Saturday, February 02, 2008

The History At Home | 2. Scene With Grandmother

2. Scene With Grandmother

My Great Grandmother was the coddling-warm-house-cookie-baking-indulgent type of grandmother. Maida, as even the great grandchildren called her, was simply warm.

For several years, we shared a duplex in Highland Park. She had the downstairs apartment. We humbly lived above. We never felt we had to silence the running, laughing, shrieking children. Nor were we expected to muffle our lives with shuffling apologetic feet.

She expected us to live our lives as talented young people do - with music, good food and the buzz-a-hub made by the constant comings and goings of your “arti-techno-literati” friends. Then again, she knew what life in the center of society's fringe was really all about.

This scene takes place shortly after my daughter has been dispatched to school when the phone rings.

M: Hello?
G: Christina?
M: Hi Grandmother! How are you?
G: I’m am.
M: You are? Are you feeling okay?
G: (she laughs.) If I gave you a catalogue of every ache, pain and sore part of my body, we’d never get a chance to talk about anything else.
M: You know, it’s okay to talk about how you’re feeling Grandmother.
G: Listen, I wake up every morning. I give myself precisely five minutes to feel pitifully and mercilessly sorry for myself. And then I get on with it.
M: Oh. Umm...
G: Let’s go shopping.
M: I don’t need anything.
G: Did I say you needed anything?
M: No, but....
G: I’ll see you downstairs.

I trundle down the back stairs. Head out to the garage and pull the car around front. I fold her not-so frail, slender body into my Honda. She groans inaudibly. A quiet growl issues from her lips as she settles into the seat. I buckle her in, place her cane in the back, climb in and frantically shuffle for some type of music which won’t hurt her.

M: Where would you like to go?
G: Kaufmann’s is having a sale.
M: Okay - Kaufmanns.
G: What is this?
M: Arrested Development
G: True enough.

Once we arrive and I lift her out of the car, and get her steady with her cane we head into Kaufmann’s. Riffling through garments which might both fit and flatter my far too big body, I shocked to find a stunning suit.

M: This is great!
G: Hrmmmm.
M: It’s flashy and stylish and my size!
G. Hmm mph. (She holds out her hand. I hand her the jacket. She reads the label. Pauses and thinks before handing it back.) Try it on.
M: You don’t like it.
G: I’m not going to wear it.
M: Okay, great!

I sashay out of the dressing room feeling as if it is possible to be a BBW and glamourous. She squints her eyes.

G: Turn around.

I turn around.

G: Take off the jacket.

I take off the jacket. I place it in her outstretched hand. She examines the label.

G: I would have expected better from that shop.

M: What Grandmother?

G: That used to be a good shop, one of the best.

She turns the jacket inside out. She point to the shoulder.

G: Look. The shoulder pads are mounted unevenly.

She runs her finger along the seam.

G: Look where she went too fast with her machine here and pulled the fabric too tight.

She holds up both cuffs.

G: They are uneven. Not even the same length!

She turns the jacket right side out and turns it over to the collar (which would be hidden by my long dreadlocks anyway.)

G: See? Her mistake on the shoulder caused her to just miss lining up the pattern. This is sloppy, seconds work.
M: Nobody would even see that part!
G: Just because nobody will see it doesn’t mean it’s not there.
M: But, it looks great on me!
G: Does it? Put it back on.

I put the jacket back on. She gestures to the mirror. I stand in the mirror looking at what I believe to be fabulous me. But, I feel it coming. This whole trip downtown was a lead up to some greater point she was going to make about me and my life.

G: Now stand up straight and look at yourself. You see where that shoulder pad was placed improperly?

(I shake my head.)

G: Look at yourself. Do you look like you are standing up straight?

(I nod my head .)

G: Look at where the cuffs are uneven. Do you look in proportion?

I squint. I scrutinise. It is the tiniest, most obscure optical illusion she is showing me. Finally, I shake my head.

G: Look at your face, neck and shoulders.

(I don’t see anything, so, I shrug.)

G: That place in the back where the pattern doesn’t match up makes it look like the jacket is ill-fitting. But, it’s not, it’s how it’s pieced together. You - not the jacket look ill-suited.

(I shake my head.)

G: Now, let me tell you something, because I’m old enough to mind your business. If you expect people to look at you the way you deserve to be looked at, then you have to make sure that even the smallest details are in order.

You don’t have a lot of money and you shouldn’t just yet because you’re still young and working at being the great artist you’ll become. But, that shouldn’t excuse sloppiness. You can’t afford sloppiness.

You have to make every piece you own work for you, because you can’t afford a closet full of fancy clothes. And just because they’re fancy doesn’t mean that they’re any good. You have to open your eyes and really look at what you’re buying. I don’t care if you are wearing a pair of blue jeans and a t-shirt, they should fit you properly. And being big has nothing to do with it. My mother was a big woman and she never walked around in sloppy seconds.

M: Yes, Grandmother. Let’s keep looking.

(I show her a few things. She looks at each of the labels. Some she sniffs and hands it back. Others get a nod of the head. I finally hand her a truly lovely outfit. She looks at the price tag. She looks at the seams, the cuffs, the shoulder pads, the lining. I peer over her shoulder. It is a very well-made garment. It is a very good price. She reads the label. I see her thinking. She’d like to let me try on this suit. She’s obviously worked up about something. So, I wait. Old women often need a moment to feel time’s waves and windstorms.)

G: Absolutely not! This garment is affordable, elegant, and well made. It was made by a woman in Asia who is slowly sewing herself blind for us here in the United States because we don’t believe decent working people deserve enough to support a family. She’s sewing her fingers to the bone and we don’t care because she’s poor, brown, ignorant and far away. She’s probably been beaten; maybe forced to have an abortion, and sometimes when she makes a mistake - like on that last outfit you liked - she’ll go without food. I’ve met them. I used to know women like her in New York when I was just beginning. Before we changed things

I hear your poetry. I see your paintings. You say you care about women’s rights. You say you care about the world and racism. Here is the world, right now, on your body. Everything you touch is touched by someone less fortunate than you are. The least you can do is remember them every time you choose to eat, drink, or cloth yourself.

(Slowly, she walks over to another rack. She deftly reaches in, plucks an understated, well-cut, somewhat conservative suit from the rack.)

G: Now, here - try this on. I found it for you.

Of course it fit. Of course, I could change it into 25 different other flashy, fantastic outfits. Of course, it looked superb. Of course, it was made in the United States by a union shop. She’d obviously seen this and picked it out before she even made the phone call this morning. I didn’t mind in the least. I was the winner today.

NOTE: This quote about my grandmother by her biographer, Yvette Richards, was found at the bottom of her biography in the archives of an Indiana University Of Pennsylvania web site:

“Springer’s life experiences and work reveal the complex nature of black struggles for equality and justice. A strong supporter of both the AFL-CIO and the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, Springer nonetheless recognized that both organizations were fraught with racism, sexism, and ethnocentrism. She also understood that charges of Communism were often used as a way to thwart African American demands for social justice. She found herself in the unenviable position of promoting to Africans the ideals of American democracy from which she was excluded from fully enjoying.” – Yvette Richards.”

“Yvette Richards is the author of two books about the life of Maida Springer entitled “Maida Springer: Pan-Africanist and International Labor Leader” and “Conversations with Maida Springer: A Personal History of Labor, Race, and International Relations."
Both books are absolutely impeccably done. I much prefer the second book. Even though our conversations were much different, I remember hearing many of these stories firsthand and slightly altered for our personal listening pleasure. Both can be obtained through the University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, PA.

See Also My Previous Posts About Maida
Scroll down to the bottom for "Eulogy For A Goddess" and "The Mothers"

Day 2 of the Mamalicious! 32 Days Of African-American History Blogathon. Done!

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