I remember when my grandmother used to push my sister and I on the tire swings at our neighborhood park in Texas. With a pitcher of sweet tea in one hand, and a new cigarette in the other, she would say with the raspy voice of a seasoned smoker, “Who wants to go to ol’ Milroy Park and swang on sum tires, hmm?”
It sounded like she was singing the blues every time she spoke. A rotting pain ventilating from a dark, enigmatic past suppressed deep within her small frame, and she filtered it out as melancholy conversations with whomever she cared to talk to that day. There was the bluest of fires below her heart, ever-ablaze, and all we could see was the smoke emitted from her easy two-Marlboro-packs-a-day disposition. I faintly recall thinking in my adolescent mind that she reminded me of a chimney, but with blue eyes and long, golden blonde hair, fading like the ‘Lola’ tattoo on the inside of her left bicep, only fleetly visible as she put on her sweaters.
In her youth, unknown to the violence of life she would soon bear for years to come, all the boys in Texas loved her, incessantly asking for her name. I try to imagine what her voice sounded like when she would say, “Hi, I’m Lola”. Before her vocal chords were cancerous.
In her late teens, an emancipated girl fleeing from the abuse of my great-grandfather, she labored to rescue her seven younger brothers and sisters. Exhausted from the harsh realities by day, at night she would dress up, determined to feel how all the other girls her age felt. Dark red lips, and sharp, winged liner, she could’ve been a glamorous movie star. Blasting Johnny Cash she would dance by herself in her one room apartment, sipping on an ice-cold Coca-Cola. She would dance to the music late in the night until she received noise complaints, then would shut off the vinyl record player and continue to dance in the silence, refusing to let loneliness consumer her.
The grandma I knew, forty years later, was a resilient woman who bore the wrinkles of responsibility and stress, but also a natural beauty and passion for life. She never spoke of her past. She let laughter enter her home and loved when my sister and I visited, always surprising us with little chocolates as my mom playfully scolded her that we were going to get cavities. On cue, my grandfather would come out of his study saying, “I knew I heard a couple of rascals,” and envelope my sister and I into hugs that smelled of patchouli and pipe tobacco.
“We’re fixin’ to head to the park, as soon as the sweet tea is brewed. Say kiddos, why don’t y’all go play on the back porch while I talk to your mamma,” she would say, and my sister and I would race to the back yard and play in the daisies. I never knew of the conversations they had, or what was spoken in them.
At Milroy Park, Grans would grab one of the rusting chains fixed to the tire swing and run along in a circular motion until the chains became taut. I remember my sister giggling with uninhibited laughter as Grans would eventually let go; gravity spinning us in the opposite direction of her. It was like the swing my sister and I were on, and the direction Grans ran in, were two different clocks, in two different stages of life, yet joined together on the playground. Every time, my breath would catch from fear and excitement as we quickly unwinded.
Being so young, the world felt like it could swallow me up if I closed my eyes for too long; even a blink could be my end. So as I strained to look up at the spinning sky, I would blink only when necessary, then immediately fixate my gaze back in nowhere particular. Grans would say, “It’s ok honey, you can get through anything as long as you remember to breathe. That’s the first step.”
As I was walking, I looked up at the Washington, D.C. sky. The polluted and cloudless air gave a mitigated hue of blue like the memory of grandmother’s eyes. I wondered what the sky looked like back in Texas, if my mom looked up and thought the same. A religious woman, I wondered if it would convince her that grandma was up there too, looking down on us.