As a child I would spend a week of every year with my grandparents in the rural piney woods of central Louisiana. They lived in a Jim Walter home that my “real” grandfather built (he died when my father was seven years old). There was a neat chain-link fence around the yard, with a sidewalk patched together that swung around to the back of the house where my grandmother kept her chickens. I had mixed feelings about these summer visits, mostly because there were no other children around. However, the solitary experience perhaps made it all the more poignant.
I was ten when my grandfather died from esophageal cancer, and that summer visit prior to his death remains most etched in my young memory. I loved to help my grandmother clean the book shelves that were closest to his recliner. He kept his pipe and tobacco there, as well, and I loved the spicy scent. In my young way, I understood he was dying. I could see that he was wasting despite my grandmother’s attempts to cook meals that would entice his appetite. In the evenings we would sit together and enjoy ice milk. His digestive system reduced by the surgery could no longer accommodate rich dairy. After his passing, I still associate the smell of pipe tobacco and ice milk with his presence in my grandmother’s home.
After he passed, my grandmother became more talkative on my visits in the summer. We would sit up late into the night while she worked word-find puzzles and I quizzed her with questions about my family. On the wall above my grandmother’s rocking chair were pictures of her parents, my brother and I, my uncles, aunt, and cousins. After my grandfather passed, she brought out a new family picture of herself with my “real” grandfather and their first child who had passed at the age of five from cancer. Of course, this new photo elicited many questions.
During these evening visits, my grandmother shared with me my family’s story of love, suffering, and loss. As time passed and I matured, my grandmother shared more emotional details of her history. She told me how she eloped with my grandfather at the age of eighteen, and they wed in Virginia by “jumping the rail.” Truly for my devoutly Pentecostal grandmother, this was racy behavior! The happiness of new love was soon turned to sadness when she found a tumor in her toddler’s abdomen. Helplessly, she watched him suffer and die from cancer. I will never forget her terrible emotional pain when she told me, “I wanted to take his pain away. I prayed every day that I could lay in his place and bear his suffering.” She lived with her child’s looming death for three years, and confessed to me that she never wanted to have more children after the loss. Despite her misgivings, she went on to have two more sons, and then her husband tragically died from a heart attack at the age of thirty-seven. Her stories remain with me and remind me of the resiliency of the human spirit.
Many years have lapsed since her passing. A cousin shared this photo of my young grandparents just after the birth of their first child. I delighted in seeing the joy in my young grandmother’s face. Just like my grandmother’s smile in this photo memories of my grandparents surface magically and at unexpected moments.
I carry around these stories and memories granted me by my grandmother just as Fleur Pillager in Louise Erdrich’s Four Souls carries with her the bones of her ancestors. The reader may speculate that Fleur’s power necessitates her proximity to her ancestors’ bones. My grandmother’s stories fleshed out the man who was my grandfather, and her remarriage gave me a living surrogate.
Linda Hogan shares in her memoir, The Woman Who Watches Over the World: “For myself, being one of those people who survived, my tribal identity has always been chasing after me, to keep its claims on my body and heart. I can’t escape and be whole and real. As if I am the lung and it is the air breathing me in and out like waves of the ocean, rhythms and cycles of wind. It is the blood; I’m just the container. It is the ocean. It carries me and I float. It is something Native people can never explain to those who don’t know it, and I have given up trying to do so.” Hogan shares how inseparable she is from her tribal identity. She describes a visceral connection to her ancestry. For Hogan, her blood becomes surrogate for the bones of her ancestors, and she is carrying them with her/ in her.
My grandmothers’ stories contained the bones of my ancestors and her sacred telling acted ceremonially as a handing-off of those bones. As I cherish these memories, I venerate my ancestors, remembering their joys, loves, sufferings, and losses.