I’ve been thinking a lot about my grandmother this week. February 20th would have been her birthday. She influenced me a great deal. She was a hard-working woman, strong, and had endured the kind of roads you walk in life that no one looks back on. She had black hair and the nose of a small quilt button. She was ashamed of the ugly scars on her hands from picking cotton. Some scars don’t quite heal.
She had sound intuition. She could judge a person within minutes as someone worth trusting or not, and she was never wrong. Not once. It didn’t matter where we were–at the bank, grocery store, or in line for a hamburger at a fast-food joint. She knew. She could tell just by looking at a person’s face and the way they came off. Many times she took my hand and we’d walk away: “Let’s go, Michael, we don’t want to be here.” And she was always right. We didn’t want to be there.
I believed that my grandmother could find the truth in any man and she always knew the gist of my little fibs before I uttered them. When I tried, she looked sternly and said, “Michael J,” and that’s when I knew to shut my mouth.
She was the funniest person I knew. In the morning, she waited for my grandfather to come home from the graveyard shift at Reynold’s Aluminum. As he settled down with his cup of coffee, she’d empty his lunchbox. He talked about work–the people on the job, the labor of the hours, the words spoken among fellow shifters to pass the time. He always mentioned the guys by name and my grandmother knew them all–the names of tough workers, like Scotty, Jim, and Hank. There were stories of forklifts, big rolls of aluminum, and accidents in the days before worker’s comp. There were stories of union teamsters trying to fight for better hours and pay. There were stories of things I could not be expected to understand.
At my grandmother’s funeral the mysterious sounding names showed up to pay their respects. They were all strangers to me. I found it odd because none of them were family and I was slightly offended at their being there. But the protagonists of my grandmother’s stories came to life, and when she died, their names quickly faded away. The Scotties, Jims, and Hanks sat in the last pew, paying respect to a woman who offered them a kind word, a warm cup of coffee when they dropped by the house, who told their story, humble as they were.
If my grandfather didn’t have any stories to tell of the graveyard shift, then my grandmother joined him with breakfast coffee at the dining table. She told her own stories, leaning over a coffee cup, and they were always funny, making me laugh. She had a way of building them up, never too wordy, too long, overindulgent, or embellished. The stories came from a special place within her–a faculty of strong intuition that judged character and gripped the truth as it really was. My grandmother told one hell of a story. And she’s the only person who ever had me laughing in tears, grabbing my sides, gasping for air. Her stories were always about people, places, and things–funky people, strange characters, lame relatives, weird neighbors, wrecked cars, and stray dogs. Sometimes it was a story about her own dog, starting with, “You know what that damn dog did?”
I always listened to her stories. They made me laugh, sure, but they also taught me important lessons. Even if they were fictions, they spoke more truth than I could imagine. My grandmother would have never considered herself a teacher, but she was. Her timing was pitch perfect and somehow, even as a kid, I knew that her talent came from having lived an imperfect life–a life filled with imperfect decisions, choices, and ill-spoken words. But it’s her words that I’ll always remember and since she’s gone they’re all I have of her.
There are certain people who come along in your life who make a difference. They impress you with their story. You carry their words with you and they become a part of who you are. Their words shape how you think, your ideas and feelings, and the memories you have of them become the image of yourself.
In my grandmother’s house, she had a back room with a window that looked out onto the backyard and a fenced in dirt lot beyond it. It wasn’t much to look at, but it was all I had to look at. The limp clothesline, thick Bermuda grass, and mud daubers burrowing into the thin bark of trees. It was Arizona summer hot. A glass of iced tea dripped water from rim to base in the hot sun. It’d get so hot that all you could do was turn the lawn hose on yourself full blast.
I used to do my homework in the back room, occasionally looking out the window at the yard, imagining myself playing with the dog or by myself, as I usually did, since I was an only child. I’d have papers, books, and school work spread over the table. I remember working on grammar exercises for countless hours: diagramming sentences, copying out paragraphs, making sure subjects and verbs agreed in figure and tense. If I looked out the window too long, my grandmother paused from folding laundry just long enough to tell me to finish my school work. Nothing was more important than that. Nothing was more important than school. I didn’t know why, but it was. I couldn’t have known that it was because she had only an eighth grade education. So I returned to work and spent afternoons wanting to play but instead wrote grammar exercises.
I’m sure the work I did on those hot summer afternoons made me into an English teacher. When I think of grammar exercises, I think of watching grass grow, the dog circling the yard making her rounds, and layers of dust on the field beyond the grassy yard. I hear the words of my grandmother, saying, “Michael J, if you wanna be somebody you gotta do your homework.” To this day I wonder whether I’ve become somebody. I wonder whether I’ve become the kind of person my grandmother would enjoy talking with. Or would she take a young one’s hand and walk away? I think of her words and all those grammar exercises. How have they shaped the person I’ve become?
Our language makes us somebody–and that language comes from our homes and loved ones: it carries memories of those who spoke the words. Language embodies our culture and worldviews–traditions, values, and the wisdom of elders. Language is the words we hear and the food we eat; it is whispers emerging from silence. Language creates the music of our lives. Words–the stories we tell–shape who we are. As William Butler Yeats said, “Words alone are certain good.” All we have to do is remember. Then we’ll have our own story to tell.