For the past week, I’ve been biding my time in a little place called Red Springs, North Carolina.
Never heard of it?
I suspected as much.
I am down here to give my aunts and uncles some reprieve in their care of my grandmother, who is 86, and living with Alzheimer’s.
I am overcome with a great many emotions as I pass my time in her company—joy, peace, frustration¸ pity—but the most pronounced of them all, is guilt.
I never appreciated my grandmother as much as I should have.
The reasons for this are many.
For one, she was sequestered out here, in this most remote of locations.
But, more significantly, perhaps, my grandmother was (and continues to be) a hard woman; built for hard living in a countryside that refuses to be domesticated despite mankind’s repeated attempts.
She had guns, knives, nun chucks (you think I’m kidding, but I’m not) under every bed. During my childhood there was a switch behind every door.
And when I was growing up, her competition was my father’s mother, a woman who I saw daily—who took care of me and showered me with affection and gifts; a woman who, in all of my days, never laid an offending hand on me.
I was well into my teens before I realized what an amazing woman my maternal grandmother was. Even then, the distance separating us posed a viable threat to any burgeoning relationship.
College offered some small change in this department, and I was able to visit more, and see to her more. I enjoyed those times with her; the delight my unexpected visits brought. I could tell that she saw a lot of her in me; the candor of my speech most especially.
But again, things changed with law school and my entry into the real job market. The last seven or eight years has gone by with my occasional letters, irregular phone calls, infrequent visits; and I am filled with remorse, and an almost suffocating sense of shame.
The truth of the matter is, my grandmother loved me very much. She enjoyed my company. She was very proud of me. The display of affection just never came easily for her, as it does not come easily for me.
But I can see the love she has for me during her coherent moments when she calls out my name. I can see it still when she reverts to the simple kindness one offers a stranger when her memory fails.
I’d like to tell you a story about my grandmother. It is a story I never quite forget, despite my numerous attempts. It is a story I only recently told my mother, though I suspect she still does not quite believe me. My own disbelief in the enormity of the circumstances is, in part, what fueled my reflections, today.
I’ll do you a solid and advance you the irony of the tale before we really begin.
Simply put, my background in criminal defense has led me to the conclusion that—everybody is trying to fuck your kids.
Perhaps “everybody” is a bit broad-stroked.
I suppose not “everybody” in the world is trying to fuck your kids.
But a solid 54-72% of it is/would/will probably try at some point—to fuck your children.
Don’t believe me?
Consult your nearest practitioner of criminal defense/prosecution.
Or Tyler Perry.
Now, as a child, I was woefully unaware of the intense vulnerability the mere fact of my youth presented.
My mother had, of course, done the cursory “You need to tell me if anyone tries to ‘mess’ with you or touch you ‘down there’” talk with me.
But I took it for granted that I would always be safely ensconced in the protection of my parents. Most children do.
Anyway, the summer that I was seven years old, I was to be sent away to my grandmother’s house for a month—a fate I feared worse than death.
I hadn’t spent a great deal of time with my grandmother that particular year, and she’d offered to care for me for a spell, giving my parents some much-needed alone time.
As an only child, I was relatively self-sufficient. My parents were generous, but strict, so my needs were few. And, although I generally erred on the sickly side, the dry heat of a summer in the Carolinas was bound to do wonders for my bronchitis-riddled lungs. From my parents’ perspective, it was too perfect.
The one hiccup had been the small matter of my left-hand index finger. The past few months had seen the development of a knot/cyst right at the joint that my mother had kept a watchful eye on. For months, its growth had not abated, and my mother finally relented to her hypochondria and took me to a dermatologist. While the doctor had not been able to precisely diagnose the nature of the knot, he’d found it harmless, prescribing me a topical ointment to rub on it, daily, with the hopes of improvement.
So, with that, a handful of toys, a suitcase of clothes, and a lifetime’s supply of Skin So Soft, my parents deposited me in the country, with naught but cotton, tobacco, and corn fields as far as the eye could see.
As I’ve stated, my grandmother was a hard woman. She beat my cousins and I the way most people beat—
Well, there is no appropriate metaphor, really.
No one really beats anything with the frequency my grandmother struck/switched us.
During the day we tore through the fields, sand dusting our feet, spurs splintering our heels. We caught frogs and grasshoppers. We played with dollbabies and watched daytime soaps in my uncle’s ramshackle house—the 5 roomed, rickety-foundationed A-frame that had housed my mother and her six siblings during her own childhood.
At night we had dancing and singing contests, and my grandmother would serve us vanilla ice cream with warm blueberry compote, or homemade fudge.
We carried on like that for weeks. Despite the daily whoopings for some this or that, that was, more often than not, the consequence of my cousins’ malfeasance as opposed to my own, I was fine. Content, even.
Then, one day, it all changed.
I’d woken up, and entered the kitchen, much in the fashion I always had. I ate breakfast and listened to my uncles talk about the goings on at work. If it had been unusually calm due to the absence of my cousins, I hadn’t noticed.
Gathering my plate and scraping its remains into the slop bucket (something she never did for me), my grandmother tersely instructed me to wash up and put on clothes. We were taking a trip.
I didn’t ask my grandmother any questions.
One didn’t ask my grandmother a lot of questions.
I simply assumed we were going to see one of her brothers or sisters somewhere in a neighboring town (she had 17, so this was an entirely real probability).
It was not until we got into her car that my grandmother mentioned, in the same terse tones, that we were going to see someone about my hand.
I’d completely forgotten about my finger. My country misadventures had left little time to be bothered with something as insignificant as a finger. I’d neglected the ointment; hadn’t given it a second thought once my parents’ car disappeared down Grandma’s narrow, sandy drive.
But, it seemed odd that my grandmother would take me to see someone about my finger. Even though I was a child, and knew nothing of adult matters, I had the good sense to realize humble Red Springs paled in comparison to my home with respect to any type of sophisticated medical practice.
I was certain my mother hadn’t sanctioned this impromptu trip.
And what the fuck did “someone” about my finger mean?
She hadn’t meant “doctor,” that was for damned sure.
Grandma didn’t have the money to just up and take me to the doctor when nothing was bothering me. Plus, she hadn’t said “doctor.” Even then I knew that people said “doctor” when they meant “doctor.” Grandma had said “someone.”
I started to panic.
Like. In the car.
I started to panic.
Our long drive did nothing, and I do mean nothing, to assuage my growing apprehension.
I knew incessant nagging would only cost me later, but I was at a shitmyself level of fear, so I risked it.
“Grandma, how much further is it?” I asked.
My grandmother simply stared out above the steering wheel, not sparing me the slightest attention, or even the courtesy of a glance.
“Grandma, my finger doesn’t hurt or anything,” I offered. Surely this would make her turn the car around.
She continued to drive in stony silence.
I looked out the window, despondence settling in due to the endless succession of trees that lined the lone two-lane highway.
“Grandma,” I tried for a third and final time, “Are we going to see a doctor?”
Though she continued to look ahead, she mumbled out, “Kind of doctor.”
After about 45 minutes my grandmother pulled off into a wooded alcove and parked her car.
We were not at a doctor’s office.
I was too young to process the “what in the FUCK” this particular set of circumstances warranted, but my small, undeveloped mind was nearly undone with fear.
I stayed in the car.
I knew in doing so, I chanced a very real dance with death at the hands of my grandmother, but I had to give it a shot.
She approached the passenger door. “Girl, if you don’t get out of that car,” she said, pulling the door open.
I reluctantly put both feet on the ground, and began to follow my grandmother into the woods.
We’d walked about a fourth of a mile when a man met us in a clearing.
He was about fifty years of age, and brown-skinned. I remember him wearing a red, plaid shirt and gray work pants.
My grandmother said a few words to him, and then the man offered out his hand. I looked at my grandmother.
“Go with him,” she said.
Was she serious?!
I didn’t even know this dude.
We were in the middle of the fucking woods.
This motherfucker won’t no damned doctor.
I stood my ground.
“Child, do you know how many switches there are out here?” my grandmother asked.
Truthfully, I hadn’t known. But I wagered there were a lot.
So I went with the man.
He took my hand and we walked deeper into the woods.
I didn’t know what exactly was going on.
But I knew it was some ole bullshit.
When we’d walked for about five more minutes, we came to an abrupt stop.
He looked me over in intense silence, and then looked around.
It was then that all of the conversations my mother and I had had about inappropriate touching and people “messing” with me started to sink in. This man was gonna do something bad to me. Something very bad. And I could feel it. And I’d been delivered directly into his calloused hands by one of my own.
His movements were gingerly as he reached into his right shirt pocket. With his right hand, he still held my left.
It was a full minute before I recognized the object he withdrew.
It was a pocket knife!
THIS was how they proposed to fix my finger?!
THESE MOTHERFUCKERS WERE GONNA CUT THE KNOT OUT?
I started to cry, then.
I was never particularly given to tears, as a child. In my household, I’d found they did nothing in the way of getting me what I wanted, so I’d abandoned them almost entirely—except when I was being sincere.
I was legitimately scared as fuck.
So cry I did. And loud.
“Noooooo!!!!” I screamed. “Don’tcutmeitdoesn’thurtleavemealoneNOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!” I rushed.
Emotion began to register on the man’s face. My outburst had surprised even him.
“Shhh shh shh!” he whispered. “Shhhhh!!!! Calm down! Calm down!”
I cried, still.
“I ain’t gon hurt you, none, Child. I ain’t gon hurt you, none. I swear it,” he said.
I knew from my days of endless television watching that that was precisely what would-be assailants said right before “messing” with you.
“Shhh! I ain’t gon hurt you. See?” And he took the knife and deposited it forcefully into the bark of the tree we were standing next to.
My tears began to subside into soft whimpers.
He turned to the tree and carved something I didn’t recognize.
He then gathered my hands into his and looked directly into my eyes. Holding my gaze for a moment, he threw his head back and cried out to the heavens in prayer. There were words I didn’t know mixed in, but he prayed for a while. I began to notice tracks of his own tears streaming down his face.
And, without warning, in a flash, it was done.
And he was walking me back to my grandmother. Completely unfucked.
In the car on the way home, neither one of us said anything to each other.
Only at the conclusion of our 45 minute drive, as we pulled slowly up the long, winding, sandy lane, did she break the silence, saying firmly, “Don’t tell your mother.”
In two days time, the knot was gone.