April 10, 2007

One of These Stories is Probably True

Note: I decided to close comments on this entry. Please feel free to email.

1) My grandmother collected owls. Or rather, she once said she liked owls, and so people began collecting owls for her. Some of glass, some of brass, some of stone and some pewter, some were butt ugly but others were cuter. WOAH! I think I just accidentally channeled the Seuss. Anyway…she had owls. Big ones acted as book ends, little ones peered out of every nook and cranny in the shelf space. She had plush stuffed ones and one big poured plaster one that sat in a corner of the den.

One Christmas I gave her an owl. I can’t picture it. No idea what kind. I bet it was small and cheap as I was small (maybe 8 or 9) and poor. She tucked it sourly on a shelf next to several other owls, and she turned and said to me, quietly, so no one else could here, “I’ve come to hate owls. Never tell people you collect something. They’ll flood you. It will be an easy way to get you a thing without them having to think about you. And you’ll come to hate it.”

2) My grandmother collected owls. Or rather, she once said she liked owls, and so people began collecting owls for her.

I never gave her one. If I had, I think I would remember what it looked like. Once I asked her why she had so dern many, and she said to me, quietly, as if we were co-conspirators, “I made the mistake of telling people I liked them, once. Never tell people you collect something. They’ll flood you. It will be an easy way to get you a thing without them having to think about you. And you’ll come to hate it.”

I don’t know which story is true; my grandmother and I had a complicated relationship, and both versions are very possible. I KNOW she came to hate owls and I know she told me not to tell anyone I collected things. I may have ADDED the PERSONAL owl to the memory to vilify her when I was angry with her. I may have retold it to myself WITHOUT the owl I gave her so it would not hurt.

I have no way to know which is correct---Memory is mutable and subjective. I can clearly remember it both ways. Years later, I’d remember her words when people started collecting pigs for me. I have SCADS of pigs, and some are displayed around my house and are special to me…

---My salt and Pepper Pigger shakers from Scott, back when we were “just friends, Mom, GAWD, it’s SO not like that…”

---The stone pig from my sister in law, the one with the hair bow and the smooth back that Baby Maisy loved to pet and pet.

---The buxom six breasted pig struggling into a bra, a remembrance from a lost friend I am still grieving.

---The wedding cake pigs my mother gave me when I got engaged, and the pig in the diaper by the same artist that came when I told her Scott and I were knocked up.

---The evil black wrought iron pig, also from my sister in law, that had to be kept in a drawer for YEARS because my two year old son would wake up crying, THE BACK PIG IS EAT ME LEG! THE BACK PIG IS CHASE!
FINALLY I figured out it he was dreaming about that wrought iron fireplace pig. I offered to throw it away, and that freaked Sam out – like I would be LETTING IT LOOSE. SO. I had him watch me put it in drawer and pile things on so the pig could not get out. The nightmares eased up, but ALWAYS, on bad dream nights, that pig was a factor. He haunted Sam.
One day, when Sam was newly 7, I said, “Let’s get that pig out of the drawer.”
“NO!!!!!!!!!’ Sam said.
“Yes,” I said.
I opened the drawer and unearthed the pig, and he sidled over, very cautious and slow. Finally he braced his spine and peered in.
There was a pause, and he said, “Oh… I don’t think that’s the right pig.”
I said, “That’s the black pig, Sam.”
He shrugged and said, “Really? That’s not how I remember that pig being.”
He sauntered off, Mr. Big Man, and he never dreamed that BACK PIG IS EAT MY LEG again.

--My first pig, an ugly blown glass thing, old and faceless because all his paint had worn away. I stole him from my grandmother’s shed a few years after she told me not to collect things. I put him in my room and announced to everyone that I liked pigs, a lot, and that I would be collecting them, thank you.

Now most of my pigs are in a box in the basement, and I hate to get pigs. More than that, however, I hate that my grandmother was right.

To say that my grandmother and I had a complicated relationship is SUCH understatement---OH! Such understatement. She came out of a kind of poverty that still exists today, but that I have a hard time fathoming. It’s hard to look at and very ugly. I visited it while researching THE GIRL WHO STOPPED SWIMMING, and it is not regular American Southern Wal-Mart/Trailer poverty which features indoor toilets and television. My grandmother grew up hungry, in one room, breaking her thin back to pick cotton all through the years my children have spent playing and learning to read. My grandmother slept outside in the summer because the shack they lived in would be stuffed floor to ceiling with cotton they had sharecropped.

By the time I knew her, she was still poor, but it was blue collar, southern small town regular life. She had lamps. She had chairs and indoor plumbing. As a child, I never saw or visited the visceral, battle-to-survive poverty she grew up in, though when my grandfather would reminisce about “the good old days,” he did it alone. She had no tales to tell, and if we asked her for one, she would say, “These are my good old days.”

She was a difficult woman. Her childhood shaped her in ways I can’t fathom, and manners and putting a good face forward to the world were more important to her than love, than kindness, than choosing what was right, than…anything. You could be stabbing a person to DEATH under the table, and she would sit quiet and not mind as long as above the table, you kept a smile on and your white shirt was freshly pressed.

I wrote THE GIRL WHO STOPPED SWIMMING to try to understand her. Not in a literal way. It’s a made up story. These are made up people. My grandmother does not appear. But I see several large pieces of her in it. I tried to learn her insides with it. I wrote it, I realized, so I could understand why someone might value the surface more than the substance of a thing, and to try to understand what could make a person so. I wrote the book, in short, to learn how to forgive her.

She died when I was halfway through.

I went to the funeral. We are Irish, and so we laid her out. Everyone came by to look down at her face and say she looked natural and pass slowly by and then stood around her body trading recipes and memories. I didn’t think I would feel much. We had not been close in years. I was there for my mother, quite frankly, and all of what I felt, I felt for her. And yet, when my turn to pass by came, I found it beautiful and strange to look into my grandmother’s coffin and recognize my own hands on the ends of her wrists.

Like most American women, I am ambivalent about my looks. I will never be good-pretty-thin-valuable enough, and in some awful way, thin and valuable are the same words in my head when I try to apply those concepts to me. My worth goes up as my weight drops, and I hate that about myself. I hate that I hate my body most days, even as it runs and does my work. It is strong and mighty, a magnificent beast, my body, a miracle. The things I value most, my memories and my love for my family, are HOUSED in it. This body fastens me to my husband, and together we made children and this body grew them well and kept them safe so that they came out hale and lovely. I should ADORE this body, but of course, I am American and female, so I don’t.

But I’ll tell you, I have always and without reservations loved my body’s hands. They are long and very beautiful to me---my mother calls them piano player’s hands. They do not match the wide duck feet I got from my father. I trip over dust motes, but my hands are always graceful. They are slim and elegant and quick. I was shocked to learn they are a lovely thing I got from her, and I did not know that they were hers until I saw them folded inside a coffin, older, and with all their quickness gone.

In an uncrowded moment, I went back to measure my hand by folding it over hers. Her skin was cool and waxy. The funeral makeup did not come off ---it was dry and felt like a varnish. But our hands fit exactly, our palms the same width, long fingers ending in the same pretty tapers.

Later, after we had put her in the ground and gone back to eat deli platters and Lays BBQ chips and sweet pickles, everyone kept asking me “Look around her place, Do you want anything? Do you need anything?”

“No, thank you,” I said. Over and over. Did I want this chair? These dishes? That vase lamp little table quilt rug sofa? No. I didn’t. Nothing.

My grandmother had moved from her house to a small apartment in assisted living. Many of the things I remembered her having in my childhood were gone. But when I went to her bathroom to exchange my black cashmere for faded denim, preparing to drive home, I saw that on a little knick-knack shelf over the sink, she still had a small tribe of her owls, watching me with their blank, round eyes.

I plucked a brass one from the back and stuffed him in my pocket. I thought I would put him down in the basement with my pigs, but I didn’t. He is in my office, the room of my house where I am most myself, where I work and do most of my in home playing. I think he is going to stay there.

For the record, I am NOT collecting owls, so would-be gift-givers, get thee hence.


I’m glad I stole him. I don’t know if he is the owl I gave her. I don’t know if I ever gave her an owl. Never the less, I’ve decided to remember that he is. As a child, I wrapped him in red paper and curled thin ribbon with my blunted scissors and put him with the other gifts for Sara Lee. Memory is mutable and subjective, and I own all of mine. So. I gave him to her and she liked him, even though she was tired of owls. She secretly always liked him best.

Posted by joshilyn at April 10, 2007 10:55 AM