In January, as he walked through the crowded streets of…
Most summer Saturday nights of my childhood, I snuggled in the crook of Granny Gracie’s bare legs, just the two of us watching The Golden Girls on the big box TV in her living room, taking lessons from Blanche Devereaux. When Blanche mentioned being as jumpy as a virgin at a prison rodeo, I said, “Granny, what’s a virgin?” She said, “Well, you know honey, that’s when a woman hasn’t slept with a man.”
Granny was an expert in courting, only forty-six when I was born and still hot to trot. She wore satin nightgowns on humid summer nights and red, fuzzy onesie pajamas on nights after the frost arrived in Kentucky. The rest of her was always the same, no matter the season: red toenails and pink fingernails, with a hunk of Super Glue under at least one nail that she’d broken while doing the housework. My northerner mother was first shocked and then amused when she learned Granny’s secret for keeping her long nails; she used to hold up Granny’s hands and peer underneath her nails every time we visited, just to check for the Super Glue. Granny never disappointed. Every Friday morning, she got her short hair curled and hairsprayed at the beauty shop in Berea, and the rest of the week she slept on a satin pillowcase to keep her hair in shape. She never washed it herself if she could help it. In the morning, she’d pick out the flattened hair in the back and hairspray it again. I must’ve watched her do this hundreds of times. My father always said Granny’s hair looked like a bird’s nest, but she never had any trouble finding a man. Granny was kind of glamorous.
Though we lived an hour away in Frankfort, the Kentucky state capital where my father was a cop, my parents took me to Granny’s house nearly every weekend of my childhood. I spent many hours in the backseat of our car with a coloring book or a chapter book as my father took Versailles Road out to the interstate, east on I-64 and south along I-75, passing hills and horse farms and barns, over the Kentucky River to the Clays Ferry truck stop, the halfway point where Granny waited for us in her Toyota station wagon we called the “yellow banana.” The world was so large then, a mystery, full of big bridges and tall semis and young Granny in her slim jeans and spaghetti-strap tops.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve started to think about Granny more, letting her story sharpen and come into focus as if through a camera lens. When Granny was a young woman, she lived down by the railroad tracks in a leaning two-story white house on Maple Street, with low ceilings and uneven, red-carpeted floors. Granny says she got the carpet in a bargain bin; the whole house consisted of things nobody else wanted. She had four kids with a husband who ran away to Florida with another woman and then drank himself to death at forty—a decade before I was born. Granny never had anything nice to say about him, so she often said nothing at all. But her kids say he only came home long enough to knock her up or knock her around for being mouthy. On her own, Granny had no car and she worked in a factory making gauges—but she never called it a factory. She always talked about working at Dresser or “down at the plant,” so I never imagined her on an assembly line. When she got paid on Friday, the four kids got a six-pack of pop as a treat. By Wednesday of the next week, the money always ran out and the kids were left to scavenge for food with relatives and neighbors until Friday came round again.
Granny was still living on Maple Street when I was born, but I barely remember the house. It survives in secondhand stories. As the oldest child, my father was expected to make his brothers and sister mind. If the house wasn’t clean when Granny got home from work, she blamed him, screaming and throwing salt and pepper shakers at his head. Sometimes she left for work on Friday morning and didn’t come home until Monday after work, partying with her friends. The kids didn’t know if she was dead or alive for days at a time. Sometimes I have trouble reconciling my father’s stories with the Granny I know, but I have never asked her about it. She has always been reluctant to talk about the past, especially when it is ugly.
Just after I turned thirty-two, Granny Gracie and I met for a birthday lunch. We hadn’t talked in nearly a year—despite the fact that I lived just an hour down the road. We’d had a big fight because I was unemployed and miserable, but when I called Granny to make up, she said we didn’t have to talk about it. We could just move on. We decided to meet at our place, PapaLeno’s, an old Italian family restaurant in the Berea town square with big wide windows and soft open light—and butter-soaked garlic bread as big as my forearm. After we sat down, I decided to tell Granny and her boyfriend Rex that I’d finally made plans after nearly two years of unemployment. I’d applied to six PhD programs in English. They were all out of state, all four- or five-year programs. Three had waitlisted me, two rejected me, and one accepted me. Granny nodded, cutting into the stromboli sandwich she was sharing with Rex. “Just think,” she said, “you’ll be forty without ever having a job.”
I tried not to cry and instead I reminded her that I’d had jobs before, teaching English in a French middle school, working for a nonprofit, and teaching college English classes while in graduate school. But none of that seemed enough. She reminded me that she’d worked for fifty cents an hour to support four kids. She’d worked forty hours a week for forty years. She kept talking while I tried not to cry, telling me about the successes of other family members, their houses and cars and jobs and spouses and children. I didn’t have any of that, except an eleven-year-old car with peeling paint and a loud grinding sound in the wheel well. She told me about how much my aunt Lori and her husband cleared every month after they paid their bills. But she didn’t ask me anything else about my plans. When I started crying too hard to chew my ravioli, she said, “Aren’t you so glad we’re back together? I am.”
I nodded, continuing to cry. She might never be proud of me.
In southeastern Kentucky there is an old country road miles from the nearest city. Alongside runs fading black fences to keep the livestock in and the visitors out. The road dips and sways and turns hard on a dime, like a rollercoaster. The road leads to Great-Granny Rose’s two-story, eight-room farmhouse, with white siding and a septic tank outside and a great big gas heater inside. There is no air conditioning. The floors are uneven and the ceilings are low; the upstairs bedroom isn’t insulated and its ceiling is made of cardboard. Out back is an old barn, some chicken coops, and a pond. Hills and hills.
This is where Granny Gracie grew up. Where the tobacco was planted and the livestock was raised. Pigs, cows, chickens. This is what Granny Gracie dropped out of school for in the eighth or ninth grade: Bear Wallow, an unincorporated community on the western edge of Appalachia in Madison County, Kentucky.
I often think about Bear Wallow, especially when I am trying to understand Granny Gracie. I don’t know what led her to the leaning white house on Maple Street in Berea with four kids. But when I was six, she married her neighbor Andy, a World War II veteran with a missing arm, and they moved into a three-bedroom brick house in a subdivision on the edge of Berea. The floors were even and the house didn’t lean. They even had a carport. Everyone says Andy was good to Granny, taking her to Hawaii and buying her gold jewelry. Everyone loved him—everyone but me.
I remember the day he stood up from the kitchen table in the new brick house and yelled in front of me, telling Granny what a brat I was. I was only six or seven or eight, a little bratty but not deserving of his anger. I hated him after that, but I never wondered if this was indicative of how he treated Granny, too. Now we never talk about him, unless we are looking through old photo albums; even a Polaroid of Granny in a bikini and Andy in Speedos taken in Fort Lauderdale in 1987 doesn’t prompt much commentary, though they actually look happy. After Andy died less than two years into their marriage, Granny kept his last name and the house, where we watched TV on Saturday nights.
Granny is in her eighties now, and she’s settled in the house she bought with Andy. It has two window air conditioners—one in the kitchen and one in Granny’s back bedroom—and beige carpeting, a washer and dryer in the bathroom, and a tiny koi pond out back. Granny’s got cranberry Fenton glass on display and curio cabinets full of decorative teapots and a fancy ornamental chamber pot in the living room. She’s got at least one Paul Sawyer print—probably a gift from my father, who collected the limited-edition prints from the Kentucky painter—and a gold-framed mirror on the living room wall. She’s stuffed all three bedroom closets full of clothes of every color, mostly for church, and cluttered every bedroom doorknob with several hangers full of clothes—on both sides of the door. Her wooden armoire is so full that it doesn’t close on its own; she has a thick rubber band keeping the knobs together and the doors closed. But the beds are always made and the house is always white-glove clean.
Sometimes, when we’re together and I don’t know what to talk about with Granny, I study her gold jewelry. Granny Gracie’s got ropes of gold dangling from her neck, so many necklaces stacked on top of each other that she can’t take them off at night, and most have solid gold pendants: a nugget, a flip flop, a plumeria flower, a hula dancer from Hawaii with moving legs. A tangle of gold bracelets hangs from her wrists, most of them from boyfriends after Andy died: Joe, Monroe, Rex. Granny used to have a gold ring on every finger, multiple rings of diamond clusters, until the skin cancers and blood thinners made her hands too sensitive. Some of them she bought on layaway at Walmart or Kmart, some came from boyfriends. At last count, she was only wearing eleven gold rings on her fingers.
When I was a child, Granny used to give me my own gold. She taught me to love solid gold, to snub my nose at gold-plated jewelry because it wore so easily, and to judge by the karats. I never knew what karats indicated, but I parroted the language. Now I know that twenty-four-karat is the purest, but it’s too soft and malleable for most jewelry, too easily bent or scratched. It’s usually only traded and stockpiled for wealth. Most gold jewelry is eighteen or fourteen or ten-karats, gold mixed with other metals to harden it. I lost every ten-karat gold ring Granny bought me, most of them in gas station bathrooms, always forgetting to put the rings on again after washing my hands. Sometimes I chipped the prongs holding the stones in my rings, losing pink ice or sapphire stones. I was a clumsy child. I wonder how many layaway payments she had to make for each ring I lost.
My maternal grandmother complains that Granny’s jewelry is gaudy, so excessive and flashy, but I know Granny is only making up for the years she couldn’t afford food, let alone jewelry. I have similar impulses to make up for the past, but I buy designer handbags with my student loan money instead. Granny still tries to give me gold jewelry that she doesn’t want—a pair of gold hoop earrings, a gold and ruby pinky ring—and shoes she picks up in yard sales. But I don’t wear gold jewelry and she often buys the wrong size of shoes; nevertheless, she looks hurt when I don’t take what she offers. I wish she’d save her money. The only thing I want—the solid gold hula dancer pendant—will go to my aunt Lori, Granny Gracie says.
Granny never talks about how well she’s done for herself or her decision to move from Bear Wallow, though most of her brothers and sisters stayed there, only moving to neighboring towns and states for short periods of their lives but almost always returning to the trailers and houses built on Great-Granny Rose’s land—or just up the road. Only her sister Mafre built a life and a family in Cincinnati. Granny Gracie never talks about dropping out of school, either. When I was a child, it only slipped out once.
I remember the Sunday afternoon sitting under Granny Gracie’s carport in Berea after Andy died, the sun a watercolor stain on the sky, my mother and father lighting up cigarette after cigarette and drinking instant coffee. A smoke cloud hovered under the awning. My father’s Air Force buddy and his family were visiting, and someone mentioned that Granny had dropped out of school in the eighth or ninth grade. She nodded, confirming it, but she didn’t say anything else. No one had ever mentioned it before, or maybe I’d never paid attention. I was probably only eight-years-old. Later that evening, my father’s Air Force buddy asked me what I thought of my granny. “She’s craaaaazy,” I said, echoing what my father said at home, away from Granny Gracie. I thought I was being funny, performing as expected. Everyone but Granny laughed, and I could tell that I hurt her feelings, which I hadn’t anticipated. When my parents took me home that night, my mother prompted me to call Granny Gracie from the rotary phone in our kitchen and apologize.
“I’m not going to forgive you,” Granny said. But she never mentioned it again.
Granny Gracie says she wishes we were close like we used to be, and I can remember taking a trip with her down to South Carolina to see my aunt Lori when I was still a child. Granny drove us down I-75 and across I-40 in her yellow banana station wagon, just the two of us crossing the Smokies. Somewhere in the mountains, Granny let me eat something sticky, some caramel or taffy, and my baby molar nearly fell out, only hanging on like a hinge.
“Lord god, keep that thing in there,” Granny commanded from the driver’s seat. “Your parents will kill me for letting you eat that.” I pushed the tooth up with my tongue the whole way there and back, waiting to see a dentist until I got home. I didn’t want to get Granny in trouble.
Later, after I went off to college, I rarely stayed with Granny, but we were still close except when she’d fuss at me for drinking. On Christmas, my aunt Lori would give me male butt calendars, and Granny and I would flip through the months. Granny would raise her eyebrows and twirl her eyes at each new set of buns, calling out “Woo, woo!” We were both boy crazy, though Granny was always the one with a boyfriend. When we stayed at my aunt Lori’s house, we often played Phase 10 until Granny cheated, swapping out her useless cards with ones she needed when no one was looking. She’d get a big grin on her face like a gurgling baby, giving herself away, and she’d inevitably confess.
Sometimes when I am missing Granny, I ride the roads of Madison County, using Internet maps from four states away, where I am getting my PhD in English. I start in Bear Wallow, on the road my family lived on for generations, five miles from the nearest highway. Dreyfus Road leads to Battlefield Memorial Highway and then onto 1016, a ten-mile path to the edge of Berea from Bear Wallow. The two-lane roads are penned in by fences and telephone poles and electricity lines, trees and houses, old trailers and tiny dirty shacks with basketball hoops and huge new brick houses with multiple-car garages set far back from the road. There are stark white holiness churches and country store markets with one gas pump and auction houses with homemade signs along the road, bursts of life to break up the backcountry nothingness. This is the road to Granny Gracie’s house in Berea, the path she must’ve traveled as a young woman when she left home. I trace the roads when I am homesick for the hills and mountains, the bumps and turns on the roads that cut through them. I am trying to figure out how we got here.
I think it started six Christmases ago, when I was twenty-nine. I walked into Granny Gracie’s living room and my aunt Lori pointed her new 9mm Smith and Wesson—a Christmas present from her husband—at me. No one said anything. Maybe they were so busy unwrapping presents or playing with toys that they didn’t notice, or maybe they didn’t care. There was no one reason for my aunt Lori to point her gun at me, just a growing tension on that side of the family. Nevertheless, Lori’s behavior went unnoticed; it was only on the drive home that my mother confirmed I hadn’t imagined the gun pointed at me. Then, a month and a half later, my father was arrested for growing marijuana in his trailer; he’d moved back to Bear Wallow after my parents divorced.
I think it started when I panicked, realizing the crash and confluence of events showed who we were and always would be: dark, violent, unhappy. I didn’t want to be a part of that anymore. I cut ties with my aunt Lori first, then my father, and moved from Georgia—where I was finishing an MFA in creative writing—to Kentucky, to Chicago, and then back again to Kentucky, trying to escape something that felt like destiny. I was mostly unemployed for over two years, always in a constant state of panic about what I was doing with my life, like a hummingbird burning through fuel while searching for food. It started when I failed to imagine how this would affect my relationship with Granny.
Families are as vast and complex and interconnected as the human body—even dysfunctional families. We share blood, after all. If one part stops working, the rest of the body suffers, like a malfunctioning pancreas that stops producing insulin and causes diabetes. The extra sugar spreads out through the bloodstream, affecting every organ, every limb. You can go blind. You can lose a foot. If you are stubborn and fail to take care of the problem, you can lose your life.
When I stopped talking to my aunt and my father, I suffered from a failure of imagination about the ways we were connected. It wasn’t just that some of my family members quietly chose sides, fading from my life. It wasn’t just that I spent Thanksgiving and Christmas apart from Granny, since I was the one who stopped circulating our blood. Some of my family members haunted my online presence, too, reporting back to Granny my activities and words, commenting, “Look what your granddaughter says”—and it didn’t matter if what I said was malicious or innocuous. Blocking them from my accounts and changing usernames didn’t deter them. After months of this, Granny called me to say, “You’re telling lies on me.” Both of us cried on the phone until I got mad, explaining that she was getting secondhand information, twisted and manipulated to upset her.
“You don’t have to listen to what they say. Just change the subject,” I said.
“I try to, but they just keep talking,” Granny said.
For nearly a year, until just after my thirty-second birthday, I stopped answering the phone when she called.
Since the beginning, Granny Gracie has tried to be a peacekeeper, neutral ground for all of us. On my thirty-second birthday lunch at PapaLeno’s, she stressed how much my aunt Lori loved me. For the sake of honesty, I showed her an essay I’d written about the 9mm Smith and Wesson, and Granny said, “I’m not going to comment on that because I wasn’t there.”
She’d been in the next room.
“I don’t know why anybody would want to read this,” she said. “It’s not interesting. I wasn’t interested in reading that.”
I was hurt by her criticism of my writing, but I knew it was hard for her to read such ugliness. I knew she didn’t want me to publish it, make it public. Then she said softly, “I’m sorry you had to live through that.”
Granny said she’d forgiven my father for everything he’s done, for a lifetime of vices and rage, affairs and drugs and booze. “He couldn’t help it,” she said. “He was on drugs.” But when I tried to explain what he was like as a father, how much of a hold he’d had on me, the harsh and critical words he’d used, she simply said, “He’s your daddy.”
“He’s not my daddy,” I said.
“He’s your daddy.”
“He’s not my daddy,” I said. “He’s my father.”
“Well, fine, but he’s your father.”
I knew I was being nitpicky about language. I knew family meant everything to her, and that was why she loved me despite everything. But I also knew we were repeating the same violence and unhappiness, generation after generation, and I wanted to break the pattern. I wanted something new.
Sometimes when I visit Granny, she lets me drive her down Scaffold Cane Road, past the small older houses and trailers, empty fields, and Baptist churches, to Fentress Lane, where her in-laws lived. My great Grandpa Hazelwood built onto the one-room house, room by room, adding upstairs bedrooms and a railed-in porch. After my last great uncle died, the house passed out of our hands, and the new owners have curious taste. Granny wrinkles her nose as we pass the red tin roof and all the campers in the yard. At the house down the road, she swears they trade drugs for cars; they have at least twenty old cars in the yard. And then we turn around.
Inevitably, we head for Granny’s old white house. The house on Maple Street has been demolished now, the lean-to worth less than the land it was on, down among the railroad tracks and warehouse buildings. All that remains of the original is a concrete square where the kitchen used to be. Before a duplex was built on the site, Granny Gracie and I would drive by the vacant lot and she’d point out the small square of kitchen floor, but it was always so much smaller than I remembered. Still, we drive by even now, looking for who we are. ■