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A quarterly international literary journal

Conversations We Haven't Had



By Finley Williams


/ Nonfiction /

I.


Granny never talked about her late husband, my maternal grandfather. I know him mostly through a photograph.

Both his skin and my granny’s – which in life is deep and dark brown, though wrinkled and pockmarked – seem yellow with age. My grandfather wears a gray three-piece suit, complete with a black fedora and dark sunglasses, though he is indoors. He has a full beard with streaks of gray, and smiles with his lips parted just-so, revealing a gap where his right front tooth should be. His right arm encircles my grandmother’s waist. There is an open beer bottle on the table in front of him. Granny, in a white blouse, slings her arm around his shoulder and pulls him close; she smiles at the camera.

I know him also through the almost furtive way that Granny and my mother bear his loss. I see him in the ring wrapped tight around Granny’s fattening finger, and in her misty eyes when quietly she says, “He was a good man. A good man.” And in the silence, when she declines to say more. I hear him sometimes in my mother’s voice – “I miss my daddy” – and though she is 49 years old, her sorrow seems fragile and almost childlike.

My mother doesn’t know where her father is buried – he died of lung cancer in 1986, when she was just 13. She remembers her mother’s tearful incredulity, her brothers’ silent and macho sadness. She says Granny must have some papers somewhere in her basement with the exact details of his internment: the cemetery, the plot, a recount of the proceedings – or perhaps not. Perhaps in her rabid sorrow, she forgot the documents on the table in the funeral home. Perhaps, as a farewell, she burned them and released the ashes into the hot night. Perhaps, like with so much of her trauma, she found healing, or some crude simulacrum of it, in silence; perhaps these details are a final peace to which she grips senselessly, and if she were to speak, would dissipate.

We let her keep her secrets or else listen closely for them, carelessly divulged, in desultory conversation. We do not ask what it was to be a Black woman born in Georgia and raised in Ohio in the late 1930s; to thus not have a birth certificate; to be reared by an illiterate mother and the specter of an absent father. What it was to raise seven children with four delinquent fathers, and watch one of those children, then grown, succumb to a heart attack; watch another fall prey to addiction and languish until death in the antiseptic rooms of rehabilitation centers; watch another become insolvent. What it was to lose her husband, the last great love of her life.

We know she has two masters degrees in mathematics and found success as a high school teacher – she never fails to remind us – but she does not say what she surmounted to attain it. We do not ask, and she seldom tells; these pitfalls and pockmarks she keeps well hidden behind the curtain of her present life.

My mother practices the same monastic silence. I have seen and heard her struggle only peripherally: as a child, I pressed my ear against her bedroom door and listened to lovers and abusers – often one and the same – force themselves into her. I have heard venom hurled toward her from the mouths of those she loved; and in turn, I have seen her spurn love’s supple touch, afraid that a blow might be waiting. I have seen her sit tearfully beside our belongings piled monstrously on the curb, a monument to the prevalence of eviction and instability in our lives.

These are invisible traumas. There are scars I do not understand well, but which still wind their way through me. I wonder about the silence of these Black women, my grandmother and my mother, and how secrets and shame must mature within their bodies, and grow through them like vines crawling up the brick faces of project houses in their youth. I wonder what grand intersection of personal and historical injustice must mingle and distill within their bones; I wonder where they place the blame – in the wicked heart of some great-great-grandmother’s enslaver, in the work-callused hands of an absent father or an abuser, or in Adam’s original sin, as told in the Protestant tradition to which they all cling. And I wonder how they speak it, if they ever have.

Their silence is heavy. My granny tells me the horrors of her youth by the very manner in which she does not divulge them, in the way I sometimes hear it whispered by my aunts and uncles in private conversations – she tells them by her silence. My mother only says that she is older now and wants to listen, not so much to speak.

In the center of these two kin secrecies, I am something of a sleuth. I listen to the silence and to admissions so quiet I might miss them. I ask myself how to carry and honor these stories, which I do not fully know. I draw my blood and see their trauma reflected within it, but am unsure how to locate myself, half-understanding, in this feminal line. I try to find the inlets and coves of their quiet histories and just-under-the-surface pain. I begin with my eyes closed, and feel backward through their lives and mine.


II.


Granny has lived in this townhouse in Finneytown, Ohio, outside of Cincinnati, for 23 years. All around, there is proof of this longtime inhabitance. Her vanity is covered inches-deep with half-empty bottles of perfume, foam hair rollers, tubes of mascara and red lipstick, bills and personal correspondence still in their envelopes. Barbie and baby dolls forever in their boxes – mint condition – line the back of her dresser, foregrounded by water bottles and empty containers of lotion and oil. In her bathroom: scented candles still in their plastic wrapping, figurines of Black angels resting their heads in open Black palms, a small standing clock with a reproduction of The Last Supper on its face. Plastic pink flowers in the downstairs bathroom, in the extra room, on the counter – releasing no fragrance, but sure not to wither after all these years. And over everything, dust and photographs. On the bookshelf next to old math textbooks, snapshots of my uncles on their middle school picture days. Photos taped to an ancient computer: my father holding my infant brother, Granny in her high school or college years, one of my uncles cutting a birthday cake. Framed photographs on the TV stand, atop the armoire, on the coffee table next to yet more figurines of Black women and Black children, all frozen in time.

The plants, I think, are the only living things in her house. They line the back door like sentinel, and the green locks of the Moses and the ferns tumble down from where my grandmother has placed them along the wall. They breathe and are vivid; they brighten the air with a force so verdurous and vital that it almost stirs the dust from where it lay.

The entire home seems to burst with a history its tenant is loath to discuss. In every corner, one finds whispers of a secret past. One sees the very evidence of a hidden erstwhile life written in these photographs, and yet Granny makes no mention of it.

I asked her once, though, hoping to discover this secret life.

“When was your mom born?” 1925, she told me. “Oh,” I said, recalling that Granny was born sometime in the late 30s. “She must have had you when she was young, then.”

“Yes,” Granny said. “She was a teenager.”

I kept up a steady line of questions – where was your mother’s mother born? and your mother’s father? what were their names? how many siblings did you have? She answered obligingly at first, but soon bit back. She recoiled as if realizing she had let me get too close — “Why are you asking all these 10,000 questions? I’m not going to tell you anymore. Really, I’m not. I’m done.”

But for a little while, she had let her lips loosen. In the precious moments that she forgot her reticence, I learned that her grandfather, her mother’s father, was a sharecropper in Georgia. Her mother was one of 12 children, and my Granny was one of 10. I learned that her mother’s mother was born, too, in Georgia, in 1884. I heard, for the first time, my granny’s maiden name: Stewart. I learned that her family moved to Cincinnati during the Great Migration of the late ’30s and early ’40s. She told me idly that she spent a lot of time with her Uncle Boot, and took pains to note that his name was in fact Benny, but they all called him Boot. I asked her why; she replied that she doesn’t know. “Nobody talked. They didn’t really do a lot of talking.” Tellingly, she reveals that she knows her mother’s and grandmother’s birth years only because she searched their names in a digitized version of the 1940 census – even this, the simple arithmetic of our history, they did not speak to her.

Does she know that she participates in this great ritual of silence, in speaking without words? She aids in their conspiracy: one generation keeping its secrets from the next, hiding their scars beneath cotton tunics, telling their stories only to empty rooms. Granny treated her memories the same way she treated the photographs strewn about her house; she left them out until they were all clad in rags of dust, until the edges frayed, until humidity softened them. She let me see them, but only cursorily, and did not allow room for interrogation.

But with the little she told me, with the pictures I saw, I allow my imagination to roam; I envision a history to which I might link myself.

All is black before our forced migration to the United States. I imagine our ancestral family stolen from the western shores of Africa, from Nigeria or Guinea or Sierra Leone, and dragged across vicious seas to what would become the United States. I see some wise and tortured progenitor bartered through Louisiana, Alabama, Mississipi, before finally settling with an enslaver in Georgia, perhaps with the name Stewart. That is how my Black family, doubtless held in bondage for many years in America, gained this Scottish surname meaning “guardian” or “warden.”

Perhaps Granny’s great-grandmother was born enslaved, and freed in 1865. Perhaps Cornelia, her child, was a beautiful, Black, plump little girl who, greeting the world in 1884, brought with her the hope and promise of the coming century. Perhaps Della, my great-grandmother, Cornelia’s child, also heralded the approaching era; her movement north with her 10 children in tow is surely a sign of it.

But I learned little of how Granny conceived of her upbringing in Cincinnati – what it meant to have a mother who refused the bondage of the South, what it was to wear and then escape the blood of sharecropping. And in any event, I am most curious about the details with the least consequence – how many rooms were in their apartment? How many times did they move? Did Della make her children dinner every night, or did they go hungry? Was it much like my childhood in Chicago, when my mother told my brothers and I to be back in the house by the time the streetlights flickered on each summer evening? Did my granny witness porchlight camaraderie, where the yellow-eyed old men cradled beer wrapped in brown bags, and young girls double-dutched with their hair plaited and secured with beads and barrettes? Would she linger late with them into the hot Ohio night, listening to stories of the South intermixed with fierce hopes of moving farther North? I wonder if she liked her Sunday clothes. I wonder if she loved her brothers and sisters, whom she seldom mentions now.

I get but a glimpse of this old life. On the phone, she tells me about her Barbie collection – she’s got dozens of them, all in mint condition, and she says they’re probably worth some money now. She says that she loved playing with Barbies as a child, but her brothers would always tear them up. And then she is silent. This is how she speaks of her childhood: always sideways, through the lens of something else – and always bookended by silence, which foretells the weight of what she cannot and does not express.

I see her past, too, in her present body. She can be mean-spirited and stubborn. She is rabidly racist, always complaining about niggas in her neighborhood who don’t know how to behave. She warns never to shop on the 1st or 15th of the month because the store will be full of Black people with food stamps. She tells me to shave my legs and armpits; she says fat women shouldn’t wear shorts or cropped clothing. Tellingly, she loves with her money. At Christmas, she showers my cousins and me with Apple gadgets, bath sets, gaming consoles, Nike and Adidas tracksuits. She gives and gives, but does not speak. Instead, she lets slip these subconscious actions, which are gateways to imagining her past.

I imagine, indeed, what circumstances led her to become this way. Surely the conservatism that comes with age, but perhaps also the constant sight of Black men and women so mistreated, oppressed, and belittled that she eventually believed this treatment to be just. Perhaps she saw it on the television during the Civil Rights Movement (of which she has never spoken), and then saw it in her own life – her illiterate mother, her bastard siblings, her delinquent father. All around her was this evidence of Black worthlessness. And perhaps she, having proved her worth through education and gainful employment, earned license to herself practice the same racism – disguised as respectability politics – that plagued her countrymen.

My aunt says my granny gives objects because she does not know how to give herself. Even in childhood, she recalls Granny being somewhat stoic and distant – “My mother never talked to us. She wasn’t good at that sort of thing.” I hear this and imagine my granny in the late ’70s, the years of my mother and aunt’s childhood: She returns home after double shifts at the restaurant where she waitresses, and has no more energy to give to her seven children. I see her posed at the kitchen table, one hand on the back of a tall wooden chair, the other pressed against her forehead. Her eyes shut, she thinks of how she must care for her mother, how she must care for her children. She thinks of her children’s fathers. Perhaps she thinks fleetingly of her own life.

She cannot verbalize her love for her children because she cannot verbalize her pain, and perhaps she is not ready to admit that the two are bound up in one another, that the one comes forth to bear on the other. She works in pain and in love the same way that her mother must have moved from Georgia in pain and in love. No other way is possible.


III.


Earlier this year, I wrote a song about my mother entitled, “Dream for You,” which I performed at a vigil in support of survivors of sexual and domestic abuse. My introduction was direct if not nondescript: “This is a song about my mother, who was in bad relationships for a long time.” The rally was outdoors, and my voice wavered a little beneath the street sounds. A city bus noisily ambled by now and then. And I sang


I was caught once in the vanity of dreaming

I dreamed you owned a house up in the north

Just below the border, just beside the sea

With a terrace and a garden and Salvation Army trinkets

Crowding every wooden mantel piece


When I sent her video of the performance, she could only say that she didn’t know I thought about her – as if the greatest honor of her life, the greatest symbol of my love, were that she occupies space in my imagination. That I reflected on and felt her trauma was a sign of my care of her; it was a signal that I knew what she had done and been through, and that I loved and forgave her nonetheless. Now in my adulthood, she shares a little, here and there, about her pain; she is not like my Granny, who prefers to keep her past locked within her, who bristles even at questions about her other lives.

But as a child and younger adult, I always thought of my mother – in the absence of conversations about and real reckoning with my childhood, these thoughts were all I had.

When I reflect on life with her and two brothers on the South and West Sides of Chicago, I first recognize her struggle. I remember when I sold coupon books for a school fundraiser, and a couple of family members had given me money to purchase one for them. She came to me a few nights before I was to turn the funds in at school. Quietly, shamefully, she stood in my doorway and asked me to do her a favor – she said she was short on gas money and needed the $30 my aunt had paid to me.

Not more than nine years old and possessed by a desperate urge to help my mother, I obliged. Of course, I did not know what it meant at the time. I did not process how low she must have been to ask me for money, how close to the edge of the world. As I write this now, tears gather in my eyes, and I feel pinpricks rolling up and down my chest. It pains me to think how ashamed and helpless she had to be. My child heart breaks for her; I imagine myself with my arms stretching to her, to cover her the way she covered me.

So much of my mother’s pain I have only been able to comprehend in retrospect. I recall a time she locked herself in the bathroom to have some clemency from a raging lover. Indignant, he kicked in the locked bathroom door to further torment her as she sat sobbing on the closed toilet seat. I approached apprehensively, without understanding. “Mom,” I said, “are you okay?”

“It’s okay,” she replied, her eyes still shut. “Go to your room.”

I recall another instance, a few years before that, when we returned home after a trip to find our apartment broken into and our valuables stolen. It was a cruel irony that we had just returned from visiting family in Cincinnati over Christmas. I remember sitting in the way-backseat of our minivan with my brothers as my mother inspected the damage. Silently, she returned to the car and leaned her head against the steering wheel. I heard her breath shake; I thought that if I were quiet enough, I could even hear the tears pool behind her shut eyes. I asked her if the burglars had stolen my guitar, and with her forehead still pressed against the steering wheel, she reassured me that they had not.

I remember, too, when we were evicted from one of our apartments in the most cruel of ways: the landlord changed the locks and dumped our belongings on the devil’s strip in front of the apartment. My mother sat on a fire hydrant watching the cars pass through the nearby intersection, and my brothers and I stood around her. She did not speak except to tell us that we would be okay.

And then the million traumas of poverty: when our hot water was out for weeks, when we had a bedbug infestation, when dozens of roaches lived behind our refrigerator, when our puppy died of parvovirus because we could not afford to get him veterinary care – all of these perversions of the home and home life.

In all the time that has passed, I see her solemn strength, the stoicism with which she carried herself, and above all, the protective quality of her silence. I see now, looking back through the years, the depth in which she suffered; these sorrows were hidden behind her shut eyes, in her mouth open from weeping, beneath her skin. What is it in the Black woman that compels her to bear the weight of this world alone?

Now, I think of this silence as her long brown arm reaching over me, shielding me from what ill may come – but even as I mature into adulthood, we do not often directly discuss the tumult of our shared past. Perhaps I am still the young child, not yet 13, for whom silence is the greatest form of protection.

Of course I have always thought of my mother. As I child, I wondered about what pains she hid from us, what grace she maintained even in the face of poverty’s indignities. As a young woman, I wonder what it was to hold these pains within herself, to feel the weight of her tragedies in her body. And I am especially attuned to her dreams; perhaps we heal, in part, by discussing the future’s wild possibility and not so much the struggle of the past.

She lives on the North Shore of Illinois now, in Waukegan, with her husband of two years. She, like Granny, has placed plants along every white windowsill, has hung them from the ceiling in front of her blue curtains, has put them on her coffee tables and counters. She has fish whose tanks sound like a quietly running stream. She tells me that she and my step-father want to buy a house in the country, perhaps even up in Wisconsin, if they can save enough money. She wants to garden there, and raise chickens. She wants to spend quiet days at the water.

So I dream for her a white house just below the border. I dream her rainy days and fertile soil. I dream her mantelpieces with room enough for plants and photographs. I dream her a large backyard and a grove of apple trees. I give her white linen curtains and I open her window so the clucking hens might rouse her from sleep each morning. I make it so when she wakes, she first sees her husband, and then looks to the window beyond him and can rest her eyes, for a moment, upon the water.

Above all, I try to give healing to her and my grandmother, and myself, too. I decide that until our lips loosen and the frost melts from our memories, we must not look to the past, but instead to fierce visions of the future, of what might be and is possible. We must put our trauma to work as fodder for the possible, for brave dreams of healing.


IV.


It occurs to me, suddenly, that if my mother does not know where her father is buried, it is likely my grandmother does not know, either. I turn these words over: My grandmother does not know where her husband is buried. My granny has never visited her husband’s grave. I ask myself where, then, they have put their sorrow. Where must it go if they never let it leave them, if they bind it within them? Perhaps, given no other outlet, it lingers in their bones. Perhaps it burrows until it grows too large and finally cracks, like the adventitious roots of a maple tree growing upward through the pavement. I think that it must be heavy, the unprocessed weight of all these years. It must stretch and fold their skin, gray their hair, bend their backs toward the earth.

They are mostly silent the way Black women have always been silent, have always borne the Janus weights of the future and the past. They are oracles, sages, breadwinners, recordkeepers of secret, unmentioned things. They hold their silence for fear of the pain that speaking brings to them and to others; to speak is to give form to the formless, to make real and concrete the specters of a past sooner forgotten. They are silent to protect their families and themselves.

But still, I stumble back through the years and piece together the tattered retellings of their pasts, their tapestries of sorrow. I hear my mother and grandmother’s stories – or snippets of them – and recognize a phantom weight on my shoulders. I cannot exactly name what lies on me, but I feel it incontrovertibly. It is somewhere between the pain of eviction, abuse, poverty, the unknowable toll of unmooring, and the knowledge that these scourges are so inescapable that they might be genetic. I wonder thus if I am the unconscious bearer of their sorrow. I wonder if I wear it sometimes, like the tunic of a sharecropper, the apron of a poor waitress, the tattered shoes of one in poverty. I wonder if, through our silence, we are forced to live these pains again and again: I can feel the small crease where my granny’s struggle becomes my mother’s, and where my mother’s becomes mine.

I see my mother, though, and I know how she has sown her sorrow in the fecund soil of her life. She tends to it, waters it, sings to it, and ultimately hopes to reap the substance of her dreams. Perhaps she has carried her trauma as a seed – gravid with the future, with the possible, innate in it the potential for growth – and formed it into a great oak growing in her garden. She has let her trauma bring rich dreams of a future without fear and want. She has even spoken it sometimes, and released it to the wind. She has not done as my grandmother has done.

Granny’s trauma lives in her. She has left her stories, her past, the nuances of her life locked in the cellar of her bones. She has not planted her sorrow at the grave of my grandfather, nor given it to the air, nor wrapped it in the blanket of a dream, but left it bound within her. When she disparages Black people, or gifts physical items instead of emotional connection, or lets her photos collect dust, or keeps baby dolls in pristine condition on her shelf, I think it is her trauma clawing and gasping to be seen. I wonder how she lives with it.

And I think how much more open Granny would be – how much more healed, perhaps, we all would be – if she watered her pain the way she so attentively waters the plants upon her windowsill. How it might open to the sunrise like a yellow trumpet of spring, how it might run down triumphantly like the jade pothos posing at her back door. We could come to her and tend these seeds, all the dark hands of my mother, Granny, and me digging roots into the earth. What seeds I might plant there, too. What vines I might remove from my lungs and bury in the soil.

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