My Mother's Mother
But when I imagine my mother’s mother, all I can see is her tying an apron around her waist, and there is a dark smudge in the middle, like how some old White crowds stood watching the swinging knot around someone’s neck that my mother’s mother knew. And yet still, she soaked her hands—wrinkled and wet—the brined black leather in the blinking soapsuds, washing china, and other plates, from other places she would never go. And so what if she lumbered, and she stretched, and she cleaned, and wiped her tired brow because her shackled wrists could earn only enough change for the backseat ride on the bus back home.
And while cleaning those houses, polishing wood and dusting corners, her and the many other Black women she knew reminisced about some old promises. Someone long ago said that they’d all get a mule and forty acres. And the promise lingered—the notion that one day things would be better—that they’d finally have a leg up—start fresh, start new—endless possibilities. And this even motivated some of those women to scrub harder—dig deep into their souls, but my mother’s mother would say—you’re promised nothing but your first name. Maybe she was a pessimist—or maybe she just really considered things, like lineage. She considered how they used to be slaves, all of them, with no saving accounts, no trust funds, no land, no family money; rather, they were unshackled in 1865, and kicked in the ass—get, their masters said. And they got going, with some scraps of skin still on their backs.
Then again, that’s just one chapter in the story, one narrative that belongs to a part of her, but not all of her. And it’s important for me to tell you that her life is not to be defined by all that struggle. That there was beauty in her body and skin before it was bent and broken and blackened—that her skin was just skin before. And maybe there’s irony in all of this, thinking back on her childhood, the whole Southern home, her living life normal: breakfast at seven, lemonade, Sunday school, and the way love smelled like butter and bread around a dinner table. And I’m so ashamed by how surprised that makes me feel. How hard it is to imagine my mother’s mother first and her color second. How it’s so much quicker to assume what it meant to be her was what it meant to be Black, and nothing else—with no separation. Maybe it’s instinctual to take on her narrative and tell you those prerequisite hardships: about inequality, discrimination, and what it might have meant to be Black back then. But to be honest, I don’t know; she never told me. I just know her name, and her face, and the way she could tell me the past as if it were yesterday.
She was born in 1932. One of eight children—five brothers and three sisters. From a big family, but from a—bigger family, God’s family, my mother’s mother would say. So, when one of those sisters died as a baby, they knew it wasn’t the end; they knew God had just brought her home sooner rather than later. And they buried that little baby somewhere out on their farm, and on the third day, the sun said rise—and flowers grew from out that grave—lilies and mayapples. It was a miracle, some proclaimed, and everyone believed it. Because back then, on any given Sunday, you could see optimism alive on those mornings—alive in the sun, alive in their eyes, how it was all the same. And they hummed the old hymns together, hands held, like a ladder—strong and bound and candid while walking to church. Nothing could stop them—not rains, nor winds, or any weather, because Sunday, family, and God was rightfully theirs—if nothing else was in America.
Even though they barely owned their own name, they did own a house, somewhere in rural Coy, Alabama. And no matter how bad things were for Black people in America, my mother’s mother would say—we still had our pride. She’d say—no matter if they told us we could drink from this, but couldn’t drink from that—if we could sit there but not here—go to that school and not this one—we still had that house. She said this with pride because ownership is undefined by race—because blood and sweat, no matter if one was Black or White—it would always be the same color. And that house that her family owned, her daddy built from the ground up. It was beautiful, by any standard. For he built it with callus and hammer—with muscle and brawn—and as she said—with God in his belly, pushing his body, strengthening his heart—board by board, stretching from floor to wall to roof—an altar to his family. My mother’s mother would say that maybe some things were built better back then, things like family.
They owned that house outright, but did not own the hundred-and-sixty acres of farmland. It was leased land. And the real owners said my mother’s mother and her family could stay there as long as they wanted—forever and a day, but the land would never be theirs—for their skin would never change. They could build there, start their lives, marry, give birth, and die—but never, in any deed would it say—this land is your land. And in Coy, her family was one of the only Black families to actually own a home—to actually say that this is ours.
Some people they knew—other lots from church, side-eyed—whispered about her family going back home, to The Big House—where them White people let them stay. And even White families across the street, coming out of their church, looked with envy in their eyes, knowing they were trotting back to a little shack. But my mother’s mother and her family walked out of the church service with their heads high, in their Sunday best: elaborate prim pillbox hats, skinny ties, two-toned Oxfords, dresses like giant flowers, and their Bibles at their sides—shielding them from whatever wasn’t God’s will. And somebody, White or Black, probably said that they looked so much different than how they first arrived in the South.
The land surrounding the house was covered by hundreds of trees—thick, swollen, sturdy trees—trees that never warped under the hulking Alabama sun—trees whose boughs never broke—trees whose roots never loosened—trees, for however many years, lived in testament to never change. They were imposing, and often frightened my mother’s mother. As a child, she swore they watched her. She said there were crows in some; crows that crowded the branches and cawed viciously. And in other trees, when the wind blew, she thought she heard the willows lean in and whisper to each other, maybe saying—we’re finin’ get ya’. And how some of the biggest trees, the ones that reached the far ends of the property, stood heavy and lopsided—as if still holding the weight of something—and that those were the trees that her daddy told her about—told my mother’s mother what those trees were really for.
Davon Loeb earned an MFA in Creative Writing from Rutgers-Camden University. He is an assistant poetry editor at Connotation Press: An Online Artifact. Davon writes creative nonfiction and poetry. His work has been featured in (b)OINK Zine, Tahoma Literary Review, East Jasmine Review, Harpoon Review, Connotation Press, Portland Review, and elsewhere. Davon is a two-time Pushcart Prize nominee. Currently, he is an English teacher and his first book, The In-Betweens: A Lyrical Narrative will be forthcoming from Truth Serum Press.