I didn’t notice my mothering until this moment: I was nine years old, and my mother had gone back to work full time since her youngest baby, my little brother, was in school full time. I felt adrift, and I’d called my grandmother to bring my cold lunch to school that I’d forgotten – again.
She arrived to the school office, making a scene. Grandma always made a scene: She of the infamous hour glass figure and bedroom eyes. She was so beautiful that even I could understand why my grandfather would steal off with her in the heat of strawberry picking season to marry her. The landowner he picked for- her father -wasn’t looking. She stomped wet leaves off her high heeled boots, and brushed her wavy black hair back from her eyes. She handed me the lunch and said in her South Louisiana accent, “Michelle.” I stared up at her, as silent and plain as she was outspoken and colorful. “Minou….Do you know that Grandma loves you?”
I was confused for a moment. Did she mean her, or was she talking about my other small and cuddly grandma? I thought it over…All I really knew that she knew of me is what I’d overheard her tell my mother the hippie, “You’ll have to watch that one. She doesn’t have much Mother Wit.” But, it appeared that she had decided to love me, knobby knees on pencil legs topped by coke bottle glasses because my mother wasn’t available. I nodded yes, thanked her for the lunch and the love, and went back to my classroom.
I saw my grandmother every day from then until I left for college. She came to my house after school each day so that we wouldn’t be home alone. Never mind that there were three of us, and we wouldn’t exactly be alone. Grandma was there, talking. She told us we looked “sharp as a skeeter’s peter” when we dressed well, and that we looked like “the cat been suckin’ on it” when we didn’t. We knew, thanks to her, how to tell if someone was “crazy as a road lizard”. She came on Saturdays to tend the garden, and on Sunday we saw her at church.
She was everywhere.
And she learned me my Mother Wit.
She couldn’t whisper even when she tried. She let me eat dessert first, because nothing can come before fresh strawberry shortcake. She trained me how to snap green beans and how to spit watermelon seeds. And when I was older as she was teaching me to press sheets soft enough to make you believe you were sleeping on a Jasmine scented bayou, she taught me to “never, ever sleep with a man who wears his watch to bed. Means he has someplace else to be.” Every time she left me, she said, “Grandma loves you.” Then she would grab my face, and plant a big fresh-from-the-Avon-lady kiss in the middle of my forehead.
She called me on the telephone only twice a year. Once on the birthday we shared, at the crack of dawn.
“z’at Michelle?” She’d coo into the phone. I’d smile and I think she could hear me, because she’d say, “Happy birthday!”
I’d say, “Happy Birthday, Grandma”. And then she’d get off the line, because phone calls are expensive – even local ones.
The other time she’d call was Christmas morning. She’d sing the blues in her husky voice. “Merry Christmas, baby. You sho’ll do treat me nice.” It was mother. But more Grand.
One Christmas day, I had to call everyday Grandma in her hospital room. “Merry Christmas, baby.” She rasped. “You sho’ll do treat me nice…” I got off the line, like I should, and went down there, even though she’d told us not to. Once we skid into the room she said, “I don’t want no more surgeries. I’m tired now. And it’ll be so good to see my mother again.” That shut me up, and instead of arguing, I put a thick French braid in her glorious hair. She said she didn’t want to look a mess when the doctors came by. And she told me to go look in her front hall closet for my Christmas present. It was an afghan she’d finished knitting just the week before. “That’s for you, Michelle. You throw it on, you – when you get cold. You keep cold.”
Grandma died that night, and I’d been orphaned.
Our birthday came six months later, and I woke up early, to no call. I sat in the center of a perfectly warm albeit crappy apartment wrapped my Afghan and thought, “Grandma loves you.”
Today, when I see my daughter lean her head forward to get a kiss in the center of the forehead from my mother, I know that Mother Wit is at work. It’s something she can’t learn from me – And, it is Grand.