddy, in front, in a short box-top fade and a dark suit; Aunt Annie and her husband, David; in the row behind them are her children: the men thick-necked and broad shouldered, the women, narrow, almost bony in comparison. A few rows back sits my grandmother—stony with composure in an irreverent powder-blue suit. Everyone is collected in a little knot of suit coats and waving hand fans that read OBAMA! in blue-and-white letters. At the altar rest a small wreath of flowers and picture of Will Roy Smith. A paper appears at my left shoulder. An usher, an older black woman in a red blazer and black skirt, hands me a program with a photo on the front that matches the one on the altar.
“I look like my father,” my mother used to say, notes of sadness in her voice. I look at the paper in my hand with her father’s picture on the front, and I see that she’s right. She has her father’s broad, flat nose, and high cheekbones with flawless, mahogany skin stretched over them. She has his eyes, brown and deep-set. A lily of recognition blooms in my chest: this picture hung on my parents’ wall in the house where I grew up. Will Roy feels a little less like a stranger.
On the fringes of the sanctuary, and even in the choir stand, there are the church ladies: here to grieve the deceased, whether they knew him or not. They sway heavily in time to the organ music, moaning harmonies and singing along with the choir; when the pastor, a bent brown man with glasses and a balding head, stands up in the pulpit and starts to preach, they parrot back his words like so many Echoes listening with sacred rapture to Narcissus. Whom the Son has set free, (“set free”, “set free”) he is free indeed. (“indeed”, “indeed”)
The pastor is true to form. He begins talking about Brother Will Roy Smith and before you can say “greatly missed”, he’s slamming a fist on the pulpit, shouting, “I don’t care what they say about the church, you need to stay in it!” and “If you want things to start workin’ for you, love God!” Not a black preacher anywhere can preach a funeral without soliciting some lost soul, Come to Jesus. I expected it, but still, I’m disappointed; I was hoping for truth, not cliché.
There’s a rustling beside me. I look down and a question pops her head and forepaws out through the open zipper of my purse. I reach my left hand down to her and help her out of the bag, and she crawls into my lap. It’s quiet, except for the loud voice of the pastor and the chorus of church ladies. The question is still beneath my hands, but I can feel her panting breath and her fluttering heartbeat. She smells like smoke. We listen to the old man preach and we consider the backs of my family: my cousin George, who remembers Will Roy and called him Grandpa; and Will Roy’s kids, Annie, Teddy, and Derrick, his youngest son, who’d come in even later than I had, untucked and disheveled, with a white woman I don’t recognize with stringy hair and blue eyeliner. Are they comforted by all this to-do? Are they going through the motions, or are they grieving? Are they trying to reconcile the version of Will Roy Smith that they’ve sold to the world, with the actual husband and father he was? I’ve come here to learn something, anything, about the man who was Will Roy Smith. I know that the questions will not be satisfied, that I’m leaving empty-handed. But his own kids: what are their questions? What burdens have they brought to lie at the feet of their father? What do they do with their burdens now that he’s is dead?
The preacher makes an altar call, staring out over our meager gathering of mourners. No one in the congregation moves. The choir rises to sing. The organist bangs out churning, slow chords, and the handful of singers in the choir opens with a chorus.
The question in my lap yawns, her pink forked tongue curling out of her mouth. In her boredom she crawls up over my shoulder and winds herself up on top of my head like a large funeral hat. I sit very still, my mouth sewn shut. I know if I move, the question will fall out into the open, relentless to be answered, and it’ll just cause trouble.
The preacher prays a final prayer, and then it’s over. Our family members greet each other, chatting in that strange mix of “Hey it’s great to see you” and “Such a sad occasion.” We amble out to the parking lot and stand around in the onerous July sun, we snap a few pictures, and then climb in our cars and disperse. In a few minutes, the building is silent and the steaming, blacktopped parking lot, deserted. It’s as if the service never happened. Some of us drive to the Old Country Buffet to lunch on barbecue and macaroni and greens the color of wet earth. Some of us pull out smart phones while we’re driving and check our email. Having finished with the sad but tidy business of observing the death of Will Roy Smith, each of us is left with the residue of loss: the sadness, the loneliness, the unanswered questions.
I’m driving home, hunched over the steering wheel. The CD of my grandfather’s gospel band—a funereal party favor given to me by a cousin—is in my purse in the passenger seat; I think I can hear it ticking. A dark, insidious idea begins to take shape inside me.
Maybe my grandfather was a liar, a wife-beater, a drunk, an abuser, but no one will say so for certain. Maybe this is why his kids scattered to the four winds and refused to help my mother pay for his funeral. My mom chose to take care of her father, who, even in his age and infirmity, continued to call her names and tell her she was fat. But maybe she’s never gotten over his cruelty. Maybe she convinced herself that the spot the doctors found on his lung was just a spot, a smudge, a trick of the light. She left him in that nursing home in Hazlehurst because that’s where his people were, and the home seemed decent enough. It was better that he stay in Mississippi than that he move to Cincinnati. He’d want to move in with her and her husband. She’d have to deal with him all the time—and he’d piss and moan about how he missed his brothers and sisters and their kids. Better he should stay there, far away; he’d be happier there.
Maybe all this geographic distance and willful ignorance was a kind of payback for the absolute shit of a human being my grandfather had been to his family. My mother hadn’t really made the peace she claimed was hers, and when the tables were turned and he needed her, she was in the position of control, and she used it to her advantage. His painful, cancerous death was her punishment for what he did to her.
The sky outside the car window is not dark, but it should be. I wipe a hand down my tired face and swallow back the bile this thought provokes. To think of my mother this way is sinister, ghoulish even. But everyone is capable of vengeance; isn’t she? If that’s who she is to him, then who is she to me? Is she a selfish, narcissistic monster who consumes everyone around her? Or is she a victim who never learned how to break the cycle of abuse, and has been doomed to repeat it? How do I escape the cycle? The questions are troubled: they can feel my fear, my disgust. I grip the steering wheel tightly, as around me they thrash in the small space of my car, throwing themselves against the doors and windows. It’s all I can do to keep the car on the road.
The next morning at home, I pull the CD out of its sleeve and click it into my laptop. As if summoned with a bell, questions bound from all corners of the apartment. They arrange themselves in a perfect half-moon around my desk. Since their fit on the way home from the funeral, they have grown quiet, obedient, expectant. They are hoping that there is something on this CD that will satisfy me, help me sleep at night, help me feel compassion for the way my mother treats me. There is a small mechanical whirring from my computer and a window opens up on my screen. Unknown CD, it says. I click Play and a rhythmic guitar strumming pours out of the small speakers. A voice sings: uncomplicated, sweet, melodious without trying too hard. Beneath it there are several male voices, backing up, echoing choruses and phrases in simple harmony. It sounds familiar, easy to listen to, like Sam Cooke and Nat Cole.
One of these voices is my grandfather. The obituary said he sang bass, but between the quality of the CD and my untrained year, I have trouble picking out which part is the lowest voice. I look down at the questions. Their heads are hanging, and a few blow smoke rings of irritated resignation. Between the notes, between the voices, I can’t hear any answers. I can’t reconcile this sweet sound with the man who promised the moon and delivered a plate of shit. This is my ancestor: I hold 25% of his genetic makeup in my body, and I don’t know how he connects to me; I don’t know how to make some element of this sweet sound equal the source of so much pain and confusion in my mother’s life, and I don’t know what damage she reenacted in our relationship. The CD plays music and nothing else.
I click Stop, eject the CD and hope that I will understand it better by and by.
Jessica Young has degrees from Northwestern University and Columbia College Chicago. She's been published in Warpland, Hair Trigger 29 and 30. Her writing has won awards from the Luminarts Cultural Foundation and the Columbia University Scholastic Press Association. She's performed at the Mixed Roots Literary and Film Festival in Los Angeles, and was recently a contributing blogger for WBEZ's summer radio series, "Race Out Loud." Jessica works with The Urbaness, a premiere lifestyle guide for Chicago women, and Ms.Fit, an unapologetically feminist, queer friendly women's health and fitness magazine. She's also a company member with Chicago's live storytelling theatre company, 2nd Story.