GRANDMÈRE IS REPEATING her favorite stories for my enrichment in a tidy room carpeted with green shag.
Grandmère has no filter.
On TV, Pope John Paul II is pretending to be God. A statue of The Virgin is enshrined among candles in a window. I should kneel in front of it, says Grandmère, and ask it for a good husband. (She was a naïve girl when she married Grandpère and definitely didn’t love him, but he was a fine husband anyway, and she was very content).
It’s wrong to worship idols, says my thirteen-year-old self, conscientiously. But ninety-one-year-old Grandmère isn’t listening…
Grandmère is so petite–when she plays the organ her feet barely reach the pedals. She has a memory like an elephant, though, and has traced her roots all the way back to 1695. She opens her album and flowing names like Jean-Baptiste reenforce the knowledge that my people came from France, ate snails, and died praying to the dead. (Ahhh, you say, that explains so much!)
They worked harder and played harder, these people of long ago–rising and setting with the sun. They were more present in the moment. They were better neighbors. Their memories were more vivid, their conversations more substantial. Their music was born in the dust of the field and the sweat of the brow. They wrote long, expressive love letters…
They are strangers to me, these people of long ago.
Yet I came out of them.
Their 20th Century obituaries were all much the same: so-and-so married his childhood sweetheart when he was nineteen, assumed management of the family business when he was twenty-two, etc…
My 2nd great-grandfather dropped dead one morning for reasons unknown. Another one made coffins for a living (melancholy fellow). In fact, there are still undertakers among my relatives to this day. One of my dad’s brothers worked at a funeral parlor for a little while. A corpse developed rigor mortis while in a semi-sitting posture during a memorial service, and my dad’s brother actually had to sit on the lid of the casket to get it closed before the burial. (There’s your morbid/random fact for the day.)
My 3rd great-grandfather met his second wife at his first wife’s wake. His mother was half Native American. No doubt I lost that drop of native blood in my first nosebleed (which was a gusher, let me tell you), and I suspect that if you shake any American family tree hard enough an Indian will fall out; but my mom has been called a “white Indian” by the locals, and my grandpa looked at my sun-tanned skin and sun-bleached hair one summer day when he was trying to take a nap on our sofa and dubbed me Desert Flower.
Me Desert Flower. Me good Indian. Me no speak forked tongue.
(If you’re Native American, please forgive my sense of humor… That was lame… I know.)
There’s a mirky, sepia photo of a couple of 4th great-grandparents. They both weighed 240 pounds at the time, according to Grandmère. The woman in the picture left the man in the picture the day after their wedding and wept for three days before her father could persuade her to go back to him. The poor young thing told her parents (in French, says Grandmère, because that’s an important detail) … well, never mind what she told them!
And the moral of the story is?
(When you’re too lazy to write something sensible, you put “and the moral of the story is?” at the end and let the reader do your work for you.)