My sister says she is glad I added my grandmother, Bernice, to my altar. She wanted to feel some kind of way when I first put her there because my altar had previously been a place solely belonging to Jesus, a laughing Buddha, candles for Oludumare, Obatala, Shango, Oshun, Yemeya, and a photo of my guiding ancestor, Emma Jane. She felt confident that Emma Jane belonged amongst these names –but she wasn’t 100% convinced that “Bernice” was a name befitting a space on this altar. She was just getting use to the fact that I had an altar in the first place – let alone an altar with the face of a woman that neither of us really knew.
I mean we knew her. We had met her several times. But we didn’t know her know her. Not like we knew Emma Jane. We could recite her favorite prayers and sing her favorite song with the exact adlibs she always used and the vibrato she added to specific notes each time. We could place our fingers on our cornbread and sop our greens in an exact reenactment of her eating her Sunday dinner. We knew the way she danced through the living room in her towel after getting out of the shower singing “boop boop boop” as a way to say, “Excuse me. Don’t look this way,” which always only made us giggle and watch her shimmy through the house in her favorite thick, double lined shower caps and her huge faded bath towels.
We knew her. We know her.
But Bernice, we did not know. We still do not know. Or at the very least – not for sure.
I recently heard that my Aunt has seen a picture of her as a young girl sitting at a bar in a club. My grandmother, who never spoke and sang her requests in a low slurred voice… at a bar – at a club. I can not imagine. But I can. I am now imagining her sitting there grinning and laughing and knowing, in her heart, that she didn’t have any business being there but too excited for the chance. Her and her cousin – I do not know her name… I just know she is Etta’s mother. Etta owned this photograph. My aunt begged her for years to let her make a copy of it. Etta refused to let the photograph out of her grasp. Etta lost everything in Hurricane Katrina. All these years later and Katrina is still taking from us.
But in my mind, in my imagination, my grandmother will keep this night a secret. She will hold onto this moment in her memory on her worst days. She will go into her bedroom, close the door, sit in the dark, and remember that night. She did not dance. She was not a dancer. I don’t think. I can’t imagine her dancing. Even as I imagine what she was doing there – I somehow know she was not dancing. She was grinning. Yes. I’m certain there was a whole lot of grinning. And she was trying to get her cousin, Etta’s mother, to take her home. Because my grandmother was shy. I don’t know this about her – but I know this about her. If she really was at that bar at that club it was Etta’s mother’s idea. Not her own. Their mother’s, who I imagine were also cousins, close like sisters, would probably be outraged if they saw them there. For the most part, their mothers were both “appropriate women.” My grandmother would become an “appropriate” woman. Etta’s mother would too. But not as appropriate as my grandmother.
I imagine Etta’s mother would kill someone if they tried to hurt her or her children. She would curse a man under her tongue. She would carry his name on a slip of paper in her shoes. She would walk all over him – day and night. She would close her eyes and envision him crying. Then she would open her eyes and smile. Etta’s mom would never be beat. She would never be emotionally abused. She would cuss a mothafka out if he tried it.
But my grandmother, Bernice, she would be quiet. She would try. Too hard. For too long. She would love. Too hard. For too long. She would stay. For too long. She would not curse. She wouldn’t even cuss. She would not remember the scripture in Psalms that Etta’s mother taught her to recite over a candle while setting flame to the hair of the man that dared put his hands and his harm on her. She would not spit in his water like Celie. She would not poison his food. She would never even think of this power, the potion, her inherent black girl magic.
But my grandmother, Bernice, will grieve his death like she means it – and for the most part she will mean it. She will sit next to his bed as he slinks closer and closer to death. She will act surprised when he asks will she forgive him. She will mumble a slurred, “I do” and even shed a tear. She will tell him he can rest in peace. She will promise him that she will be ok. She may even hold his hand as he transitions. She will let her children see her cry. She will shed a few, appropriate tears at his funeral. She will sit on the front row at his gravesite. She will see the woman that cursed her years earlier out of the corner of her eyes sitting in the back sobbing and she will feel sorry for her. She will not hate her. Hate is too much energy and this woman certainly doesn’t deserve her hate. But she will feel pity because pity is very shady and now that he is gone she is available, at the very least, for a little bit of shade. She will sit quietly at the repast. She will ride home with her daughter, quietly after the service. She will go to her room, undress, bathe herself in luke warm water – because for some reason I imagine my grandmother never bathed in water too hot or too cold… always luke warm. She will put on her night gown, wrap her hair, shut the blinds – because it will still be light outside - lay in the bed, close her eyes – and just as she is about to fall asleep… she will smile. And she will mean it. And she will think, “I won.” And she will allow herself to believe that and refuse to feel any kind of way other than victory.
I do not know these things about her. But I know these things about her.
So I finally added her photo to my altar and I imagine her giggling from heaven. I never saw my grandmother laugh – let alone giggle. But, somehow, I know she is the kind of woman that, when set free, giggles all over the place. Can you even handle that?