One of my many grandmothers liked to tell stories. It’s the catholic one, Portuguese, Avó. And her stories never really had cohesion. They were basically family facts and remembrances wrapped up in anecdotes with a heady dose of moralizing and tradition. And I freaking loved it.
Let me set the scene.
It is the 1980s and to me she seems impossibly old. She has always been poor, though some of her nine children are now rich and she has filled her small apartment with ceramic knick-knacks, rosaries. Pictures of the Blessed Virgin Mary share precious wall space with her children.
“There is not enough wall,” she laments, sitting down with a sizable sigh because it’s hard to move her body around.
There is not enough room anywhere in her apartment. It’s stuffed with afghans, crocheted table coverings. Hot sauce and ketchup and condiments stack the counters of the kitchen. And then there are the ceramics, some made by my aunt in a kiln in a shed behind her trailer. They are mostly angels, madonnas and carousels. Girls in hard flouncy dresses that resemble Southern belles from another time. Their skin is porcelain and pale and perfectly white and the opposite of my grandmother’s. Their bodies are tiny. Limbs stretch out in ballerina poses, ready to break off at any moment, precariously attached to their bodies by some kind of magic.
There are no men here other than Jesus. He’s a picture on the wall. He’s pretty pale, too.
I am in love with a swan that is on the table next to the thread-bare, plaid couch that is about two decades too old to ever find a home away from my Avó.
I’m checking out the swan as she hands me a hot chocolate that’s been topped with Marshmallow Fluff.
“Chemicals are good for you,” she says with a wink. “No matter what that Dustin Hoffman says.”
It is July and she’s feeding me hot chocolate from a package and has heaped the gelatinous white of fluff on top of it to sweeten it even more. And in that moment, she is absolutely my favorite of all my grandmothers despite all her scandals, the time she ran away from her own children, leaving them to raise each other, the time she refused to give her eldest son his birth certificate when he wanted to join the Navy because the certificate said a name of a father he’d never known existed. If he saw that birth certificate then he’d know his last name was Gonçalves, a totally different name that he’d been living with for the first 16 years of his life.
At the time, it seemed very important that he not know, she says with a shrug.
“Turned out? Didn’t matter.” She smiles. She has a fluff mustache. “It’s always what we think matters, that doesn’t, and then the things that do us in? They come out of nowhere.” She crosses herself and I do, too, because I want more fluff, because I want her to love me, because I want to not be something that slams her out of nowhere.
I pick up the swan, my favorite swan. There is a brown line across the gentle curve of her neck.
“Your cousin broke her, but the thing is? Ceramics? You can glue them back together. People? Not so much. Not so perfectly. Our breaks show if you squint too hard at them.”
Not too long ago, my grandmother was spat on for being dark but beautiful, for being a woman and beautiful, for being catholic, for knowing a language other than English, for being impossibly, assuredly herself.
And she ran away from a life of poverty once.
And she ran away again. And again.
“But I could never run from God,” she tells me. “Not once. And let me tell you, he forgives better than your children will.”
This is true and not true. This grandmother sits in a lounge chair, holding court over the summer family reunions and pool parties, munching on Pringles straight from the can, commenting on the food people bring to her on plates because her legs have swollen too much from heart disease and other things to hold her up too well, grilled tomatoes and bread and sardines. She seems to like the Pringles best, but she eats it all and never says thank you.
It drives my mother crazy, but she’s busy gossiping with the aunts so it doesn’t matter. It’s just my Avó and me.
And she tells me, “You’re different because you don’t fit in.”
And my little girl heart chips into pieces, a broken ceramic swan on the floor. I stare at the ground, at my naked feet my Aunt Mary Jean’s backyard grass.
A Pringle comes into my sightline and wiggles. An offering.
She says, “That’s not bad. When you don’t fit in, it’s hard, but you can touch people, you can touch people’s souls. Your otherness makes you strong. It made me strong.”
“It’s my job to give you advice.”
“No. Thank you for the Pringles.” I pause. “You’re supposed to say thank you when people give you stuff.”
“You mean me?”
“Yes. I mean you.”
She laughs. Her whole body shakes with it.
“What I like about you is that you don’t try to make me like you,” she says once she stops laughing. “I am going to tell you something. When I was little we had the Feast of the Holy Ghost and we would offer up sweet bread to the church, right? And I would look for the candy vendor.” She sighs and watches the cousins, all older than me, dark hair and skin, brown eyed and greens. “When my John, your father, was young, people would call him the N-word. He was so dark in the summer. Back then you were white or not white according to the whites, and you were only white if you weren’t like us.”
“Mom says difference makes you strong? You said otherness.” I ask this because I am kid who pays attention.
“It made me me, whatever you want to call it,” she says, which is probably the only true answer there can be about things like this, things that form you and shape you. How do you know if something made you stronger if you never had the privilege of not suffering through it? How do you know that you wouldn’t be stronger if you didn’t have to endure hate, or oppression, or a million other traumas that a person can undergo in so many ways?
“You want to go in the pool? Play with the cousins?” she asks me, taking my hand even though it is salty from Pringles.
I look over there at the older cousins, confident, laughing, football stars and beauty queens, confident and free and wild. I sat there with her, both of us a little round, both of us a little awkward, and I squeezed her hand.
“No,” I tell her. “I think I’ll stay with you.”
I’m heading to Montreal this week and then, Freeport, Sept. 28 and then Houston and Virginia Beach pretty soon to promote my picture book biography of Moe Berg. It’s called The Spy Who Played Baseball.
The last TIME STOPPERS BOOKis out and I love it. You should buy it.
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If you would like to purchase signed copies of my books, you can do so through the awesome Sherman’s Book Store in Bar Harbor, Maine or the amazing Briar Patch. The books are also available online at places like Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
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