So, there Grammy and I were, on a cold Monday afternoon in a hot steam-heated department store.
The distance is not that far between “Dear Grandmother” and “To Whom It May Concern” and “This is my letter to the world/ That never wrote to me.”
Certainly, the first letters I wrote were written to Grammy, my mother’s mother. One bad thought I thought then, when I was seven and eight and sucked the ends of my braids (their taste, salty, and their texture, scratchy) while I read and while I wrote, was that I did not care that soon Grammy would toss her big, baggy, wrinkled face back on the goose-feather pillows and close her piggy blue eyes and die. I disliked her that much.
I didn’t say, “I hope this horrid old bat hurries up and dies.” I was not that mean. What I said (in whispers to myself) was that I dreaded her visits to us in New York, I dreaded our visits to her house in Missouri (she’d moved from her ramshackle Arkansas farm). I dreaded her doughy, age-spotted hand’s scratch across my bare skin. I dreaded the outbreak of her temper, a temper as violent and unpredictable and dangerous as that of my mother. Grammy, I didn’t realize then, was where Mama learned to be mean.
Sunday afternoons, Mama sat me down at the card table to write to Grammy. I had yellow pencils that I kept, as children did then, in a pencil box. I had stationery. I liked that stationery, a lot. Across the top of the crisp white paper, dancing clowns held aloft balloons in primary colors. Even the word “clown,” its “ow” almost too big for the mouth, could make me laugh. Right now, I say, “clown, clown, clown,” and I’m laughing.
1 understood that I was to write to Grammy as if I loved the old bat. I knew from the reverent way Mama spoke about her mama, that indeed I was to write as if I quite extravagantly loved this brutal little white-haired woman. When the sharp pencil tip touched down on paper and printed out “Dear Grammy,” the voice that my mixed block letters and cursive script was to capture was not the unselfconscious voice of the heart. I knew that.
Trying to write letters to Grammy, I’d guess I thought about the first year Grammy visited us in New York. Surely, I thought about the snowy Monday that she insisted I stay home from school and go with her to Macy’s. I would have thought about this because it turned out to be a big day in what, then, was my very short life. As my life has gotten longer, I have continued to think about that day. On the subway train that morning, the car swayed so much I felt sick to my stomach. Grammy talked above the subway cars’ clatter about what she might buy and how snow, a real blizzard, was coming, and how she sure thanked God (although she was not, she said, religious) she didn’t have to get cows in out of it. She told me how once in Arkansas the snow fell so many feet deep that her 600-pound Poland China sow got swallowed up and sunk down in it. Nobody found the sow until spring thaw and when they did, the sow was frozen solid, her mouth still open to squeal for help. Who could forget that? Sow is a sadder word than clown.
I began my letter-writing by trying to pretend that I loved, loved, loved Grammy. I no doubt squinched my eyes as I customarily did when I wanted to work up some imaginary, vivid scene. Maybe I tried to paint Grammy in my mind as the mama my mama talked about: good as gold, heart as big as the Grand Canyon, clever with a needle, and a miracle worker at the stove. Maybe I tried to see Grammy as hampered by the increasing frailty that worried my mother. Given my energetic imagination, perhaps I squeezed out a few tears. Who knows.
1 do know that to write these letters I had to “work myself up.” (When I write now, I often “work myself up.”) I know that this “working up” process was precisely like the process I went through for playing make believe with friends. Roles switched rapidly between Cowgirl and Bandit and Nurse and Doctor. As I assumed these roles I worked myself up to feel what I imagined the doctor or rambunctious cowgirl felt. The role that I worked to assume when I wrote to Grammy was that of good little girl who exorbitantly loves a lovable grandmother. Only then, when I became that girl, could I set my pencil lead beneath the clowns with their bright bobbing balloons and begin to fill the white paper.
Letter writing was my first attempt at pretending, when I wrote, to be someone whom I was not. This was not the simple assumption, as in let’s pretend play, of the role of nurse, baby, or father. In these roles I forgot myself. The nurse or baby or father role assumed me. Little Judy was obliterated. I was taken up into, chewed and swallowed by fatherhood or babydom or starched nursiness; I believed in these characters’ fortunes, I bowed down before their fates.
When, however, I wrote the letter to Grammy, the person I pretended to be was not someone entirely other and apart from me. This person was a kind of me, a one-half, a one-quarter, a demi, semi, meta me. What this pretense demanded was that I take that splinter of myself who did love Grammy and enlarge that splinter until it was entirely me.
This was my first try, on paper, of my voice as the voice of a character. This was my first experience of the voice that you pretended was your voice. It was a voice to which you lent your I and me. It was a voice tuned to the key in which your voice sang. This was a tricky undertaking. The voice was not singing quite what it would sing if you opened your heart and threw back your head and sang what lay coiled and waiting to uncoil and be sung. This voice revised candid emotion and actual opinion. This voice tuned itself to the song that must be sung. This voice sang a quarter or half or three-quarters lie and you had to make the song sound wholly true and wholly as if it were you, you, you who were singing. It felt peculiar to do.
A child’s speech is first word, best word, thoughtless and heedless. Lies were not that easy to tell when I talked. For one thing, conversation didn’t permit time to think. When I spoke, I spoke quickly. I gave slight thought to what word sputtered next from my sulky mouth. The words drifted and popped out into the air, disappeared, and rapidly were replaced by more words that also disappeared.
Writing connives in a way that speech does not quite know how to do. When I sat with my pencil lead poised above paper, no one could see my lying eyes or that my free hand (no bigger than a blind and newborn kitten) twitched and sweated in my pocket. No one could see me pick at the lint in my pocket or caress the soothing copper pennies. Plus, I could stop and think I could try out in the library hush of my mind one after another possible word. Would I write peach or plum? Which? And was the plum purple or merely a dark red? Only when— at last! — I hit upon the string of words that fit down and buttoned over the belly of fat sentence I wanted to see on the white paper did I have to commit myself.
Oh! And there were sweet-smelling pink erasers at the end of every yellow pencil! I could be wrong and erase my wrong. When I talked and said something that made my conversational partner angry or hurt her feelings, she might demand I “take it back.” I might defer to her anger or apologize for the hurt and agree to “take it back” But those words were never forgotten. In speech no true erasure is possible. If what I wrote didn’t “sound right” I could obliterate the word or words. No one would ever know the “wrong” word that sat atop the white paper. Even God averted His heavy-lidded eyes until my erasures were complete. I wore down paper. I tore away its surface. I sometimes erased even the royal blue shoes that covered the out-sized feet on which the stationery’s clowns danced.
I began letters to Grammy with, “How are you? I am well. I hope you are well too.” This hope for Grammy’s wellness contributed little to the empty space beneath the dancing clowns. Even in my awkward script, this hope covered a mere few inches. This empty space was a problem. How would I solve this problem?
I would never entirely solve this problem. Because part of this problem’s solution is compassion. What was needed was that I shove my foot into Grammy’s size five lace-up Red Cross shoes. I must try to see the world as she saw the world. I must try to locate and slip myself into being the person she was, for herself. I must try to feel what she felt when she crawled into bed, dropped her false teeth — “my choppers,” she called them — into the glass of water, and let her big, fat, wrinkled face fall back onto the pillows. At best, I could only try— essay—compassion. Once you ask yourself what your grammy (by whatever name he or she is called) may be thinking when she’s alone in her bed and cannot sleep and wonders when and from where death will come for her, you are lost. You have begun to give up on yourself as reigning center of the universe. Your voracious wild hog that squeals “me-me-me” has begun to lose ground. At seven years old or eight, or ten, or even right now, this afternoon, with white lilac beneath my window and a filtered, austere sunshine warm on my bare back, I am not ready for that. I am not ready to starve my dislike so that an enemy, or someone whom I perceive as enemy, or someone who merely irritates me, can eat buttery joy. I am selfish. I want what I want for me more than I want what you want for you. As the language of the Thomas Cranmer 1549 Book of Common Prayer has it, “We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. And there is no health in us.”
That Monday when Grammy insisted I go to Macy’s, I knew she wanted me to go because, alone in the city, she felt afraid. She didn’t like being with me any more than I liked being with her. She was afraid of getting lost. She was afraid of the subway. She was afraid of what she spoke of as “Negroes and foreigners” and shied when any dark-skinned person passed her and shook her big head in disgust when she smelled garlic.
So, there Grammy and I were, on a cold Monday afternoon in a hot steam-heated department store. Three salesladies, garbed in black dresses, arrived to fit fatso Grammy into a boned corset. In the dressing room, Grammy stood bare naked except for her pink sateen vest and underpants and garter belt. Her hose fell around her ankles and drooped over her feet, and from excitement, I guess, and the torrid department store heat, blue veins popped up on her clabbery thighs, the skin mottled with broken veins and iris brown-and-purple bruises. Grammy’s baggy obese body filled the cramped room with cooking-meat odor. I thought, “Hamburger, hamburger” and was not hungry even though we’d eaten no lunch. She sweated streams, thin broths of herself. She held up her arms in an “I’ve surrendered” posture. Sweat ran down her sides onto the corset.
She said, “Get my handkerchief and wipe me off, kid.” I grabbed her handkerchief from her purse. She said, “Wipe under my arms!” I pushed past the salesladies and swiped at Grammy’s stinking, sweating, hairy full-moon armpits. Grammy said, “Thanks,” and then the three salesladies got busy hooking and lacing the stiff corset. When Grammy inhaled to get herself a good breath, you could hear air rattle through her. You could hear the salesladies breathe and hear the metal lace tips enter the corset’s empty metal grommets. The closer the saleswomen got to the end of the laces, the more of Grammy’s fat rolled up over the corset top. The suspense was terrible. Fat rolled up from her sides and gathered beneath her arms. Then when the ladies went to zip the corset zipper, which is the last thing you do, Grammy’s fat got caught in the zipper’s sharp malignant teeth. Grammy howled a howl you could hear all across women’s lingerie.
The salesladies screamed. One saleslady ran and got the supervisor, a skinny Italian with black currant-color eyes that beat Grammy’s eyes for piggy-eye squint meanness. She grabbed Grammy’s wrist, hard, and hissed, right into Grammy’s face, “Shut up, lady, shut up.” She got quiet, Grammy did, but she was trembling and shaking. Her face got that expression on it that I’d seen on crucified Jesuses in museum paintings.
Grammy whispered, “I’ll take it” about the corset and fast, pulled up her stockings and snapped them to the garters and got into her slip and her dress. I knelt on the floor and tied the laces on her Red Cross pumps. Grammy said, her voice worn out and weary, “Let’s go get us a piece of pie, kid.”
Grammy, the year I started first grade, knit me a brown wool cardigan. She garnished the sweater’s plackets with embroidered flowers. Even though I disliked brown, the blue and red flowers Grammy embroidered with crewel wool were so perfect (with infinitesimal pollen-yellow French knots in the middle of each flower) that the flowers redeemed the ugly brown. I loved this sweater. When I wore it, and I wore it every chance I got, I felt happier. I couldn’t, wouldn’t love my grandmother. What I could and did do, to fill that white space beneath dancing clowns, was to make Grammy happy by making something as beautiful as the flowers on that sweater.
I see now that when I wrote letters, I was trying to make art. I have been trying, I guess, all my life to make art and for reasons not that different than trying to make Grammy happy. This morning, ail these years after, the brown sweater long gone and Grammy only bones under a stone, I try to make you happy.
Once Grammy had her corset paid for (how mournfully she unfurled the green bills, how sad her big face looked as she handed over any money to anyone) and in the shopping bag, we shopped some more. I think she was still upset over the supervisor. It’s hard to say now; when she gazed or glanced at me, she invariably seemed angry. We ate our pieces of pie and surely Grammy drank coffee, thickened with the real cream still served, in those days, from round-bellied pitchers. I don’t remember what else she bought. I am sure that I bedeviled her to buy me something, anything, but, again, perhaps on that day I didn’t. I know that I walked behind her square, short, squat body. I know that I carried the shopping bags. The twine handles cut my palms. I was her mule.
Then, it was over, and we were back in the subway. We got arranged in our seats, me by the window. I am sure that Grammy never took her eyes from her shopping bags, on the floor there, at our feet. In the rocking car I fell asleep with my cheek against the wicker that back then, 40 years ago, covered subway seats.
While Grammy shopped, snow had been falling. For no reason that I can tell you, I remember that snow. I gathered the bags, stumbled from my seat and up flights of stairs (how many flights, I don't remember) and out onto Broadway and 116th Street. I remember the cool snow and harsh wind on my hot cheeks. I remember street lamps and now, in memory, the lamplight floods in nostalgic sepia across white snow and the snow, in memory, sparkles as surely, in fact, it didn’t. I don’t recall the buses, honking cars, and yellow Checker taxis that must have jammed the streets. I remember no sounds—no honking cabs, no belching buses. I vaguely recall, or think that I do, lit shops, still open at that hour. I remember that we hurried along, Grammy and I did, cutting our way between families and lone men and women, mules like me borne down under cruel weight. Snow had piled on shoulders, backs of coats, and hat brims. Snow drifted against gutters. Wind lifted snow off drifts and stirred it into eddies. I remember this clearly, how it came back to me what we learned in science, a fact now dulled with usage, but then, to me, entirely new: each snowflake is not like any other.
I felt, early on, although I could not tell you precisely when, but certainly before Grammy’s death when I was 11, a certain bad faith behind this project of writing to Grammy as if I loved her. Perhaps one-tenth of me did love the fat old bat. Yet when I turned that tenth, that tithe of me, into the Judy who writes to Grammy, I felt disloyal to my other nine-tenths. I felt I sold my self out when I wrote, “Love, Judy.” (“Judy” was what Grammy called me when she called me anything.) I also mourned the distance between the speaker who spoke the letter and the speaker who spoke my heart. I wanted it to be true that I loved her. It was not true.
Yet, I felt accomplished. I had turned myself into a Shirley Temple of the pencil. I sang and tap-danced across two, three pieces of stationery. I wrote what Grammy wanted to read—that Sunday dinner wasn’t much without her delicious dumplings; that a blue bird built its nest in the maple tree; that our fifth-floor neighbors, every single one, asked about her and sent good wishes; that I couldn’t wait to see her again; that we missed, missed, missed her, so bad.
So many ways exist to stir up happiness on paper. I sat with my yellow pencil in my small hand and stared down at the white space beneath dancing clowns. I tinkered. I stretched twangy diphthongs between consonants. I tried out fricative Fs and sibilant Ss. I hid simple rhymes — moon and spoon, toy and boy — in sentences’ quiet spots. I wrote slowly. (I still write slowly. I am writing slowly now.) I listened. I waited for words to come to me. I waited for them to ripen, as melons will, and thumped them to make sure they were right and ready. I engineered these noisy and not-so-noisy nouns, verbs, and modifiers into a wind-up toy, a tightly wound gadget designed to unwind in a reader’s mind.
I folded the paper, licked the envelope’s dry glue, licked the stamp, hammered the stamp (Were stamps three cents then? I think so...) with my balled fist. I walked down the steep hill to Broadway and 120th and dropped the envelope into the mailbox. Two, three days later in Missouri, Grammy slid into her easy chair and slit that envelope open, propped her spectacles on her nose, unfolded the white paper, and began to read what I’d written. From the loops and spirals of my awkward script, our fifth-floor neighbors slowly waved to her, her fluffy dumplings bobbed and floated across gold chicken broth. An orange-breasted blue bird darted into the maple tree beneath whose shade big boys played war with army toys. Grammy may have closed her squinty eyes and stuck yellow straw into the blue bird’s beak. She may have veiled the tree in fresh green leaves and seen boys slide tanks and tin soldiers through spring grass. She may have thought that I wasn’t such a wretched kid after all.
She may have wriggled in her chair and adjusted her boned corset. Perhaps she frowned and rubbed her wrist and recalled the Italian woman telling her, “Shut up!” She may have remembered that snowy Monday evening, how as we crossed over to Claremont Avenue and got closer to our apartment building, the crowds thinned out, that snow whitened Riverside Church, whitened the street and sidewalks. In her mind’s theater, she may have felt that December wind push against us and take away our breath. She may have seen us walk, without speaking, single-file and bent, like refugees, next to the gray buildings. Thoughts of snow may have caused her to shift back 20 years and watch her Poland China sow, still alive and in memory, bigger and louder and bedizened with milky teats and trailed after by a lifetime of piglets. She might well have remembered that on that Monday evening, I stopped and set down the shopping bags on the snowy sidewalk. I said, “I love you” and kissed her cheek, which, because she was so short, I didn’t have to rise on my tiptoes to do. My brutal, ugly, ill-tempered Grammy, born in the last century into a hard life, someone who didn’t love me and whom I didn’t love, was my first reader.