Children who are lost or abandoned need to find an identity to hold onto. This excerpt from my memoir shows how a story teller and history keeper, my great-grandmother Blanche, seeded a way for me to have a "me."
On that first day I meet 80-year-old Blanche in Iowa, at her daughter's mink farm near the Mississippi River, she leads me to the garden. She bends over, bowed like a water witch's wand, skirts gathering around her ankles, exposing cotton hose rolled under her knees in the back. She gnashes her teeth and yanks, muttering about the weeds. Glossy leaves the size of small umbrellas spread across the sandy earth.
"See this sand -- it's part of the Island, and it's why we have the best melons in the world. The Island used to be cut off from the rest of the area by the old slough and the river."
Blanche is so old that she knows everything. The heat of the June day rises up from the land. Everything smells like fresh air and earth, black and loamy. The strawberries are ripe, like red buttons beneath green leaves. Blanche snaps off a strawberry and bites into it. Juice runs down her chin. Her deep-set eyes gaze at me from behind gold-rimmed spectacles.
"Mmm," she mutters, gesturing for me to pick one for myself. Everything is too raw and close to the earth. I am awe-stricken and a little scared. Bugs and dirt are everywhere, flies are buzzing, ants crawling. Gnats fly into my mouth and stick in the corners of my eyes. Blanche tells me to go ahead and pick a strawberry, and I pluck one with a satisfying snap. Her daughter, my grandmother, and the woman who's raising me, would discourage me from eating something without washing it, afraid I would die young in her care and she'd be blamed for it, but Blanche is a pioneer woman and she tells me to eat it.
"Come on, bite down hard."
"But it's dirty."
"Come on. Try it. It's good for ya. Nothin' like the fruit of the earth."
I stare at the dirt in the crevices of the strawberry, still worried.
"You got to eat a peck o' dirt afore you die."
She smears juice across her chin with her sleeve. Finally, I bite down on the strawberry and it bursts in my mouth. I choke, surprised, my senses flooded with the sweet strawberry juice, the sun beating down, the smell of earth. Blanche's eyes laugh behind her glasses.
"Good, ain't it?" She turns around to hoe savagely at the weeds trying to take over her vegetables. It doesn't matter that this is her daughter Edith's garden. Everyone shares in the work. I grab a hoe and copy her ways.
"See that you get that weed out, root and all. Pull 'em all the way out or they'll take over. Just like some people I know." She chuckles deep in her throat.
"Now never you mind. It's a sin to gossip."
I want to know more about everything. "Did you have a mother?"
"Land sakes, girl, 'course I did. That's how we come into this world. My mother was Josephine, and she was born on the Island just like the rest of us."
"My mama's named Josephine." The name Josephine gives me the tingles.
"Your mama was named after my mama." She wipes the sweat from her face with a handkerchief. Her bony, crooked fingers with black dirt under nails are thick like a man's, her forearms tanned and wrinkly. Everything about Blanche is interesting, as if she's the only remaining exhibit of an extinct species.
"Tell me about your mama."
"Oh, there's not much to tell. Hard-workin' woman. Delivered babies for half the county. Best blackberry jam in the world." She pauses, leaning on her hoe. "Life was different then."
She turns to me, her eyebrows fierce and thick. "You got no idea, young lady. People's lazy now, think the world owes 'em a livin'. Times was hard. But no matter what, we always had enough to eat. Yes sirree, we always had food on the table. My papa would give his right arm to help a neighbor."
"Where is your mama now?"
Blanche glances at me sharply. She doesn't answer right away. Hardens her jaw and clamps her teeth against her lower lip. "She died near to when you was born." Blanche stands up and rubs her lower back. "Everyone loved my mama."
"Did my mama know your mama?"
She grunts as she hoes a patch of weeds that have gained ground. "Oh Lord, yes. When your mama was a little girl, she lived with my mama for a while in Muscatine. Your mama, Jo'tine -- that's what we called her -- would come to see me at the farm where the rest of the kids was growin' up. Such a pretty little girl she was, with those big, brown eyes. Poor little thing."
I wonder what she means. "She don't do right by you, I tell ya. At least Lula has the sense to take care 'a you. But this business 'tween Lula and Josephine... well, you're too young to understand. I don't know about those two." She stomps on a beetle that had been working its way toward a tomato plant. "Got to get them before they get you," she says, winking at me and wiping her brow with a handkerchief.
I try to imagine all these mothers. Our history, my history, reaches so far back. Blanche, Gram -- whom they call Lula, Mother, and me -- we all come from here. I feel small and young. I look up at her, the mother of the mother of the mother. She knows everything. I decide to stick to her to find out things. When we go into the house, the dirt caked under my fingernails seems like a badge of honor.
After dinner, the family gathers outside in chairs under the elm trees, murmuring in the darkness about family, the weather, the cost of food and how much better things used to be. Fireflies hover, giving off pieces of light in the velvet night. Gram seems different here. She's not the same as the Frances who lives in Enid. She is her plain self, yet different from everyone else with her fake accent and haughty ways. But this is family, and she is Blanche's daughter and Edith's sister.
When all the clocks chime eleven, everyone yawns and tramps into the house.
I find out I get to sleep with Blanche upstairs. It's special, getting to sleep with her. She gives me a nod -- smiles don't rest easily on her thin lips. Clump, clump, go Blanche's black shoes with their thick heels up the wooden stairs to the bedroom. The fluffy, high bed seems to rise halfway to the ceiling. The air is thick with heat and the smell of the past. Faded dresses hang on hangers, rifles lean against the flowered wallpaper. Blanche peels away her clothes, her ample flesh rippling and swinging.
I turn away, blushing. Seeing all that flesh is not something I'm used to, but she doesn't seem to mind. She turns her body as she pulls on the white cotton nightgown. Blanche's feet have yellowed toenails, and her skin is puckered with thick blue veins.
When she's got her nightgown on she turns to me. "You gonna sleep standin' up?" she asks, pulling back the chenille bedspread.
"The bed is so high." It reaches to the top of my shoulders.
"It's a feather bed."
"Feathers? What kind of feathers?"
"Duck, goose. Nothin' like a feather bed. Been sleepin' in 'em all my life." She pounds the thick mattress with her fist.
"Feathers?" My finger pokes at the softness of the bed.
She's in bed, her nose pointed at the ceiling. I pause, not wanting to get undressed in front of her. "Well, gonna sleep in your clothes?"
"Can I turn off the light?" I mutter, shyly.
"Wiped a lot of baby's butts in my life. Skin don't mean nothin' to me."
I snap off the light. Her casual attitude about bodies amazes me. I slip on my summer nightie, and clamber over her bony shins to tuck myself along the wall. The idea of sleeping with Blanche seemed wonderful at first, but now this large ship of a woman -- her hips curving high, her bony shoulders sticking up, her 80-year-old smells -- seems too real.
Then the cadence of her voice lulls me as she tells stories that will stay imbedded in me for the whole of my life. She tells stories about life on the farm -- getting up in the morning before dawn, slopping the pigs, milking the cows; how the men had their chores, and the women had theirs. She baked bread every week, gathered firewood and cooked three meals a day for a family of eight. In the summers she fed ten hired men, and tended a huge garden. In August, she canned the vegetables and fruit to put in the cellar for winter.
She always did the washing on Mondays. "The big black iron kettle sat in the front yard. We fired up the wood, got it to boilin' and threw in them clothes, stirred the boiling pot with the washin' stick. We used lye soap I made myself, and the washboard to get everythin' clean. No self-respectin' person puts a wash on the line for the neighbors to see that's not clean. After the washin' -- then the rinch water." (She says it that way: "rinch.")
"Before them new-fangled washin' machines, we wrung the clothes out and pinned them on the clothesline. Did the wash for eight workin' men and six kids. You don't know dirt until you live on a farm. It took all day. God help ya if it rained." She shakes her head, her gray curls rasping against the pillowcase. I can see it -- Blanche in the yard, children scampering. Dirt and dust, pigs and cows. Pillows of fresh-baked bread with churned butter. I want to be there, too.
"Did Gram live there then?"
"Lula? Gosh sakes no. That girl -- always one for gallivantin'. A lot of the time she lived with Josephine, my mother, in town, went to high school there 'cause the country school only went to eighth grade. Things was far away then. You walked or rode your horse, or you didn't go. We was poor people, lived seven miles from town on the Island. I drove the wagon into Muscatine to deliver milk and eggs to the rich folks." Blanche takes a deep breath.
"That Lula always was so different. A dreamer. She had a different papa, Lewis. After he died, I married Mr. Thompson and had your great-aunts and uncles." Blanche pauses for a long time. I wonder if she's gone to sleep.
Soon ,she begins again in a changed voice, picking up speed. "You know, life is full of sorrow. I'll never figure out some things, no matter how hard I try." She sighs. "I delivered the neighbors' babies. Never fergit the night one died. Two days of labor. Nowadays, that baby would have lived. But there's no way to outsmart God."
"Why did Lewis die?"
"He breathed his last right 'side me. One day he was fine. The next, dead of 24-hour pneumonia. Seems like yesterday. Can't believe I'm 80. Life goes so fast. Don't you fergit that. Don't you miss a minute."
"He was Gram's daddy?" I feel sorry for Gram. I know what it's like to miss your daddy.
Blanche turns over onto her back. "Lewis was only 22. I can't never fergit it, no matter how much time is passed. Too much dyin'. Always too much dyin'." She sighs and turns her head in my direction. "You're too young to understand."
Her breathing keeps me awake. I'm more awake now than ever before in my whole life, cast back in time, into the nineteenth century. Looming large in my mind is Lewis, who died so young and left my grandmother without a father.
I picture Blanche back then, old, the way she is now, but then I realize that she was young then, at the beginning of her life. By now she is marked so much by time, she is different for having lived it. The history she just told me happened sixty years ago, so far back I can't grasp it, but it pulls at me.
The headlights from the highway make light and dark patterns across the ceiling. Blanche's great white form snores beside me. I am catapulted beyond my child self and perceptions. The past seems to expand and loosen up, trailing behind me, enticing me to follow its threads and find out more about these people and this place, the bones and the land that I'm descended from.
This is an excerpt from Don't Call Me Mother -- A Daughter's Journey from Abandonment to Forgiveness