Tag Archive for Relatives


The cornhusk is

oblong and green with overlapping peels.

The interwoven quilt covers

a sheet of silky threads that sticks in white,

fades to yellow and then brown,

twisted ragged at the top.

Huddled underneath are the kernels,

deep yellow dulling to white

through the cob’s length,

little teeth,

stuck in close and rooted deep.


Row by row the kernels dig into

the bed of the cob,

which nestles them close,

a firm mattress forming

to their soft, waxy skin.


I wonder how it is that they never argue,

lying so close together like that,

like my mama and daddy argued

before they divorced.


Now I have to find my way,

my teeth navigate the cob,

from Rock Hill to Cross Anchor,

with Lockhart in-between

and McConnells on the way

to Lockhart from Rock Hill.



I am rocked with uncertainty.

My mama taught at Whitten Center.

Where the retarded children rocked


And forth

In their seats. I wonder what they thought.

I remember my thoughts as a child.

I knew them, but could not say them right

Out loud.


I am rocked with uncertainty.

My mama got sick when I was in first grade.

My grandmama came to take my sister and me to school,

And I got there late for the first time.

Ms. Kelly was eating lunch with the other teachers

In the reading room.

She asked me to bring her a fork from the cafeteria.

I did.

I told everybody that the teachers did not eat in the teachers’ lounge,

They ate in the reading room.

No one believed me.


I am rocked with uncertainty.

I dreamed that I had extra toes on each foot.

It was so real.

I did not worry about fitting into my tennis shoes.

I was sad that I could not wear sandals.

When I woke up, I was so relieved.

I had five toes on each foot.

I slid them into

A pair of sandals.  My toes looked like cute pink piggies,

And I was pleased.

I have not worn a pair of sandals in eight months.


I am rocked with uncertainty.

I think of the rocking chairs on the porch of the Cracker Barrel

In Rock Hill.

I sat in one as my sister and I played checkers on a blanket board.

Mama had taught us how.

No one could beat me at checkers.

I moved my king back and forth in the corner

Until she tired and gave up.

I have not played in four years.

I don’t know that I could still win.


I am rocked with uncertainty.

I am sure that I will go to heaven when I die.

Dr. Shrum’s son killed himself by overdosing

On that stuff the dentist gives you to numb your mouth

Before he pulls.

His father was a preacher.

Did he go to heaven?

Dr. Shrum read a poem someone had written called

“Spring Will Come Again”.

I remember a sermon about how everyone passes through

The Garden of Gethsemane.

Jesus did not want to be crucified.

Allen Navlyt committed suicide in the eighth grade.  He shot himself.

He had been sick with some kind of muscle disease.

He could not take gym class, so he was the library helper after I was.

He finished a poster I started – clouds and kites for March.

He put all the grey clouds together.

I wonder if he went to heaven

I wonder what he thought

Before he pulled.

Of Wisdom and Beauty

Estella was for milk the taste of lilies sucked while lying upon a heartbeat the tempo of canary wings. She came into Almeta’s world when it was time to nurse before withdrawing like the ever-widening boundaries of a ripple. It was Daddy who had the strong thighs to sit on, arms like tree branches to wrap tightly around her. His smile was one half of her heart, and his voice the other, but a nightmarish day would drag him, bound to a running mule, to his death.

Almeta Brown, my grandmother Mamo, pulled her hands around the mound, then slid two fingers along the surface, leveling the top. The rich black dirt looked like Belgian chocolate, and her imagination deftly turned the cotton fields beyond her into a marble banquet hall. Safe in the land of dreams, she was satisfied with the sweet pungent smell of her well-baked mud pie. Soon, into the silence her guest would come to pick her up in his arms, whirl her around, and never let her go.

As soon as she heard his footsteps a smile erased her look of firm concentration.

“Daddy!” She gripped his ankles tightly and listened to his effervescent laugh.

“Hi, Daddy! Want some cake?” She smiled delightedly as he took a big bite.

“It’s wonderful, Honey,” he said.

Her five older brothers and older sister watched as Mamo talked animatedly with an oak tree draped with moss. Her brother, Sam, quietly walked from the cotton fields to where my grandmother played. He knew there was no time for breaks. The older children and their mom, Estella, had to add to the amount of cotton they already picked the sum their father would have harvested, but the Brown family was close-knit and, to Sam, looking out for his baby sister was more important than money.

Money. Their dad had almost saved enough to have paid the family’s debt before he… Sam pushed the thought away, not wanting to cry about the loss of the man he loved most. The demon who owned the land they worked had refused to give Estella the money her family had earned so far, forcing them to begin their hopelessness anew. And now the two year old sister who had ignored their mother and wanted to spend all her time with their father—to everyone’s amusement—could not grasp that he was dead.

“Come on, Almeta,” he said, raising his sister onto one of his hips, “pretend you’re playing with a baby doll.” He handed her a used can. There was no money for toys. Perhaps all of that pretending was what had made it so easy for her to pretend their father was alive. After checking on Lily, the youngest of the eight, he headed back into the fields wishing night wasn’t so slow in coming.

* * *

“Where are we moving to, Almeta?” Lily asked her sister. Her brothers were too old to play with, and besides, they were boys, so she spent most of her time shadowing my grandmother.

“To Fred Smith’s farm.”

“What’s it going to be like?”

“The same as Helen Peel’s farm.”

“Well, why couldn’t we stay where we were?”

“For the same reason we had to leave the farm where I was born in Mylam. Sometimes sharecroppers have to switch farms.”

“I don’t like being a sharecropper, Almeta.”

She laughed. “Nobody does, Lily. But think on the bright side—Christmas will be coming soon.”

“I know what you won’t be getting.”

“Oh hush, Lily,” said Almeta, but she couldn’t help cracking a smile. Two years ago, when she was much less mature than now at age eight, Estella had given Almeta a doll for Christmas – a real one. But by that time Almeta had seen plenty of dolls and plenty of kids, and aside from the kids in her family, she didn’t like either. She took the doll to the woodpile and chopped off her head, declaring that from then on she wanted no more babies, neither real nor plastic.

“I know I’m not getting a doll, Lily. But I’m not six anymore. I wouldn’t chop her head off.”

“No,” sighed Lily unhappily. “You’re eight. You have to leave me and go to Port Sullivan School.”

“That’s better than going into the fields like our brothers.”


“Come on, girls,” said Estella. “Everything’s packed up.” She squeezed them close, comfortingly. Estella was as thin as a sapling and as musical as a lark. Her children speak of her today in beatific terms, remembering how much she loved them. They were so close to her that they called her by her first name, Estella, instead of Mother, which was how her grandchildren and great-grandchildren would have addressed her. She loved all eight of her children, but she gave special care to her two youngest daughters for whom she tried to secure all the advantages that she had been unable to offer their brothers.

Somehow, by the time my grandmother was thirteen, Estella had managed to save enough money to end her days as a sharecropper and buy a house for her children, where she lived until her death. The house was on New Street in Hearne, Texas, and it was here my grandmother developed a new love – a love of silk and velvet, locks and words. Like a craftsman, anything she put her hands on seemed to become more beautiful. She could turn a yard of celadon silk into a dress fit for a marquis and hot comb the hair of her neighbors into the latest styles. More importantly and despite being only a teenager, she began to develop a reputation for the advice she gave to her clients, many of whom were decades older than she. My grandmother says that in a strange way she always felt like an adult, perhaps even before she should have. God seemed to have placed in her the wisdom that most others come by only with years of experience. Almeta knew not to dwell on what you can’t fix and to find a solution to what you can. Clients who wanted only a new skirt or beehive hairdo would return to her weeks later to thank her for solving their problems.

Almeta dreamed of being a seamstress when she grew up and made her own school clothes. She already worked as a hair stylist, thanks to a neighbor who ran an in-home salon and referred excess customers to her. At school, Almeta was a popular cheerleader, at home, a self-proclaimed psychologist, offering as much wisdom as beauty. No longer surrounded by fields of cotton, her world was full of football games and outings to the ice cream shop, and, in her high school years, crushes on handsome soldiers.

She had invited one dashing man to the prom, but, unable to get leave from the Army, he promised to send a friend of his in his place. The man he sent was a few years older than my grandmother, a man with aspirations to be a tailor who wore beautiful, hand-fitted clothes. He was handsome, debonair, and even more alluring than Almeta’s original date. He was my grandfather, Charles Prince – Big Daddy. After high school they married and moved to Houston to start their new lives.

Big Daddy attended Texas State University so he could be a tailor, while Be-Bop, as he called my grandmother after the sock hop jazz music that was popular when they met, eagerly pursued her dream of working as a seamstress. Big Daddy had to work two jobs while he was in school, so Mamo was always there to help him study. From his books she learned how to run a business, a set of skills she continues to use as a self-employed seamstress.

Despite Mamo’s incident with her baby doll, she has told me with tears in her eyes that if she had to live her life over again she would still have all six of her children. She didn’t like kids while she was one herself, but she loves each of her three boys and three girls in a different way because they are individuals, and she wouldn’t want to live without any of them because they are what make her life beautiful. Her parenting years were filled with special moments, whether sewing alongside her youngest daughter, Cheryl, or having one-on-one talks with my father, Charles, at night. She enjoyed raising each unique child. Her nine grandchildren also give her joy, because she is happy to see us being raised with the same values she and Big Daddy imparted to their children. To her, we are like nine more members of her immediate family. Every Friday her children and grandchildren gather at her house to catch up on the week and enjoy each other’s company, perhaps interrupted once or twice by a late bride-to-be, picking up a miracle of intricately beaded ecru silk and thanking my grandmother for relieving her jitters.

The ancient stories are full of enchanters who are weavers and seamstresses. Rumpelstiltskin and Maleficent understood that thread and silk had the power to shape lives and worlds. They knew that life is not about the fabric you weave but the dreams you create, not about the change that occurs when straw is spun into gold but the metamorphosis of the human spirit. Mamo has just turned sixty-nine years old and is full of vitality and light. In the letters I write to her on her birthday and each Mother’s Day, I liken her to splendid objects such as Mexican ceramics or a flock of butterflies. She wields a brilliant magic – one that allowed a heartbroken sharecropper’s daughter to take silk and tresses, joy and love, and form the life she wanted and the family she treasures. And as much as any child she has raised or any dress she has sewn, she herself is truly a masterpiece.

A Wild Swan the Color of Autumn

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…

“Pearly Odessa.”

“Beg pardon?”

“Pearly Odessa.”

“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, Josh.”

“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.

Walking in a Shadow’s Wake

Remnants of My Brother

In the night, my brother stood.

If I have children one day, I will tell them the story of James, and I will begin it this way. I will want them to see what I saw that night, and what I saw most clearly was my brother standing, bare-chested and barefoot, at the foot of my mother’s bed, which almost touched the door frame of that small room. Never did the room seem smaller than the night my brother stood there. The mid-July night was thick and dense. Our mobile home was cooled only by the spinning fans in the windows, turned on low because they were loud and rattled the windows, which in turn rattled the walls, which vengefully rattled the room. Lying asleep, I had been dreaming. The very event that occurred that night, the one that woke me from my dream, would be the one that has continued to shake me awake during the dense night of my lifetime. In order to tell this story correctly, though, perhaps I should start at the very moment I opened my eyes and saw.

In the night, my brother stood. He was so pale that the blue light of the summer’s midnight reflected off his pale chest and pale face and pale arms, giving him an otherworldly appearance, not quite alien but strangely angelic. Most frightening were his eyes, blue as the blue night that splashed about the room, as if it had been thrown from a child’s bucket. The two blues melded, and for a moment, I thought I was looking through his sockets, past his brain to the wall behind him. He glanced in my direction, saw nothing of interest there, and padded to my mother’s sleeping form, leaning towards her face. Staring at her, he took a deep breath and shook her. She awoke with a gasp, the kind one emits when a child is about to pull a pot of boiling water onto its head, and whispered fiercely, “What is it?” She had gone, in that instant, from being concerned about the pot of water, to becoming the pot of water: Her usually loving voice turned dangerous, and I am sure my brother, being astute, saw the imminent explosion in her eyes. Her tone reminded James that his reason for startling her better be good, or he was about to taste some serious pain. She was angry, and why not? James had been fired from his job that day for theft of services: giving away toys at his game stand at the local amusement park to those who had not necessarily earned them, and my mother had been livid. He and she have had many grievances before, over school, issues at home, in life, but always he managed to bring a smile to her scowling lips and the two reconciled for a time. But now, she spoke again, and the sultry room seemed cool, stiff with her words, and I could almost see the “What?” hovering between them. His reply, which was simple and calm, made me feel my soul scratching at my ribcage and pounding the walls of my body, rushing to leave me at its utterance:

“Mom, I took all of my sleeping pills. There were 43. I think I’m going to die.” As an afterthought, a realization: “I tried to kill myself.” And now a justification: “I didn’t want to go to Shaffner.” I almost shuddered at the thought myself. My brother had been to the juvenile detention facility previously, and when he returned, his spirit was violently shaken and ragged. At times, a glance in his face would reveal that some thing, some element of his whole being was lost and somehow tossed away.

My mother rises from her bed with the quickness of a bewildered child and pulls on shoes. Her thick rope-like braid swings in her face and she glances in my direction without seeing me. I must have been invisible that night, because neither my mother nor my brother seemed to acknowledge my presence. I can only imagine what happened after that; the door to the house gave a final dry click and the slam of car doors told me that they were gone. Did she shove a finger down his throat? Did she scream at him and ask him to justify, to explain? Did she cry? Did he? I imagine some country song with sappy lyrics about a boy about to die on his way to the hospital. They would call it “Tears in the Minivan,” I suppose.

Suddenly alone in our small home, I rolled onto my back and looked through the ceiling at a sky all blue and black. The sky was a curtain of bruises, the stars a million shimmering pills, and behind the sky, a godless universe was expanding like the poison in my brother’s bowels. I counted the stars and swallowed each one in turn. “God is dead, dead, dead, says Nietzsche. Dead like my brain, dead like my brother in 99, 98, 97…” Tears rolled down my cheeks, and I let them roll into my ears, where they melted my brain and put me to sleep.

The next morning I awake, and think that it was all a dream, a strange dream that is now just a flickering remnant, a torn ribbon fluttering in the breeze. My mother is in the kitchen, and I imagine that shortly, I will make breakfast, and we will sit around the table sipping orange juice from glasses with swirled bottoms and speak of our dreams. I have a dream to tell them about. Lucid yet forgotten, how upsetting, how absurd. I brush my hair: 97, 98, 99… My mother walks into the bathroom and begins to brush her teeth. Looking at her ragged braid, my mind flashes for an instant back to my brother hovering in the doorframe and I slowly lower my brush. “Was James in our room last night?” I ask, choosing just the right inflections in my voice at just the right spots, my tone inquisitive and not demanding. She turns to me, and I see her eyes are red and shadowed. She spits out some water and wipes her mouth with the towel. “James tried to kill himself last night. (pause) I drove him to the hospital. (long pause) He’s going to live. (short pause) We need eggs.” And she’s gone. I stare at my reflection for a long time and then I sit on the floor for a while. After that I bite my lip until it bleeds, and finally I kick the tub and start to swear between my sobs. Sob-gasp, sob-gasp, sob-gasp. Slowly, I stand and finish brushing: 97, 98, 99, 100, just like Marcia Brady.

What does one say about a loved one’s attempted suicide? You fear that you are nothing. You must be. You must be so inadequate that the very brother who used to lift you up at the orchard to choose that perfect apple does not regard you as a reason to remain upon the earth any longer. Your love is not great enough to bind him to life, and your hope not enough to inspire him to live. You are, quite simply, not a thing in a world. Eventually, that feeling fades. But wisps of it stay with you always, though. He does live! Huzzah! Rejoice and be glad! Eventually, though, the Hallelujah chorus draws to a close, and as the last notes dwindle, something is not right; you take a closer look. He is living, but he lives on in pain, and before long, the cuts that he makes on his arm deepen to his soul, his core, begins to fester. “I reek of weakness, of cruelty, of imperfection,” he says. To this I say nothing: He has pushed at my heart time and time again, pushing it closer to some kind of intangible limit. Finally, he has succeeded in tipping my heart all the way over and when he did, all of the comforting words fell out and disappeared, leaving it empty; all the words of strength on my lips melted away.

Once upon a time, the two of us walked in life’s labyrinth together, connected by a string of shimmering hope, so as not to lose each other. That night, however, he severed it and journeyed alone toward the Minotaur that is Death, so he could learn its cruelty and isolation. Who knows when and if he will return? This is no hero, no brave Theseus. Once my brother had hope, but now he has little more than the frayed ends of a love that was supposed to be unending; he is left with shards of a life that stick in his heart and cut at his dreams.

The memory of my changeling brother is the memory of the dead, though he lives. He has tattooed on his chest, “Nemo Me Impune Lacesset”: No one hurts me unpunished. It is why he punishes himself. When I miss him, it is like a breeze that sweeps my face and moves my hair; it is like a revelation. I reach for that moment, to grab it and bottle it and keep it close, but in the very moments that I realize it is there, it is gone again. My brother James comes and goes in the chambers of my mind, with a smile on his face. “To sleep… perchance to die,” he says. I find it hard to sleep. But when I do, I dream of him. And how, in the night, my brother stood.


She sags under weight

Her wrinkles sunken in

Freesia perfume melts

Like ice in silent halls


Curtain opens, wind blows

A tear slides, a drop of anguish

A still standing figure

Hollowed inside out

Your Last Winter

I fear the winter every day

and long for it to go away.

But all your fears are elsewhere now,

you’ll no more see the snow-tipped boughs

of trees that lost their yellow skin,

while you lost all but will to win.

I doubt that I could be so strong.

I couldn’t fight it for so long.

Yet fight you do, no sword to wield,

as you prepare for greener fields.

Where the leaves of trees are always bright.

Where it’s not too cold to sleep at night.

Your fears will soon be swept away,

but I’ll still be scared of winter days.


I remember the feel of your hands—

reaching out to fix my watch

or adjust my sleeve so it was just right


Your fingers

with pale pink nails

to match the rosiness of your cheeks

and contrast the beautiful snowy white of your hair


The smile on your face

revealed that deep inside you understood what was going on

yet because of an illness somehow could not express

your thoughts and emotions


The way you enjoyed


going for walks

watching soap operas

all the simple things in life that younger people take for granted


The way in which you touched my soul

by singing a song

by looking at me—

your eyes that shouted “please help me”

those beautiful blue eyes that eventually became your communication

when words had long ago ceased


The lessons your life taught me

lessons of patience

of frustration

of family

of love


The indescribable grief I faced when you died

your last breath


The knowledge

that you would not sing Happy Birthday when I turned eighteen

or see me graduate

or be there to share my joy when I married the man of my dreams


The regret for all the times I should have been there for you

and I failed

for the impatience I showed

when you had trouble eating, dressing, walking


The sadness of knowing I would never again be able to hug you

to smile at you

to dance with you


But the knowledge that no matter where in life I am

I can always cherish the memories I had with you

I will always love you.

The Weight of a Stone

My grandmother died while squatting over a toilet hole dug in the vegetable garden behind our house. People say she deserved it. They say the way of her death shows what a sinful life she lead. God punished her and killed her amidst her own wastes. When they took her body out and wrapped it in a yellow sheet, I did not cry. They laid her in the courtyard out front and her white hair spilled like milk onto the red mud. They say she was very light, wrapped in that yellow sheet. Her soul had left her body and taken all her sinful heaviness away. I could see hints of her withered naked body under that sheet. She was washed clean by her own death, and like a piece of paper that is wetted and left out to dry, I thought she would soon crumble. I did not cry when I looked at the blue hollowness underneath her eyes, or the red puffiness of her cheeks when the rest of her body was a leathery yellow. I did not cry as I circled her body twice in respect. They carried her away on green bamboo sticks that sagged under her light weight. Nothing in her life has ever been stable.

Maybe that’s why I did not cry. I wanted to be the one thing she could count upon as stable. I wanted her withered body under that sheet to know that I was her one success. I wanted to thank her and say yes, yes grandmother, yes; I am strong enough and I will survive.

There was a girl who used to wake up before dawn, and after starting the kitchen fire, she would run to her favorite hilltop and flap her arms like a crazed bird at the rising sun. She always wanted to fly. She would scream and flap arms and send low clouds skittering around her brown ankles like snakes slipping on wet mud. Her silhouette is pinned before a rising golden orb forever. She screams and flaps her arms into eternity.

They say her father favored her since she was the youngest. She was allowed to fly kites with the little village boys. She fought them over defeated kites that floated by from a neighboring kite flight. She climbed trees in her short skirt and bared her bottom to boys who had just discovered fantasizing. Then she picked the ripest fruits—either guavas or oranges or mangoes—and threw them at those boys who were too numbed by their dreams to dodge fast enough. They all punched her arm like they would any other boy, but each one was convinced she was his princess.

She fell in love before she learned how to keep her skirt down. But nobody noticed. They started talking much later—after her mother had given her her first full-sleeved choli and long wraparound dhoti. You could no longer see the clumsy clouds slipping about her bare ankles. They, along with her bare bottom, were hidden from the world. She couldn’t flap her arms as effectively in her stiff choli either. Anyone looking up at her black silhouette against yellow would have blinked once and thought he was seeing a bandaged bird. A bird bound by the cloth of fate. A bird which could never fly. All those who saw her would then click their thick tongues and say, “Poor thing—beechara.” Then they would forget all about her and she would be left flapping for a million other suns.

They married her immediately after she learned that flapping her arms in a stiff cotton choli is never effective. Her father cried as he carried his youngest daughter on his back in the traditional farewell. “Even if she was the fattest thing in the world, her weight could never break my back,” he wept, “but the lightness of her absence will kill me.” He died two days later from a broken back after he fell off a tree while chopping branches for firewood.

She was married into a wealthy house—it had two fields—near the capital, Kathmandu. Her father had made sure that his daughter would never have to climb trees to collect fuel for her next meal.

Her husband, at seventeen, was five years older than she and was growing a beard. Her mother-in-law, who had just touched thirty, looked twenty years older and had a voice like a butcher’s knife. She cut flesh left and right and kept her son under her protective wing. But even she was challenged when her young daughter-in-law refused to sleep with her son. The young thing would flap her stiff arms and scream whenever her goateed husband entered her room. Every night would be a relay of yells with a young fledgling flapping her wings and a horrified mother-in-law chopping feathers with her sharp words. The neighbors complained, family shame started to rattle its old bones, and the mother-in-law said that the worst thing a girl can do is to dirty the honor of her father. My grandmother conceived that night with tears choking her like a mouthful of feathers.

Two days after her son was born, her husband died in his sleep with no apparent cause. His mother decided to blame her daughter-in-law for the misfortune. She banged her head against the wall until it bled, and when her daughter-in-law came to hold her away, she attacked her. She slapped my grandmother on and on while the baby cried in its wicker basket.

Everyone was convinced that my grandmother was a witch. “She hated him, so she killed him,” they said. And anyway, in order to enter the rights of witchcraft, a woman has to sacrifice either her newborn or her husband. She chose the flesh that did not belong to her. Nobody tried to take the other piece of flesh away from her. The baby’s grandmother knew that someone would have to breastfeed the boy, and then someone would have to care for him when she—his grandmother—was gone. Besides, it is always too dangerous to play around with a witch.

Later, my grandmother would throw away the fruits her son gave her for Mother’s Day, with a disgusted expression on her face. “But they are so nice and fresh, look,” I would point with my pudgy finger, and she would say, “I know, but that’s the only way to keep him coming back. You have to be very demanding.” And my father kept on coming, because he believed he was not worthy of his mother’s love.

She showed me a stone, once. It was small and black and extremely heavy. “It fell out of the sky,” she said, “I was sitting on the very top of my favorite hill at home. It was so beautiful from up there. All you could see was blue sky stretching ahead and greenery below. Only eagles soar at that height, and when you are up there, you feel like a bird. The sky was blue, but there was lightning. I knew a storm was coming, but I did not care. I did not care because that was my last day on my hill. So I was just sitting there with folded legs, when suddenly this stone fell out of the sky and onto my lap. Just like that.”

She placed the stone in the center of my palm and I shivered. “That stone holds all my troubles,” she said. “It’s a little packet that represents my life. God tells me that I can hold it in my palm. I tell you that you can, too. Just hold it in your palm, and then you can look at it from a bird’s-eye view—just like an eagle. It is the only way to survive. Look at how small it is, so irrelevant. But feel how heavy it is. It can weigh you down. Amazing, isn’t it?” She kept that stone because her only purpose was I, and my only purpose is the stone of life.

Just before my grandmother died, she had taken to walking out into the fields at night with withered arms flapping and cracking at her sides. No one came to her funeral. They were scared by her lightness. But she was always light, I tell them; all her heaviness is in the stone. They just wrinkled their noses at me and said that I had gotten too much under her influence. Only my father cried like a baby at her funeral. She has made him weak with her fear of losing him.

My grandmother died five years ago, and tomorrow I am getting married to the man I love. I am walking up a steep hill and there are silver hints of lightning where the hilltop breaks into the sky. I know this is the greatest purpose of my life.

I hurl a small black stone into blueness. There is lightness in my open palm. I open my arms up to my shoulders and feel the wind, hot with sparks of lightning, sweep up my face. I wonder what happened to my grandmother’s one true love. Where is he? Although there is a strong temptation, I resist flapping my arms. Let all the people looking up at my silhouette mistake me for a soaring eagle, soaring above a million more storms to come. The ghost of a flightless bird takes the first drop of rain into her mouth and soars. Soars; just like that.

Barely Remember

Dearest Granddaddy,

I barely remember you.

All I have are

The slices of your voice,

Images of you drinking your Jack Daniel’s

Every day at 4 o’clock,


I miss you,

I wish I could have learned from you

With your pens and papers,

Newspapers and editorials,

If only you could have survived life.