Monday, May 14, 2007

My Maternal Grandparents

The two people you see staring back at you were extremely God-fearing and deeply devoted to one another. They were neat, hard-working, simple people of color, born in the Deep South at a time when that part of America was divided along an Apartheid-like color line. People of all shades could marry as long as they did not marry pure-Whites ( and even that could be done, and was done in cases of great wealth or power).

The pictures were taken on the same day at the same photographer's studio during the years of the Great Depression. These two people are my maternal grandparents who would have been in their mid-30's. No one smiled in photographs back then.

My grandfather was of Creole stock who likely had a white father or grandfather while my grandmother's mother was believed to be full-blooded Cherokee Indian but was more likely to have been of the Chickasaw nation. They would marry and live in and around the same county they were born for the rest of their lives. They would raise eight healthy children, three boys and five girls. The Native American, Black, and White genes would bounce around the kids like a rubber ball, each feature appearing more in some and less of one particular kind in another. None of the children would remain at home. The boys would escape by joining the military and be sent to fight for democracy in Italy and then Korea by a nation where they themselves were treated as second-class citizens. They would return home and go to school and buy homes on GI loans. The girls were all pretty and would marry men with dreams too big for the rural South. They would migrate to other parts of the country where those dreams stood a better chance of becoming reality.

My grandparents would raise their children as best they knew and then both die of cancer only months apart. I would inherit that gene. I would remember little of either of them but more of my grandfather and his love of books, magazines and the Bible. My great-grandmother the Indian, would live to be 103, outliving her daughter by several years. She would be blind by then. I have that gene too. Then the children would start to die one by one. The youngest three daughters are all that remain. My mother was the youngest. She was the prettiest too, but I suppose I'm bias.

When I was about ten I saw an Italian organ grinder on the street one day with a little monkey on his shoulder. He wore a three-piece suit and a thick mustache and a hat and I thought it was my grandfather back from the dead. I've never seen anyone that looked like my grandmother, not even my aunts or her sister who lived to be 97. Sometimes I do wonder though, at what point did people decide to start smiling when they had their picture taken. Did you ever wonder that too?

Here's some poems to read while you ponder the notion:

"In A Forth-Night Holiday" Sonnet

Seven words learned in Italian. A background
partly hidden by fog. Hawthorn or lilac. Sage
or oregano. Her long red hair. Bells ringing. A
train whistle. It's soft nap. A Flock of noisy
birds. We had to clean it all up. A blue velvet
gown reaching to the floor. I'm sorry, what?
In a large bucket of soapy water. One flowering
tree. Lights on the fishing boats. Artichoke or
garlic. Moving sidewalks. Voices overheard
from the adjacent compartment. Sewing with
dark blue thread. Or probably clouds. A coral
neckline. Her sensual nap. Dog or wolf baying
at the moon. Couples walking arm & arm. Idly
stirring my coffee. A bruise to the knee.
Costume jewelry. Damp bread in hunks.
Telephone lines. Zig-zag stitching. Hills
remembered. As a dragonfly might. Tongues
for sandwiches. She steps from the shower &
reaches for a towel. Windstrong enough to push
us. Then more lovely weather.

Plan B.Part 2.

This time, let's try using mythological figures:

-In a small box flying over Dresden at night.

-A birthday celebration of a cat with twelve toes.

-Once upon a time in a microwave.

-A drawer full of things that could never glow.

-Dreaming of snow falling in a spoon.

-Brushing his teeth with his lower lip.

-Or while striving to be a tail-end pornographer.

-One nail driven through the heart of a page.

-A garden paradise made completely of broken bottles.

-To believe in beads & women with tangled hair.

-Barely anyone to say, everyone said.

-Or it's snowing in Tokyo, which never existed.

These poems first publised at:
Copyright 2007 by Maurice Oliver. All Rights Reserved.
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Rethabile said...

Wow, fascinating account. There two or three things I don't get.

"People of colour" in America just means not 100% Caucasian, right? The "one-drop" philosophy that used to be law, or something like that.

And there are two traits that I don't see how you can know you inherited (blindness and cancer), unless you start developing both.

It's an arresting account that got me wondering whether I could do the same with my family tree.

Maurice Oliver - Editor said...

Hi Rethabile,

Thanks for the interest.

My "family tree" is indeed a fascinating one. My brother is much more of the expert when it comes to its history, both previous and present.

Yes, in America, the "one-drop" policy was the rule-of-thumb for hundreds of years and still is today. Otherwise, thousands of offspring of White masters would join the ranks of "the privileged".

In the previous century many of those offspring simply "decided" to pass for White because of its economic and social advantages, that is, if they could get away with it. I often think my own father could have "passed for white" had he chosen to, but he did not, and ended-up one of the conerstones in the Black community where he owned and operated his business.

No, I have no active symptoms of the diseases of my forefathers, even though I have worn glasses since my teens. But I know those gene "traits" are in my genetic makeup and could effort me one day. But hey, you have to die of something, right! Who in their right mind would want to stick around a place with melting polar caps any longer than necessary:)