I had been reading that address you left in Richmond, along with the tattered scrapbook, your cards and letters to women in Southern states I'd never visited, places I should have spent summers arriving as Ruthie's youngest granddaughter from California, Ruthie's granddaughter who'll ruby if she's left in the sun too long, a girl who's never seen fireflies or hunted possums on hot nights with cousins through the Arkansas hills. I had asked my father for a picture of you and expected it that afternoon when he and my mother would arrive from the Central Valley where they had recently retired. I knew that like you, he is a collector and would take his time to sort and choose. Also, it's not easy for him to let go of things of which he has so little. When they knocked, I set the cards aside and we climbed the stairs to the roof of my San Francisco apartment building and visited, my mother tending my container garden, my father with his hands in his pockets.
Richmond, California. A small town. Rows of shack-houses sprung up the year you and Roy erected the tent and cornered road signs together to put the babies behind during the windy days. You found the breezes off the Bay gave your youngest, JoAnn, an infection in her lungs which made the corners of your mouth fold, as I have seen in those photographs of Richmond, of babies and squinting sunshine, of shipyards. That afternoon on the roof when I was twenty-two, my father said again that you died in the hospital overlooking my building. We stared at it, imagining tiny pearls of lymph clogging your heart, until my mother turned away, bending to the dead tomatoes I'd tried growing in the beach wind and fog. I pictured you in Richmond with that unknown soil, living on the edge of an ocean, a foreigner. Perhaps all you could do was turn your back on it, lean into it, and stare homeward.
Lean-to houses and a hard life are what I will tell my nephews, for they will ask, as they do now, where I was born, where their mama was born, where do they come from, where did we all come from? When I ask how old they are now, they hold their fingers in the air and rhyme "four" with "poor" and "eight" with "late." I hear them imitate my mother's "we was" and "she don't," not yet having their language drilled out of them at school. Watching the boys I think sometimes of Richmond, of all the stories these children will hear, and I wonder which will be blessed with poetry, which will be sensible and strong, which will have your kinky hair when they are grown, and which will name their own child Ruth in hopes of blessings.
Was it Richmond, the refineries scalding the air like the coal mines of home that caused black lung in women who breathed in the open hills? Maybe you thought leukemia was just another California trick, that if you were home you would have died of something simple, something people knew about, a heart attack, or in your sleep. If only we could speak, maybe you would tell me these things. But I have a feeling I could trace all the family silences back to you, and like a true Jennings, you would tighten your apron strings and turn your back, unwilling to place blame even when its empty dust ring reveals the hiding place. I wonder if it was you who answered every problem with a greater problem, as my father did when I was little to make me feel better. "Busted your toe, did you? Welp, Britches, be thankful it's not your knee. Things could be worse."
When I was twenty-one I had called my father and with the phone in my neck I held my breath until, sputtering, I told him I'd been molested by our neighbor when I was little. The silence on the other end was my father's way of screaming. He could not think of anything worse to make me feel better. When finally he did speak, whispered, it was of you. "Did I ever tell you about your grandmother? About what happened to her?"
I did not let him tell me. Instead I began reading your cards and letters and unthreading all the bad things that happened in all the stories I'd ever been told.
On good days after that phone call, I went to the ocean. I felt little again, as if we were camping out at Half Moon Bay, not far from where I grew up, not far from Richmond. I tried to imagine the Arkansas hills there in the blue waves, stretching out until the horizon line separates water from sky. I thought you must have hated the ocean, its wide expanse too much for a woman used to land in all directions, the ocean an unknown force gone out of control like a sprung well back home. What had happened to you? Why did you die so young? Had it been something more than the leukemia?
Was it the ocean, its threat of swallowing the family whole like Jonah in the belly of the whale, the family and future generations huddled together on its giant tongue, an image that was altogether foreign to you, and one too scary to counter with something worse? The ocean too near the little house you erected in San Pablo, after Richmond banned tents on any properties so that Granddad Roy had to sell and build instead in the smaller nearby town. Did you fear floods, disaster in awesome proportions, water that at any moment might typhoon or tsunami? Or perhaps it was the fog shrouding the water in mystery each day like a blanket of hope - if only it could have lifted to reveal the rolling hills of Arkansas with Petit Jean Mountain in the distance, standing solid, watching over the San Pablo house.
In the postcards of Richmond Granddad sent you before you came out with the children, they show a town on fire with growth. Buses whose signs read simply SHIPYARDS, and beds rented by the shift for workers at hotels whose ads graced the sides of brick buildings downtown. Richmond like a chant on the breath of every young Okie who'd half starved through the Depression to get a job at the shipyards, and Granddad no different. You? Well, perhaps you thought it best to grit your teeth and bear what life gave you, lucky to be getting at all. Maybe you thought things would be better in Richmond - too bad the surroundings made you feel as if you'd landed on the other side of the moon with not a soul you knew nor a plant you could name by sight. That your children would call California their home was a thought beyond endurance.
The very land of California was unstable. In a blink, the earth could give and you'd find yourself poised on your own island, the house adrift in the Bay with the children standing on the edges waving at the firm shore floating past. Everyone called California the Promised Land and you knew Richmond was just the beginning. Maybe already then those pearls that would invade your neck and chest, slowing the rapid network of blood, gathered salt from the daily fog that enveloped the house and made you feel as if you were slowly suffocating.
Shortly after that day on the roof I asked my father to take me back to Arkansas. I would arrange for a video camera, I told him, mentally logging all the questions I'd ever had about Arkansas. There was only one story of Arkansas I could tell, which I memorized for the day my nephews would ask. My father is not a giving storyteller and the boys have yet to learn how to ask the right questions, how to nudge their grandfather to warm to the telling. It is about my father as a young boy with his brother. In the blackest of nights they hunted fireflies, catching them in jars and mashing them between their palms, smearing the paste the length of their arms and running through the hills aglow, like birds on fire. My father has not returned to Arkansas since then. The names I know, Petit Jean Mountain and Perry, the town he lived in. But these words have no images attached to them, except for those I make up.
My father has postponed the trip once already. At nearly sixty, I imagine him for the first time afraid of hearing names and seeing faces changed by time, and the inevitable mirror they will offer his own face - worn, happy, but still grieving. What has it been like to carry the past with him each day, to live in the exile his parents gave him, the migration for a better life? What will he see in the eyes of his playmates - Pigtail Marna Girl - her hair now gray, her voice like sand? What will he remember when he smells people, food, and trees he forgot all about? Which hiding places will he recall, which arguments and embraces, which ghosts? My father is afraid of being small again.
You died when he was nineteen in that hospital in San Francisco. It had only been twelve years since the nights he ran through the Perry hills with his brother beside him. I have never heard him talk of your death. I have rarely heard him speak of you at all. I imagine the fog had rolled in the day you passed away, covering the hospital in its path. I see my father drive quickly away, as if escaping the ocean's threat, afraid that it having already taken his mother - he, his brother, whole generations might be next. The fear and grief mixing in him like a tight knot then, a protector for the rest of his life. It is this knot I imagine him carrying in his heart back to Arkansas, scared of what might happen if it were to loosen, or even unravel there from memory pulling at both ends.
As I stood on the roof of my apartment building watching my mother stooped over the tomato plants and within the palpable silence of the hospital, I remembered what my father had said a year earlier. Did I ever tell you about your grandmother?
I wanted to protect myself from knowing, from pain, to keep memories in the past. I did not want to be like my father, staring at old buildings that had meant something to me in the deep past. I wanted to learn from his mistakes. I wanted to focus on the detail of every present gesture - my mother adjusting her glasses as she prodded the soil, a car's horn on the next street, my father finally turning to watch my mother pick at the dead stalks - I wanted the present to keep me safe.
I had tried that and it didn't work. I was like my father. I was haunted by the past.
I don't remember when exactly, but I did ask my father, finally, what happened to you.
It was during the day, he remembered. I imagined the fog had rolled in so that you were sure even God couldn't see to help you. Granddad working one of the long ten-hour shifts. It might have been the neighbor so fond of photography. He'd taken a picture of the family once, everyone dressed in Sunday best and all the kids with their shoes on. I knew that picture. It was taken just after the San Pablo house was completed and you look almost excited about your new life. Possibility hovers in your eyes, as if you think things might just work out. And perhaps that's how it was, change and possibility still friendly, until that day. Perhaps he'd come to buy one of the chickens you kept and sold on occasion to other migrants. He, too, was from Arkansas and I imagined there existed between you an understanding on the newness of this place.
"Chicken for a picture?" he might have said, lifting his camera in the air, approaching the small porch of the house where you would have stood, wiping your hands on your apron.
My father does not remember muffled cries or your voice yelling at the kids to stay outside. He does not remember blood, or its smell like a badly skinned knee. He does not remember your dress or a quilt on the floor or a torn curtain.
Had it been those minutes under a foggy sky and the heavy body of the neighbor, the cacophony of sound rising from the shipyards, that turned your eyes inward to concentrate on the flood and gasps of valves, on the machine within? And after that, a continued change of focus from the world outside to the soul between bone and skin, your only reprieve from a land so new, hostile, openly threatening, the only sense of who you were left inside the very bones. This shift from the rapid outside world of children, shipyards, and the neighbor changed your idea of who you were, an Arkansas woman, to who you would become, a migrant woman in California going through the motions of labor, children, home, husband.
Across the Bay and beyond the jut of land visible from Richmond, there is a hundred-year-old oyster farm. I went there after my father told me your story. I watched the old and young men draped in rubber aprons shucking oysters and hauling buckets of barnacled shells here and there. The ground crunched with a century of broken shells, whipped by the breezes off the ocean, the smell of salt thick in the crisp wind. I didn't buy anything, just looked around and held my hand to my forehead to dull the coastal sun. There was a teenaged boy, ripped jeans and rubber boots, who stopped to ask if I needed anything.
"What about the pearls?" I asked. "Where do they come from?"
He shrugged. Didn't know.
I thought of you then, of the shame you would feel at knowing your granddaughter - who'd been sacrificed to the Promised Land - didn't know a damn thing about it, couldn't name the plants, cook the food, or tell you any of its stories. I knew freeways and tract houses. I knew things my parents had told me about Arkansas, the migration, and growing up in the San Joaquin. Standing in the middle of the oyster farm with the sea foaming nearby, I saw in my mind all the places and people I'd ever dreamed or heard about. I imagined again those pearls collecting and growing inside you. I had all the answers now, I knew the truth, yet a chasm opened wide beneath me and there lay a vast estate of grief and sorrow, my inheritance. Feeling suddenly empty then, I turned my back to the salty wind, leaned into it, and stared homeward.
M C R
This work is copyrighted by the author, Melanie Jennings. All rights reserved.