Inheritance and Time Travel
“I fear inheriting motherhood, a hot white Southern house.”
I do not like my hands. They are not “delicate” or “spindly” in the way lady hands are described in novels. They are large—“piano hands,” said music teachers; “man hands,” said boys—and there is blonde hair sprouting from my fingers. My girlfriends ask me to open pickle jars.
But my hands are made beautiful by their adornments: I wear two engagement rings, though neither evidences a proposal. One is my paternal great-grandmother’s Edwardian engagement ring with emerald cut diamonds, and the other is a round brilliant diamond solitaire of my paternal grandmother’s. The women on my dad’s side of the family are mostly dead, their jewelry scattered like stars among my generation.
When I look at my black painted nails, hairy fingers, and double engagement rings, I think of what my dead foremothers might think of me. I wish that we young women could inherit these glittering artifacts, and our grandmothers and mothers and great-aunts in turn might defy the space-time continuum and inherit things from us: ideas about feminism, and a woman’s place in the world; a liberal consideration of lovers, flattering aprons, tattoos. But this type of thinking demonstrates the very hubris I despise about my generation, and I wonder if I might inherit some of their generation’s humility.
My maternal grandmother, Granny Jane, isn’t really a “jewelry person,” but that hasn’t stopped her from passing things down. As I look at a photograph of Vanderbilt University’s medical school class of 1949, I think about inheritance and time travel. There is only one smiling face in the photo: It’s Granny Jane. Hers is also the only female face. Her male colleagues appear dour and stiff, attempting to embody a sort of seriousness that most twenty-two-year-old men, in my experience, are only faking.
While Granny Jane was the only woman attending Vandy med school at this time, she did not graduate. This is a point of minor contention between us. (I want to reach into the photo and shake her.) She dropped out in her third year to be my grandfather’s wife, and mother to his four children, my mother being the third. They were fortunate to be raised by a woman with the ability to stitch up a cut or splint a broken arm if the situation required.
Obstinately, I hold it against Granny Jane that she chose to raise children instead of finishing med school, yet I recognize I want her to have chosen the route that would have effectively blotted out my own existence. I both judge her adherence to convention, and I am grateful for my life. These are diametrically opposing views, but in the absence of my own divinity, they have no real bearing.
Since the eighties, she has accumulated trinkets and brightly painted porcelain signs populating her house in Key West. They say things like “I only have a kitchen because it came with the house” and “The place for a woman is on the tennis court” and “Sorry, yesterday was the deadline for all complaints.” These little artifacts of defiance punctuate a life that, in my eyes, has been largely conventional, and domestic.
Though I regard Granny Jane as unlike me, she is also unlike the prototypical “sweet little old lady.” She is unsentimental, brutal even, in her assessments of, among other things: cold soup, real estate professionals, ungrateful children, misleading advertisements, revealing clothing, and Gmail. She continues to be a competitive athlete at eighty-nine, wiping up the tennis courts with her seventy-five-year-old challengers regularly, arguing with her cohorts with the ferocity of a Wimbledon line judge. Yet her enduring accomplishments are properties and children, not advanced degrees and landmark feminist triumphs, like my avant-garde cape-wearing, alternate-universe version of Granny Jane, who keeps a strict 4 p.m. daily teatime, and says, a little ominously, tea time waits for no one. Last summer, she had me over for tea, and as I poured hot water from a fussy silver pot, Granny Jane began to talk about medical school.
Oh, well back then, the boys didn’t like having me there—a girl—so they made me do the tough physical stuff, you know?
No, I say, I don’t know: What exactly do you mean?
Cutting through the sternums, for one. And there was a big formaldehyde vat of bodies, she says, tapping a packet of fake sugar.
. . . Yes?
Well, we had these sort of giant salad tongs. So they made me crawl up a tall ladder and pull the bodies out. I only weighed about a hundred pounds at the time, and it was tiring! Of course, it was mostly blacks back then—unclaimed bodies. They were so hard to see, and catch, in the dark water.
She stirs her tea. I think of the weight.
Mostly blacks back then, she says, unclaimed bodies, she says. I imagine Granny Jane at twenty-two, at the top of the ladder, fishing out naked, dead men for dissection. Fishing for them with salad tongs. I imagine Tennessee in the 1940s, and it’s a hot brown blur of dirt roads and dogs. I wonder how the men died. I wonder why they were unclaimed. I wonder if she has considered these questions, if she already knows the answers. They were so hard to see.
She hands me her mug. Will you stick this in the microwave, honey? It’s gotten cold.
Granny Jane is a pragmatist. Unlike the frustrated, glamorous housewives of my father’s family, she does not have pierced ears, does not fool with diamonds. But she still has me roll her hair and do her makeup, little vestiges of vanity pocked her overall rationalism. Southern womanhood is a strange, hair-sprayed thing, full of perfumed euphemisms, where affairs are outed and impending deaths declared on the porch. I feel outside of it—admittedly, sometimes above it—like they’ve let an imposter slip into the sanctuary. There is lipstick on my tooth as I sip whiskey and wonder what is buried under the porch.
Camus says: I rebel, therefore I exist. To some Southern women, my life appears to be an act of defiance: A thirty-something single lady writer, living with a gay man in New York, writing about sex stuff and occasionally drug stuff, ever meddling in concerns of the blacks and the gays. When I run through the city’s parks, I revel in the thought that no one knows where I am. I am free in a way that my mother and grandmother will never be again: childless, unburdened, unmoored. I also worry that if I trip, and crack my skull, or am impaled on a loose syringe, no one will notice I’ve been missing for days.
When my grandmother tells her tennis ladies that I live in Harlem, they whisper it like a curse: Harlem?
As much as I feel like an imposter in Tennessee, I am one in Harlem. I see my neighbor watching me from her window as I move in; I notice the bodega owner is oddly deferential to me. As I run through Marcus Garvey Park, a kid turns down his music, hides his joint, and I have a strong urge to say: I listen to that; I smoke that. But I do not speak to him.
As I walk down Malcolm X Boulevard, I pass a young man who is really feeling himself, dancing down the sidewalk with his headphones on. I see that he is wearing a T-shirt that says “Shoutout to all my Haterz.” I think of Granny Jane, and I wonder if she would like such a T-shirt for her ninetieth birthday. It seems to be in keeping with the signs in her kitchen and her general attitude of irreverence. I want to ask where he purchased it, but I do not speak to him.
When my mother scolds Granny Jane for being on a tall ladder, clearing out leaves from the gutter, Granny Jane says, What’s the worst that could happen, I die? She is quite deaf, losing her eyesight, and yet she rides a bike with aplomb, looking a little like Joan Didion in her vast black prescription sunglasses. We catch her riding home from Dairy Queen while eating a Blizzard with one hand, veering around cars. When my mother objects, Granny Jane defiantly says: I do this all the time when you’re not around. Shoutout to all my Haterz, in other words.
Granny Jane calls me. She has hired Tyrone, a carpenter, to help her update the house. I know the color of Tyrone’s skin, because Granny Jane says things like Tyrone is just as nice as he can be, as though it’s a small revelation. She says: They are just like the rest of us, almost like it’s a compliment. I wonder if I can accept that this is what progress looks like for a woman born nearly a century ago in Mississippi. I wonder what it would have been like had Granny Jane met my other ex-boyfriend, not the perfectly nice but old one, but the perfectly nice but black one.
I think that there are different types of unclaimed bodies. I think that Granny Jane and I are maybe not so different: in our sunglasses, with our myopias. Perhaps my own sense of enlightenment will erode with time, and my unborn, imagined granddaughter will generously show me all of my own blindness.
They were so hard to see.
I visit Granny Jane. I am in the kitchen when Tyrone comes in, washing his hands, and says, Your granny sure is a nice lady, like he’s surprised by this. She is, I say, resisting the question mark. I pour us some iced tea, and we are quiet in the presence of the yellow Cuban tile and this admission.
I have noticed that, over the years, Granny Jane has said: They’re just like us! not only about black, and brown, and Oriental folks, but also, in her words, the gays, and the lesbians, and even now, the trans-whatever-it-is folks. I wonder if in her estimation, being “like us” is a good thing, necessarily, if any of these individuals should be or desire to be like us at all. Us, who were raised up on the laps of nannies who didn’t look like us. Us, the “nice ladies.” Us, the great imposters.
But maybe she just means that elementally, for better or worse, we are all made of guts, and bones, and skin, and prejudices, and fears. We all are bodies in need of fixing. Her motto comforts me when I encounter my unreachable neighbors, my inaccessible lovers, my mother, my grandmother: They’re just like us!
Granny Jane’s house in Key West is a perfectly 1960s white brick affair, a block from the beach, with lush Bermuda grass and a key lime tree in the backyard. We gather there for Granny Jane’s ninetieth birthday. She insists that there is enough room for all of us, and if anyone argues, she will sleep in the garage. When the house is crammed with relatives, asking questions about my book and marital status, dropping ice cubes on the tiles, opening and closing doors, and sifting through magazines, I crave the blessed solitude of my Harlem apartment.
You will inherit this some day, she says, surveying her terra cotta patio, along with everybody else of course.
And I fear what I will inherit from her. I fear inheriting motherhood, a stiflingly hot white Southern house, a family that concerns itself with me—an ordinary, domestic idyll. It is easier to fear it than it is to hope for it. I find myself again wishing Tesla would invent a time machine so I might cheat linear confines and conjure a concrete future vision of who and what I might create.
As I fly back to New York, I am relieved to be by myself. Flipping through a travel magazine, imagining where I might next journey, I come upon the story of an Italian village just north of Naples. It is legendary, because residents there live to nearly one hundred, allegedly because families remain tight and intact. The generations care for each other. In a photo, fat babies and wrinkled old women embrace fiercely. They say that even when you walk the streets at night alone, there are no strangers. I wonder if they are just like us. I imagine them setting out on their evening walks in solitude. When I get home, I leave my bags and walk to the bodega on 123rd Street. I realize that I hope someone will recognize me; I hope to hear the sound of my name called out from the darkness.