Excerpt from Grandmother’s Hair


And then my grandmother died.

Fairer Than Day

I remember how she lay,
white hair coiled, softly framing
her quiet mouth,
hands folded at last,
wearing her blue silk print.
In her cupboard
one dress for each season,
in her bureau
a drawer full of gloves.

I was 15 and bereft. I loved her so much, and, like most children, never thought of her not being there. Walking to the reception after the funeral with Uncle Philip I asked him:

“Why has God taken grandmother, who was so good, and not grandfather?” (No need to spell out my grandfather’s treatment of Philip. His father hadn’t spoken to him since he had been ordained to “that Popish religion.”)  He was silent for quite a while. What a question to ask someone who had just lost the anchor in his life! But then, he was my anchor. Finally he replied:

“Maybe God wanted Grandfather to have another chance.” I asked myself why people kept thinking that Grandfather was the one who needed another chance. Perhaps my uncle meant that in taking the risk of leaving him Grandmother had given herself nine years of peaceful life — taken her chance and saved herself.

Perhaps he wanted his father to live longer so that their rift might be healed?

Perhaps he meant that he hadn’t really been “saved” in the fundamentalist sense . . . so that when it came to “needing to be saved” perhaps he did. Could he ever be? Even then it seemed pretty lenient to me. Even then, before I had heard her story, I knew she had left him “for good reasons.”

Standing Up

My memories of my grandmother deepened into a physical sensing of her strength and endurance throughout her hard life. Feelings so strong that they resonated in my body like a cry, felt like her cry in my muscles and bones, but this time a call from my heart, as well as to my mind, to be heard in the open and not behind closed doors.

I made a promise to myself:

I will weave the strands of her hair into a work for her and for women like her, to honour and love her, to hold us all in arms of love and peace. Sensing her strength, (and the strength of the women my aunts had gathered around them) I know that the long line of strong women I come from lived in a world where strong women abound, and that I can be one of them. Their/our invisibility could not diminish our accomplishments. (Even though, as a child I had learnt “to be a spy” as the only way we women can make sense of the world.”[i] (Carolyn Heilbrun)

And so I wrote it all down and included it in a term paper. For the first time since my young adulthood I wrote a story – and saw that I could still write! The words flowed freely, tumbling over themselves to find a place on the page as I wrote the memories, my mother’s and mine, told what the women had wailed when they heard her story, how their efforts to excuse my Grandfather’s violence had diminished and violated my Grandmother.

And diminished themselves … and me.

I wrote of the terrible sadness and pain, and of the remembering –and forgetting –  that came with the telling and writing.

The more I wrote the worse I felt; began to realize that my memories subsist  in buried emotions and their physical sensations, long forgotten in my life as caregiver,now emerging and unravelling — and oh how the passaging hurt.

Seen From Afar

As I began my journey into an underworld
of passion and urgency
doubt assailed me.
What can happen to this story?
Needing reassurance I told myself:
“I too have children conceived
in the tangle of her hair,
fathered by a charming, well spoken man
who seemed to listen, but whose perfect hands
caressed dogs and guns, addicted
to bottled spirit . . . long gone now.
I have sons who wield swords
of protection, not shears,
daughters with hair like gleaming helmets
who bore children in the arms
of their smiling, unspoken courage,
like their foremothers, women whose wombs
have survived the Father’s knife.”

[i] Carolyn Heilbrun as Amanda Cross, An Imperfect Spy (NY: Ballantine Books, 1995).