She is like the feeling I get on an autumn day when you are floored by the uninhibited nature of God. I have watched Him cull the green from leaves to reveal bullion marred only by aubergine and been so amazed at His dreams that my heart speedily ripened with love and longing.
Yet I have sat on autumn days and watched trees make refuse of their glory, casting aside jewels as though they were crinkled bitter hearts. I have yearned to stop the morphing of oaks, yet rebelliously they continue with their work, passionately hurling away art, wildly growing.
I love my woman’s wildness as I love her grace, and both loves are known to all who know her. She has the sultriest voice, the softest hands, the most infantile dark eyes—she is the most natural of all creatures to love—yet love has rarely bound her, and she has left tearful schools, towns, and husbands when her heart told her the time had come. She is the feeling of all autumns: untamable beauty. She is my grandmother, Dear, formally Mildred Joyce Guillory, before that…
“Seal, that’s a pretty unusual name.”
“L.C., did you just give birth to this child? I’ll name her what I want.”
Names change, but they do not change the people behind them. Being called Pearly Odessa for three years wasn’t what endowed my grandmother with her jewel-like good looks. Her aunt renaming her “Mildred” as an act of kindness wasn’t the cause of her sensibility. If we left life up to names, Seal, my great-grandmother, Queen Esther Cecile Roberts, would have been the wife of Ahasuerus, not my great-grandfather, L.C. Roberts, a farmer and small business owner. Thank goodness our histories and futures don’t depend on a range of vowels and diphthongs. Life, fortunately, relies on more silent things like land, rich earth, and cozy houses. If it had not been for my great-grandfather’s farm in Shepard, Texas, who knows what my grandmother’s life would have been.
* * *
My grandmother pities children who weren’t born in the country, who did not express their love to each other in toe tickles under rainbow quilts or by admiring fistfuls of baby chicks together before racing through acres of pine. But the true tragedy of an urban existence is the loss of a sense of origin. My grandmother cannot savor ice cream in the center of her tongue without thinking of snow or eat cheese without hearing her mother’s friendly banter to her favorite milking cow. More importantly, a city child doesn’t know that the best eggs do not come from the store but are borrowed from your neighbor, that the finest gift isn’t tied with ribbon but is the slabs of meat you unquestionably and joyfully divide among friends when you kill one of your livestock.
I know she wasn’t a mean child as her siblings have sometimes claimed (tongue halfway in cheek), yet she was certainly the toughest. Born between two boys, she couldn’t bear to think that one might be stronger or braver than she. In her adult years she would become her parents’ favorite child, the one always available to help and care for them, but at that time there were no favorites. Dear was simply the most tomboyish, the kid her father preferred for a sawing partner because she was steadier than her brothers; the fiercest, beating up any one who tormented mentally disabled kids. And because my great-grandmother was often sick due to scarlet fever’s war on her immune system, Dear was the child who took care of the others. Christmas was a bane to her with the other ten Roberts eating up desserts as soon as she baked them, but on other days she was awed by the immensity of time. Despite her maternal role, she never seemed to miss out on any of the fun that came with being one of nine kids or the pleasant solitude one could find living on a forty-acre farm. It was in these moments, when his children were separate from each other, under magnolia trees about to shatter from the weight of blossoms or floating serenely on the man-made lake, that Papa would have quiet talks with his kids about their lives. It didn’t matter what they wanted for themselves as long as they knew how crucial it was to dream. Yet my grandmother’s dream never changed. Ever since she could speak she’d wished for the same two things, and my great-grandfather, with faith in his daughter’s talent and the will of God, was sure she would get them.
Each Roberts loved the other ten with unspeakable depth. Schoolchildren knew that bullying one of the Roberts kids meant challenging all nine, and the security and unity the Roberts kids provided each other stood upon the foundation of their parents’ love. Their dad had decided that leaving home at age twelve was a rosier alternative to locking horns with his step-dad, and although he had only attended the first and second grades, he owned several small businesses, his own land, and had become the most respected man in Shepard. His approval was mandatory for white politicians if they wanted the black vote. He had read the Bible cover to cover several times over and was familiar with the lives and motives of Bathsheba and Sampson, wise to the workings of the spiritual realm. Yet he was boyish and loved to laugh, especially when tickling his kids’ toes with feathers or placing fake cigarettes in their mouths after they’d gone to sleep. His wife of seventy-one years was the sassiest, prettiest woman in town. Papa loved her intelligence and independence. She had a foul-mouth and a sweet heart, and she openly gave her family all of the love she had lacked as a battered orphan. Tight as a plaid-uniformed clan, as full of love as a tree on the isle of Paphos, the Roberts grew big, laughed loudly, and prayed hard with ceaseless devotion to each other.
* * *
It was a long walk from the farm to the bus stop. Too long, Mamo Seal felt, for her six year old baby girl. Not until the age of eight could Seal bear to let her second born child walk to school, and there, instead of being placed at the beginner’s level, first grade, the teachers asked her if she would be more comfortable with her big brother in second. Dear and Junior beamed at each other. Of course she would be more comfortable with the boy who pulled her everywhere in a wagon claiming she was “too good to walk.” The two of them skipped to Mrs. Crumbly’s homeroom, the same homeroom their mother had been in.
My grandmother amazed her second grade teacher. She ripped through her books, decoded her equations, and colored between the lines. At the end of the year Mrs. Crumbly suggested they place Dear in the fourth grade, and of course, if it would make Junior more comfortable, he was welcome to come along.
Dear was the pride of the school. Like a rural gladiator, she competed and won wrestling matches—it turns out she wasn’t only tougher that the brothers immediately older and younger than her, but also most boys in the county. When it wasn’t wrestling season, she was a champion basketball player. From the seventh grade on, any time a teacher was absent Dear was pulled from her lessons and called upon to sub, and she couldn’t understand why. She knew that the grammar her teachers had taught her wasn’t like the grammar of characters in books. She had never seen any of the big cities she’d heard of in social studies or visited ballets or museums. Because she felt inexperienced, she concluded that she must not be as smart as everyone thought. Fortunately everyone heartily disagreed.
They disagreed in word and money. Quietly, Dear’s parents saved enough from farming, trucking, and selling lumber to pay her tuition to Texas Southern University. There, the larger world unfurled itself for her. She learned to golf and to bowl. She played varsity basketball until a coach nearly caused her to collapse, so greedy for points he refused to pull her from the game despite her exhaustion. She took art classes with one of the twentieth century’s finest artists, John Biggers. She sharpened her claws and teeth.
In Shepard, Dear had known there was a vague difference between people—a difference that manifested itself in the rules about which churches and schools one was allowed to attend. Yet she also knew that outside of these institutions her parents and she and her siblings had always had friends who were both black and white—friends who crowded into the Roberts’ living room when Joe Louis fought and cheered unanimously when he won, friends equally dismayed that they couldn’t send their kids to learn in the same classrooms. My grandmother knew she was as good as everyone else. She couldn’t believe the big city of Houston did not. She didn’t understand that all over the South, unlike the haven that was Shepard, blacks were seen, and often saw themselves, as second class citizens. Every time there was a Civil Rights march or protest my grandmother would drop her books and run for it.
Although Dear had promised to work to buy her own school clothes and also bought school clothes for her younger siblings, she and other black students decided to quit their jobs at segregated establishments. My grandmother’s employer, a bigoted white woman, was notorious for not paying blacks for their labor if they quit her.
One day Dear went to her former job, demanding that she be paid for her work. The woman told her that she would “pay her when she paid the others,” meaning never. Dear insisted upon getting her money right then, and a second time the woman refused. That third time, the woman had barely gotten “I’ll pay you when” out of her mouth before my grandmother leapt over the desk to attack her. Startled by the sight of my grandma flying through the air, fists clenched, eyes gleaming like forbidden fire, the bigot handed over the money. Waiving her paycheck proudly in the air, my grandmother sashayed out of the office.
My grandmother is the snake you don’t poke, the horse you know better than to try to saddle. She is the beautiful dolphin that can attack sharks. She is the splendor and sublime majesty of the tornado and its terror. There is something I have always known and loved about her: she is crazy. Perhaps crazy is the wrong word, because the fight that erupts from the midst of her beauty only comes at appropriate times. She is neither insane nor cruel. She is wild. I will always love her for that.
* * *
It happened quietly like a pink lily unfolding to the dawn. Slowly desire blossomed into reality. She pinched herself to see if it was real, and when she looked around she knew she was not dreaming. The thing she had been wishing for ever since she was a little girl had happened. She was a teacher.
And although West Columbia’s school district had requested a plain, wholesome teacher and been a little intimidated by this young woman in her three inch stilettos, Mrs. Washington welcomed Dear into her homeroom for student teaching.
“Class, this is Miss Roberts. Miss Roberts is going to help me for a little while. Isn’t that nice? Now Miss Roberts, I am going out to make copies for a few minutes. Please watch the class for me. But never mind Josh. He’s stupid. He can’t learn. No one in his family ever could.”
No sooner had Mrs. Washington left her third grade classroom than my grandmother was kneeling by Josh’s side.
“Hello, Miss Roberts.”
“Do you know what I thought when I first came in this classroom?”
“I thought about what a handsome little boy you are. Do you know how handsome you are?”
“And do you know what else I know about you Josh?”
“You are not stupid. Don’t ever think you are. You just need some help.”
My grandmother didn’t care about what methods were currently fashionable in education. She was familiar with a number of techniques, and she taught each child using the one he best understood. And when Mrs. Washington came back, Josh was diligently completing his math worksheet, happy that someone had finally taken the time to explain the problems to him in a way he could understand. He turned out to be one of the strongest math students. Mrs. Washington hardly had time to be awe-struck because soon it was time for recess, and Dear couldn’t wait to slip into her sneakers and go play with the kids.
It was Mrs. Washington who learned from my grandmother, and at the end of the year, her coworkers, the principal, and the students cried when she declined a permanent teaching job in West Columbia. Dear cried, too, but she was tired of West Columbian whites expecting her to call them “sir” and “ma’am” and thinking they could inquire about any detail of her private life. Besides, she was homesick for Shepard.
* * *
I can look at a picture of my grandmother in an evening gown, in her twenties, looking youthful and flighty as girls come, and to me she looks exactly like a grandmother. And Mrs. Crumbly looked at my grandmother, now a teacher, and still saw her as a little girl. A precocious little girl, but one needing supervision nonetheless. My grandmother didn’t feel like hearing Mrs. Crumbly’s opinion on what she would have done differently after every class. She wouldn’t submit lesson plans to her for approval or acquiesce to her methods. After declaring in every possible combination of words that she was no longer a child, to no avail, Dear left Shepard. It was time for her to be a woman.
* * *
Dear and her first husband, Thello Davis, had divorced. That was okay with her. A husband wasn’t what Dear used to whisper to her Papa, anyways, when he asked her what she dreamed of. The marriage had given her the second thing she had told Papa she wanted: two daughters. My mom, Laquetta, and my aunt, Carmeleta, the only children my grandmother would ever have. Though Dear was a single mom, she expected her kids to have the best of everything. When the top dollar day care she left them in served them the same food day after day, she realized nothing would do for her kids than the love of the gentle golden man and spunky seal-colored woman who had made her own childhood blissful. So in exchange for a house, Dear’s parents agreed to take care of her kids until they were school age, and, to Laquetta’s relief, right before first grade when she would have been placed in Mrs. Crumbly’s1 strict class. Dear missed the children she had longed for since she was their age, but spent every weekend with them. During the week, she found herself back in her college town of Houston, teaching and raising eyebrows at Settegast.
* * *
When my grandmother first began teaching at Settegast, a weak boy named Anthony who let girls hit him had still managed to beat up every teacher he had had from kindergarten until fourth grade, confident in the knowledge they wouldn’t hit him back. And now he was in the fifth grade—with my grandmother. My grandmother was standing by the door pleasantly greeting her students as they came into her class, when Anthony drew back to hit her. Before Dear knew what she was doing, she had Anthony on the ground and was pounding him as hard as she could. Finally, another teacher heard Anthony’s screams and tried to draw my grandmother back from the volatile place her soul had leapt to the moment she had seen the young boy’s clenched fist.
“Come to your senses!” cried the older woman over and over until finally my grandmother quit beating Anthony. Then she got up off the ground and walked quietly to the principal’s office to make a phone call to the superintendent.
There was no repentance in her voice just as there was no worry. Calmly, she voiced her resignation, explaining her act, yet she was surprised when the superintendent begged her to stay.
“You are the best teacher at Settegast. You can’t leave! Besides, that Anthony deserved it.”
“But you don’t understand. I tried as hard as I could to kill him.”
“Yes, and he deserved it. I want you to continue teaching at Settegast.”
With that over Dear had one more call to make. She picked up the phone, slightly more cheered, and explained to Anthony’s mom that she had tried to kill her kid.
“He deserved it,” agreed Anthony’s mom. And while I can only imagine the lawsuit my grandma would face today, Anthony never harmed another teacher. In fact, when he gave my grandmother a death threat, the male students in her room stood guard over her at lunch until things calmed down. Although she was delighted with the rest of her class’s show of support, she insisted that they relax because she was capable of defending herself—clearly. Yet the boys guarded her for the next few days until Anthony shaped up. That wasn’t the last hair raising episode my grandmother experienced at Settegast.
Perhaps I should explain that Dear is not a respect-your-elders kind of person. The people she feels deserve respect are children, and even as a kid and young woman she never minded telling off adults in authority, usually because she was wiser than them and because she is wild. Dear would blatantly deny all of this, but her behavior speaks for itself. You’ll see.
Since Dear was a young teacher both the parents and the faculty thought they could push her around. One mother whose twins had already been held back in the fifth grade once placed her children in Dear’s class thinking that a young teacher would be too intimidated to hold them back a second time. But my grandmother, knowing the twins still weren’t ready for the sixth grade, refused to promote them. Their mother began calling Dear and then the school, threatening to “beat her ass.”
The older faculty members at Settegast felt that Dear was in a situation she couldn’t handle and should have asked for advice. At a faculty meeting, the principal hinted that young teachers, not naming names, when they found they had problems should ask older faculty members for help. My grandmother, knowing he meant her, told the principal that the worse fool was an old fool, and she didn’t intend to ask for help from any of the old fools on the faculty, which was when the older faculty members decided to nickname my grandmother “Young Fool.” Dear had earned a reputation as a disrespectful radical and still had the twins’ mother to deal with. On the last day of school, the kids’ mom marched to the fifth grade hallway to make good on her word, scaring the principal so badly he hid in the bayou behind the school. The woman stormed down the maze of halls with the ferocity of the Minotaur, shaking the first fifth grade teacher, hitting the second, trying to knock out the third, and then heading for my grandma. But Dear, who thought she might be coming, already had a baseball bat with her, and when she raised it up with a glare in her eyes the woman simply walked past her classroom. With one gesture Dear had shown both the faculty and the parents that she would not be pushed around.
That summer, Dear was invited along with two white teachers to begin a Head Start program at a white school called Tidwell. She was married to a new man, Chester Harris, and working on a new campus, yet racism, the poisoned interplay of darkness and light that had lurked about to hurt her so many times before, was waiting for her again. The first step to starting a Head Start program was to recruit students, and since Tidwell was in a neighborhood of ivory, the two white teachers were sure that nobody would let my grandmother into their suburban ranch house if she were to knock on doors. But after two days, neither of the white teachers had recruited a single student.
“But you can’t go, Mildred. Nobody’s going to let you in.”
“Of course they will. I’m human.”
Dear knew that there is always either a beautiful plant in someone’s yard, or a nice chandelier in their entryway, or even a beautiful smile on their face to compliment them on. She knew to place banter before business, trust before propositions, and soon several white parents were willing to entrust their kids to my grandmother.
Yet one house she approached was more ragged than the others. Inside lived a woman more haggard that her peers.
“I’d like for my son to go to Head Start, really. It’s just—he doesn’t have any clothes.”
“If I buy him clothes will you let him come?”
The woman looked away, “I have no way to get him there.”
“If I drive him there everyday, will you let him come?”
For my grandmother, there is no reason not to reach out to a child—not disability, not poverty, not even a criminal record. After helping to raise eight siblings, having two kids, and teaching for forty years, she still can’t get enough of children. She never thinks of all of the kids she has already helped and feels satisfied. There is always one more to nurture.
That summer, Dear reached out to a number of kids with a radically different background and color from her own, yet she did it so splendidly she was offered a permanent teaching job at Tidwell—by a white principal so racist he couldn’t even look her in the eye.
“I can’t teach here. They need me at Settegast.”
“Yes, but we want the best for our students.”
“Of course. I want the best for students, too. That’s why I’m a teacher.”
“Yes, but we want the best for our students.”
“I don’t understand. I said I wanted the best for students, too.”
“No. We want the best for our white students.”
My grandmother was disgusted. Just because Settegast was an all black school didn’t mean they were undeserving of qualified teachers.
“If you don’t take the job teaching here I’m going to be very unhappy.”
“Well I’d rather you be unhappy than me,” retorted my grandmother, slamming the door as she left his office.
But that evening, a long talk with a friend made her see things in a new light.
“White people think black people are stupid. Can’t you see that Mildred? You have to teach at this white school so you can show them that we are human like everyone else.”
It made sense. And that’s how Mildred Harris became one of the first black teachers at Tidwell. At first, both the parents and students at Tidwell were leery of a black teacher. One boy even fainted. Yet after the first year, parents began requesting that their children be placed in her homeroom, and after accepting as many kids as she could, finally the principal had to close her class. But the other teachers were jealous. How could these southern white parents want their kids placed in a black person’s class? My grandmother’s talent in teaching meant that they could not feel superior, which meant that they could neither snub nor pity her as planned.
It was the beautiful woman who has stared at me from a picture many times who offended my grandmother. Dear and the lady stand on opposites sides of the rows of their two first grade classes. And above the woman’s brilliant smile, balsa colored hair is piled into a thick, elaborate updo. It was this woman who decided to be kind to grandmother and let her know that she felt sorry for her “being a Negro.”
“You feel sorry for me? I heard you sigh in the faculty meeting and wish that you had fifteen cents. Fifteen cents so that you could tie back your long Pentecostal hair. And I, who do not depend on change, gave it to you. Yet you feel sorry for me?”
“I never thought of it that way,” said the woman, who was more ignorant than mean. And after more years of teaching with my grandmother, Rapunzel would begin to be able to think about black people the same way she thought of white people. Of course, in a few more years she wouldn’t be there because Tidwell would become a school entirely attended and taught by blacks. A few years more, and Dear would have divorced her second husband, married her third, a wonderful man named Murphy Guillory, and switched to teaching in the North Forrest school district. It was one of Houston’s poorest areas—a place my grandmother felt she was needed. So much changed yet my grandmother remained wildfire. Working like an alchemist, she changed juvenile delinquents into good students, and like an angel, she loved neglected children who had never been nurtured. She slapped a police officer once, told off a few more principals. She continued loving and warring until my parents married, and then Dear began to voice a third wish she had: to be a grandmother.
* * *
From the time my mother married at age twenty-five and for the next seven years, my grandmother begged for a grandchild. But one Wednesday her first grade class made her so angry that she drove furiously to my parents’ home, breaking every speed limit on the way.
“All these years I’ve begged you for a grandchild, and you wouldn’t give me one. You know what? I don’t even want one anymore. My class gave me fits today. Kids are terrible! So it doesn’t matter to me if you never have a baby.”
That Saturday my parents visited my grandmother to let her know they were pregnant with me. Dear wept with joy. Dear has been such an active grandmother. She retired that year and didn’t return to teaching until Ashley, my younger sister and her only other grand-child, entered school. Two years ago, she retired for good. The two of us have always been best friends. She is my heart. As I wrote to her in one of the letters I give her each Mother’s Day and birthday:
You are so beautiful to me that it is like I am looking at you from the inside of the sun or between the petals of a flower. You are a person both outside of me and inside of me—someone I can touch, but someone who also can reach me intangibly and touch hidden places within. You are like a narwhal, or a sphinx, or any other creature that is truly splendid. You have so little to do with common streets and quotidian desires that it seems improbable that God would place you in the world. Why didn’t he just leave you as a figment for an artist to ponder or a dream lighting an ebony night with unnamable colors? How did you get to be my grandmother, out of all of the people you could have been? God could have woven you into any era, and you would have shone like a newborn moon. You are the kind of grandmother who would have taught Rosa Parks to sit and Maya Angelou to rise. Being given you as a gift for a grandmother is like a parent giving the Northern Lights to a child to cure their boredom—an excess of treasure that one still would not turn down. No one could possibly deserve such a magnificent butterfly as you, but all are pleased to be in its presence.
My grandmother has given me more love than I can express, and she has taught me no less than what it means to be human. I have asked her what made her such a good grandmother, and she has answered me by telling me about her own.
Dear’s only grandmother was her dad’s mother, a beautiful yet cruel woman named Missouri. She had a face that could stop you from breathing and long, thick, black hair she wore in a braid that reached her knees, yet she didn’t have a heart big enough for all of her grandkids. She’d bake cakes and invite only two children to eat them: one of my grandmother’s brothers and one of her cousins. Dear and the other children would pretend they didn’t want her “old clammy,” but being rejected hurt all the same. As a little kid Dear began wanting to be a grandmother so that she could do it lovingly. She promised herself that she would be what a grandmother should be—someone willing to “walk through water” for her grandbabies. She has more than achieved her goal.
I asked her once why Missouri was so mean, but my grandmother can only speculate.
“Her mother was full-blooded Cherokee, and her father was white. Perhaps they had different values, and she had a dysfunctional childhood. Or maybe she wasn’t mean and just had a strange way of being in the world.
“Everybody used to give Missouri things—beautiful things that she would never use or look at. She’d just place them in a trunk by her bed. I bet she died with a trunk full of beautiful things…”
There has never been a beautiful thing that my grandmother and I have not shared. We split oranges, share French perfume, divvy up seashell necklaces and jewels. We share the same heart, though it beats differently in us both—hers perhaps feistier, mine more serene. Yet maybe we are sharing a deception, only superficially varying in our mildness and vigor. I only know that when my grandmother shows a picture of herself at my age, everyone thinks it’s me. We lock eyes after someone makes a comment, mentally sharing the same sentiment. Our arms wrapped around each other, one’s head against the other’s chest, we are that Aristophanic being never split. The two of us are connected by autumn, eternally sharing the same deep love and necessary wildness.
1. Mrs. Crumbly is still alive and is extremely healthy physically and mentally. I’ve met her, and she is as much of a character in real life as she is in Dear’s stories.