Today is our long day. We need to drive nearly 200 miles to cross state lines. Mom and I take shifts, plying the other with an endless stream of gritty Community Coffee and sleeves of Donette’s. I notice the minute we cross into Louisiana. The air changes, thick and sluggish with humidity, pushing across our faces like a wet tongue.
“Oakdale! Next right,” I announce.
Mom and I had switched seats at the last gas station. She’s not a morning person and I inherited Dad’s punctuality, so I took the first shift. Now Mom drives while I play co-pilot.
“That right? Oh shit—” Mom nearly careens off the highway as she takes a too-sharp turn off the backwoods-lined country road onto a pocked gravel street. Oakdale is literally a town you could blink and miss.
“Tina Louise,” Nana curses. She terrified of Mom’s driving. The only thing that scares her more is driving herself. She’d take being driven any day—far fewer decisions to make, far fewer people honking and racing past her, pointing to the speed limit number she’d no doubt be going at least ten under.
Oakdale is small, population 120, though I suspect that number reflects its more populous days. It has ten streets, eight of them neighborhood lanes. The closest Walmart and the civilization that cropped up near it is twenty miles east. The sky is yellow, everything tinted in harsh afternoon light, the sun a pierced yolk bleeding over everything it touches until it’s all coated in thick syrupy rays.
We passed the church Granny used to take Mom and her brother, Uncle Steve, to when they would visit in the summertime before they became too old for such trips. Oakdale was barely entertaining for a child let alone a pair of teenagers.
“Y’all want some boudin?” Mom suggests cheerily as if she hadn’t almost killed us. Every minute spent below the fall line corrupts her West Coast non-accent back to its native drawl, honeyed as if fresh from the comb.
“I’ll eat some if you do,” Nana replies softly. Which means yes. Nana only ever agrees to wanting something if someone else asks for it first. She’d never be the first to ask. In her words, she’s “not the pioneering sort.”
“I’ve never had it before,” I say.
“Never? Tina Louise how come my granbaby’s never had boudin before?” she admonishes.
Mom cocks her head and smiles teasingly. “You never taught me how to make it, Mama. And you know, ain’t no good boudin in Colorado.”
As we weave down the narrow midcentury streets towards the boudin shop (“more of a cart, really,” Nana clarifies before my expectations can solidify), Nana tells us about the families that used to inhabit each house. They’ve all died or moved to be nearer grandchildren or aging siblings.
We slowly pass a dilapidated clapboard house. Nana tells us it’s Granny’s house. Mom instinctively slows down, idling on the curb.
In the soft voice of someone frequently reminded children should be seen and not heard, Nana informs us Granny, her grandmother, went to jail. Very quickly Mom and I recognize the small act of courage taking place—Nana putting sound to events our polite Southern relatives never spoke about or even acknowledged as real.
The house sits buried amid weeds and crabgrass, almost completely shrouded by curtains of Spanish moss. The home’s maintenance has been abandoned like most things in Oakdale. Mom’s eyes stay on the road, despite the car’s stillness. Her mouth is set in a straight line, giving nothing away, but I notice we’re both holding our breath, so as not to scare Nana out of her reverie. We sit silently like bird watchers trying to hone in on an elusive songbird’s call.
“She shot her husband,” Nana explains.
Mom murmurs to me in an aside, “He was abusive.”
Nana delicately dabs her forehead with the gas station napkins to prevent her sweat from reverting her carefully pressed hairline back to its natural state. She continues on:
“He kicked her down the stairs once. She miscarried after that. One night when he came home from the bar, she shot him, point-blank, standing on the same stairs he kicked her down. Shot him in the face as he walked through the door.”
“Oh shit,” I say. “Granny was a badass.”
“Oh yes, baby,” Nana agrees, graciously choosing to ignore my profanity. She’s still of the mindset that such language is not to be held in a respectable lady’s mouth. But she loves Mom and me more than anything, and that means developing selective hearing to the frequent profanity we employ.
The car becomes quiet. We listen to the sound of sprinklers and cicadas in the distance. There are no children. The life cycle of the neighborhood has long since slumped toward its inevitable expiration date. Only grandparents, old relations, and those unable, or afraid, to escape remain.
“She went to jail, didn’t she?” Mom offers, subtly trying to encourage Nana to continue.
Nana nods. “Oh yes. It was quite the scandal. The family didn’t talk about it. They were upset, you see. Back then, you were just supposed to live with it. All of it.” She gestures loosely, as if a sweep of the hand could encompass all that came with a life marred by segregation, poverty, and sudden death. “They couldn’t believe she did something—especially something, you know, like that.”
“Tell her about the Black Eyed Margarets. Wasn’t that Grandaddy’s joke?” Mom says. There’s an edge to her voice that tells me Black Eyed Margaret isn’t a sweet pet name.
“Oh, well, that was just…that was just mean of him. He could be mean like that. But funny. He always thought he was funny. Other people thought so too,” Nana stammers. Being asked to recall a memory on command makes her skittish, reminding her of days in the schoolroom, of being called on by a mean-spirited teacher, or perhaps simply an oblivious one, unaware of the grave anxiety it would induce in someone as deathly shy as Nana.
Immediately Mom recognizes her error—pushing too hard—and backtracks into silence, hoping Nana will fill it at her own leisure.
“That flower there, baby?” she points out the window to one of the dozen yellow flowers, almost like miniature sunflowers, that flank the side of the road like stubborn picketers. “It’s called a ‘black-eyed Susan’, but Granddaddy used to called them Black-Eyed Margarets—after Granny—because, you know, well, he used to hit her and all, and she’d have a black eye afterwards…”
My mouth falls open. “That’s vile.”
Nana’s only comment on the matter is a simple nod. She then points to a tire hopelessly dangling from one of the branches of the Spanish moss tree.
“Charles used to love that swing. Once, when he was pushing me on it, we saw a car pull up. It was a nice car; we didn’t recognize it. A woman got out. She was a white lady. He stopped pushing me and grabbed my arm. He was scared. We both were. Granny came out and greeted her. They stood close. They were almost touching but not quite touching, like they were telling a secret.
“They talked a moment, Granny said something and the woman laughed. We couldn’t believe it. This white woman laughing with Granny. But Granny was always real funny, witty you know, not like Grandaddy, she made everybody laugh, even the warden at the women’s prison.” Nana beams at this, as if it is her own accomplishment to be proud of. “And then they turned to us. Granny told us to come here. She pointed to the woman and said, ‘This is my sister.’”
Nana’s voice is calm and steady as if reciting a grocery list from memory. She explains it was common back then to separate children who were light from the darker ones. To send them to live with other light-skinned family who could pass.
Nana tells us her name was Lucille and despite all the time apart, Lucille and Granny were close. No amount of time, distance or color could sever the bond between the sisters though the family had tried. The family didn’t want to risk someone in the white community finding out about Granny and ruining the illusion that Lucille was pure and undiluted by the one-drop rule.
“It wasn’t mean, you know,” Nana clarifies. “They just wanted it to be easier for her. Someone that light wouldn’t have fit in with all us dark ones. It made sense to send them off. To give them a chance at something better than we got.”
I thought of my own sister and me—myself darker than my “high yellow” sister who took after our father. I tried to imagine us separated, never knowing the powerful kinship that buoyed us both through our tumultuous girlhood as military brats.
“That must’ve been hard,” I say.
Nana nods slowly, carefully choosing her words, “It was all hard then, baby. But that’s just the way it was.”
She goes back to her poised practiced silence and, accepting the moment of reminiscing has passed, Mom puts the car in drive. Granny’s house, great-Uncle Charles’ favorite tire swing, and the ghosts of two sisters caught between worlds—Black and white, married and free—recedes in the distance.
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