I know. I know – tis the season. Are you permitted to finish the rest? – You are. To be jolly – perhaps; for love – maybe; giving, cooking, eating – sharing? Pick one, pick all – tis the season though, isn’t it? The reaffirming of traditions, renewing old acquaintances, family – the old, a little bit of the new, same-same. Remembrances, faith, lives lived and lost, ode to the holidays; the holidays – ah yes, the holidays.
Years ago, I traveled over the holidays to visit my mother. Immediately upon my arrival she said what was on her mind… “…don’t get too comfortable, you need to visit your grandmother. She has been asking about you.” Her words were spoken in a mother’s way, saying what she had to say – never asking yes or no, telling. Said not in the same voice and manner as, “close the refrigerator” … “close the front door”, although similar – a demand, an expectation to be acted upon immediately – parental love is apt description when these words are stated in the best light. I answered how I was trained to answer, “Yes, ma’am.” “Yes ma’am” was the answer, even if a multiple choice quiz is given; even if the test is a blind-test – the blinking lights of a well-lived relationship told me how to answer. Doing what I was told to do, reaching holding, hugging – a hug the equivalent of a childhood tag – “I got you”; then changing direction in mid-step, moving sideways, then backward, to do what I was told to do, “not tomorrow, right now.” Not the song’s lyrics, but Georgia’s words.
She told me to visit soon, “Your grandmother is not feeling well.” Not tomorrow right now. I immediately turned to comply – but I digress.
Before leaving I noticed my younger sister standing in the kitchen. I pivoted and moved in her direction. She smiled. I smiled.
“…come with me.”
“I don’t think so.”
“Grandmother Vide has never treated me nice …”
“That’s not true, is it…?”
Honestly, I didn’t know whether Viola Richardson did or not. Yes, I saw her as firm – resolute – woman, a tad mean. I never knew her to treat any of us differently. Absolutely, my view originated from child’s eyes – viewing the world through a limited prism, seeing the immediate, and even if I saw my eyes were probably too colored.
“It’s true”, Ima Jean said, she lowered her head, turned away; still waters indeed run deep. Momma said nothing. She let us talk.
“Oh come with me…,” grabbing Jean’s hand, retrieving a coat of the couch, pulling her with me out the door. Jean willingly complied, in part – I say – even though her shoulders and a palpable silence said she wasn’t.
“If she treats you differently today, we can leave immediately.”
Jean remained hauntingly quiet; sitting in place, looking out the window, staring. Neighborhoods hovered overhead, the wind whistled, we moved west on Interstate 30; past downtown, Mrs. Baird’s Bread bakery, nearing our exit to Lake Como. The uncomfortable cold, the smell of breads, the holiday lights didn’t stop Jean’s voice playing on a repeat cycle … “She has never treated me nice” …
This was a time before others discovered Lake Como was near the downtown district, was ideal for prime development, when others who didn’t look like us only visited to pick up domestic workers – “I know it’s late, oh, come on and steal away.”
Grandmother Vide greeted me. An invisible wall appeared before she could say hello to Jean – which she didn’t – silently engulfing its victim from the time Jean entered to the time she took a seat in the kitchen. She never said a word to Jean. Not a word. The words directed my way now seemed cloistered. Hers was a palpable, striking coldness, no child deserves. Viola Richardson, my father’s mother, did what she did comfortably – a practiced behavior, done over and over again, throughout the years – Merry Christmas indeed. You are so welcomed.
My father, Leon Griffin, gave up early on life. A mixture of segregation, deferred dreams, and the onset of mental illness proved too much. “He gave up. Came home one day, frustrated, in tears; he said he was never going to work another day for a white man and that a Negro couldn’t afford him.” I heard Momma’s words. I saw my father’s withdrawn eyes, barely audible mumbles. He withdrew – quit work – another victim of the unequal distribution of societal resources – so I thought later, so I learned much later. This was the promise I made, an internal promise to work at leveling the playing field; wanting to become a lawyer, working toward law school; “a privilege not accorded…”, Momma said – “in nineteen thirties, nineteen forties Texas” – jingle, jingle.
One time – two, three – four times I saw what I saw; talking, moving uncomfortably about the house, trying to convince myself none of this was true; wanting none of what I saw and heard to be true. I watched Jean move from one level of withdrawal to another – cowering, crying internally, saying nothing – the same nothing she said stumbling out the door, into the car, exiting the car, into the house. Naïve, naïve, me – solving the problem, dismissing what she said, by my actions, my words – nah, nah.
“Grandmother … Jean told me you treated her differently, rude in fact”, were my words. I didn’t let her respond. I didn’t want a response. I saw what I saw. “She is my sister. She will always be my sister and I love her. Your treatment of her is telling me you don’t want anything to do with me. I will never see you again.”
I had never talked to Viola Richardson in such a manner. I never contemplated I ever would. My passage into these unknown waters was before our children were born. They would not have the life-privilege of meeting Viola nor Edward. I was still in college. In hindsight, I was barely considered to be a man – seventeen, perhaps eighteen.
Jean remained seated. She never looked up. She continued to speak silently. The silence though was loud and clear, a continual run-on silence. Childhood anxieties, life experiences, well-worn personality traits said she didn’t want to be in the room; no matter what I said, no matter what I did.
I moved past Grandmother Vide, and grabbed Jean’s now compliant hands. I didn’t have to grab her coat; she had never made herself comfortable. We moved from the kitchen, the living room, to the front porch, to the car, never looking back.
After my father withdrew, Momma divorced him. She ultimately remarried. She had my youngest sisters, during the second marriage (Ima Jean and Ida Dell). One time – within her reach and ears – one of us began to utter an impermissible tease. Georgia wasn’t having any of this: “Don’t ever say step-sister, don’t you ever permit anyone else to do likewise, y’all are brother and sisters.” I believe this was the only time we were given permission to fight by Georgia. I believe my disrespecting my elder was the permitted fight. I told Momma what I saw and heard when we arrived back home. She didn’t chastise me. She said nothing. She had seen me act this way before – doing what I was told to do as a child; fight for my siblings, for me – for her. Jean moved from the perimeter to the back of the house. She continued to speak with a profound silence.
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Viola Richardson loved food, her church, family, design – blending colors, fabrics, linens – nice things. Original and reconditioned antique furniture graced her home. She never permitted Grandfather Edward to cook, even though he readily bragged of being a better cook. “I don’t get it, a chef on the railroad can’t cook for his grand kids”, he said. “She won’t let me cook because I’m a better cook.” Grandmother Vide continue to set the table, pulling out nice plates for dinner.
“Get up and wash your hands”, she said to us. “Shut up” – told to Edward. Strangely, these memories remained etched in place; her immaculately kept home, the wafting smell of the cigars Edward chewed constantly.
I don’t remember seeing Ida. I don’t remember seeing Jean when we moved from the kitchen to the restroom. I complied, oblivious in a child’s way; laughing internally at their banter, ignoring a profound banter which worked to batter the psyche of a child – my sister – over the years.
My other grandmother was Chester Anna was much like Viola in certain ways, they differed though in others. Both brown skinned, good complexion, religious women – firm and plain-spoken. They differed in locale – Chester Anna born, raised and lived in a farming community up until her illness; Viola a city girl. Chester Anna a master of the English language, never a profane word uttered from her lips; Viola’s used only one curse word – repeatedly, even when professing her love for Jesus. “S_ _ t, I love me some Jesus!” I don’t know whether she ever saw or heard us laughing in the other room when she said what she said.
Chester Anna set the table with black rimmed, white metal plates. Like Viola the expectations were clear: children never reached and touched without washing, without paying homage. She made her positions clear, in the same firm, no-nonsense matter. We complied in the same no-nonsense matter, moving away from the table, rushing in the opposite direction, arriving back mere seconds later with part clean hands aloft.
Muh Chest told me the animals knew when their time had come – a rite of passage perhaps – moving from the barn area to far off fields – foretelling their demise; from ashes to ashes, dust to dust. She never called a veterinarian – she knew. Grandmother Vide also knew.
She called my mother. My mother called me. “She wants you to come, Vide wants to see you.”
“I can’t. I won’t.”
“She called Jean. She apologized and asked for her forgiveness. She wants to apologize to you.”
“She doesn’t have to apologize to me…”
“She wants to see you…”
Momma didn’t say I had to travel to Fort Worth. No, no, no – her words were coded in parent-speak, a language I was good at interpreting. This too wasn’t a choice. I traveled to Fort Worth two days later.
Daddy Leon let me into the house; he nodded, moved out of the way, and pointed. I found her in her and Edward’s bedroom – in the back of the house. The curtains were drawn; the room was dark; isolating, warm. She was lying in her bed, her head appeared sweated. The covers were pulled up to her chin. Edward had long passed – the Chambers stove was no more, the kitchen table looked different – no linens, no china – perhaps a different dining room table. The house looked nothing like I remembered: unkempt, smaller – not dirty, not meticulous – not Viola’s home, not kept to Viola’s standards. I quietly moved from place to place – to my place – next to her bed. She extended her left hand from under the covers. She asked me for my forgiveness. I gave what I could – “Yes, ma’am … Momma told me you talked to Ima Jean.”
We didn’t talk long. She didn’t ask much of me nor me of her. I held her hand and heard Chester Anna voice, “it won’t be long”. Seeing animals move to the other field. Seeing elders in the community come to Chester Anna’s home to die. Listening and helping her wash their bodies, seeing the dying process play out in front of my eyes during those long, hot, memorable Texas summers.
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The dishwasher was invented in 1850. The original machine was a wooden contraption which had little no practical application to the home. “When Miele introduced the first automated model in 1960, it was still costly – as much as a housekeeper’s annual salary, in fact. Yet the concept stood the test of time and by the end of the 1970s, the dishwasher had become one of the most common home appliances.”
The history of the dishwasher is not the reason I muse. It does help one understand the reason I muse. One set of grandparents having better plates than the other is not why nor is both grandmother’s sternest, bordering on meanest is not the reason why. Such was their way – part of their ingrained personalities, surviving in a hostile world, making sure their charge remained respectful, dutiful and fed.
Members of Viola’s church spoke of her meanest less than a month after my visit – followed by polite, church giggles, layered with “yes Lords”, before smiling, looking outward, comforting with references to her kindness, and multi-fold, complex personality – as we all are. I tell these stories because this is what holidays to do us – what makes us happy, what makes us sad, a time for reflections.
Please permit me to explain this way: Market Insider issued a 2017 Press Release:
Much like pestilence, paper plates and cups, plastic silverware seems to me to be a resistance played out in reverse, by those who were compelled to wash the dishes after meals, during the holidays, after being awaken from a fake/real/deep sleep – drug back to the kitchen to finish the assigned chores. Are you still dreaming of that white Christmas?
I muse to say nah – nah, don’t you dare pull out the paper plates, plastic glasses, and utensils during the holidays. If the sky is not falling, if the sun fails to come up, if you aren’t sitting on a beach during the holidays – these are the best of times, these are the worst of times – don’t. I don’t care – don’t.
There is no reason to continue this misplaced, misguided, ill-defined resistance – nah-nah. Stop invidiously disturbing the minds of your children, relatives, me with a Dixie plate – nah – nah … nah, nah – nah-nah. Life is too unbalanced and unfair for you to put such a burden on them – me. Put the paper and plastics products down – save a psyche. If you’ve been putting off getting therapy for your not yet diagnosed, childhood trauma of too many dishes washed – do so now. Momma didn’t have, papa didn’t have – so what! Use a real plate.
I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelains.
We are almost there, be patient with me.
I don’t care what generation you are dealing with. I do know when you reach the generation which has the privilege to study “painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelains”, the insult to history and lives lived can be no clearer – we should no longer continue the tragic slide to the absurd – nah-nah, nah-nah.
“I said wash the dishes!”
Sometimes we hold onto petty things much too long. You also said at one time you weren’t going to eat another potato, rice, beans, tortilla; life is too short and complex to continue dabbling in these continued idiocies.
I need not bother with whether you are the thrower or the throwee, we need not confuse issues. The purpose of the common vessel known as a plate is not for tossing at other human being. Likewise, plates and silverware are not meant to remain closeted forever, never to be used, protected, stored in much too much expensive cabinets and cases – don’t insult the craftsmen, artists, silversmiths – history’s voices will appreciate your acknowledgement.
Use these cultural vessels, relish their history, understand these are goods which have moved around the world – traded, shared, modified – the subject of exchange by different cultures, and peoples. Clay vessels in some cultures, tin, glass, copper … china. If you aren’t convinced, then move to your living room and grab a plastic cover and cover every chair, couch, lamp, share inch of the floor – sometimes one must reduce an absurd practice for the blind to see.
The quality of the plate doesn’t matter – metal, melamine, bone china – doesn’t matter – the point is use a real plate. Nah, nah, nah – caring means putting down the paper, plastic, the strange composite objects and do what Georgia, Chester Anna, Viola did, what your mothers and grandmothers did – reach for a real dishes and serve real food – for the ones you love. I say, I muse.