My knowledge of where I come from begins and ends with this fading black and white photograph of my grandmother Lucille who died at 46 when I was 7 years old. My memory of her is vague—held together by fuzzy childhood moments and probably influenced by this photograph.
My memory is jarred every now and then with the sound of her many gold bangles jingling and jangling from her wrists. My mother is the possessor of those bangles, which will eventually belong to me. But are fuzzy memories, yellow bangles and a faded photograph all I am to have of where I come from?
I wonder about our story—our woman story. Was it remarkable or simply a story of people being born and dying? Nevertheless, it is a story, and I try to search the photograph for glimpses of my past. I try to pry it from firmly pursed lips. From the stray pieces I have embedded in my head. Grandmother Lucille never lived with her own mother. What was the story behind those broken ties? Did she even know her? Did her identity not begin with her own mother? My own mother doesn't seem to know. Grandmother Lucille never gave my mother any of the stories to pass down. It's as if she hoarded them like the past we seal in our attics for safekeeping or just to forget.
These days, I feel a need to connect with the women of my ancestry, but who were the women that came from my mother's side? I suspect that they were strong, as I see absolute strength in my grandmother's piercing eyes—eyes that seem to challenge the world. Eyes that reflect my mother, who is the strongest woman I know. Where did my mother's absolute strength come from? She is the spitting image of my grandmother. Did my great-grandmother share the resemblance? Did she wear her strength in her stride the way I do? Why am I the woman that I am today? Where did my need to interpret my reality through writing come from? Were the women before my grandmother proud women, too?
Lucille was a proud woman. I remember my mother saying this my whole life. She walked around with her head held high, and her appearance was important to her. She made her own dresses, and I don't remember when she wasn't dressed up or going off to some function. She even walked proudly, sashaying generous woman hips the way proud women do. That is mostly what I remember of her—she was proud and she was constantly pursing her lips the way proud women do. To me, her pursing her lips was as if she were just about to share the stories that were somehow never told.
Sometimes, I wonder who will ask these questions and tell these stories after I have passed on. It is up to me to find these stories, or else record my own stories, as I will have no daughters who will ask about their great grandmother. The blood that runs through my veins is foreign to me. I need to make a point of jogging my mother's memories for slivers or threads of our past. She must have had some glimpses of the woman and can piece together something from that. Where are all the pictures? Why is there only one faded black and white picture of my grandmother? These are things that have come up all my life. These days, they seem to surface a lot more as I take stock of the woman I am and try to find my rhythm and define my place in the world.
This faded studio photograph is my oldest link to that place. I had it reprinted to preserve the memories as if I were afraid I would remember them no longer, but the creases show up like the missing pieces of the memory, yellowed and faded with the passing of time. Lately, I think about time. I try to examine it for threads to my existence. The photo is the sum of my existence—thin, yellow and disintegrating, held together by glossy coating—fragile, really, if you think about it.
The picture gives nothing away. I search her jet black eyes for reflections of thought. Those eyes do not betray her thoughts. I can't accept that it must all end with my grandmother. I can't accept that the stories will never be told. It is as if when she died all of the women with stories who came before her were buried along with her. But what secrets did she take to the grave with her? What words were never loosened from her tongue? What pieces of me will never be revealed?
This picture holds a lot of untold stories, and in its one-dimensional state it irritates the hell out of me, because even though it speaks volumes, I cannot hear the words. Although it translates my world, I cannot see past the yellowed hue to get a clear picture of all that was. Its existence is maddening to me, and yet it is one of the most precious things I own as it reminds me that my story is buried along with Lucille, and it is where I should start to unravel that story.