My parents divorced when I was about four. In the following years, both my mother and father were always very loving toward me, but their relationship with each other was chilly at best. More often than not I found refuge from their ongoing battle in my Nana’s garden. There were no sides to choose there among the earth and vegetables. Nana’s home also served as a neutral zone where my father could visit me without incurring my mother’s wrath. Nana still treated my father as if he were family, much to my mother’s chagrin. But one day I learned there were limits to even Nana’s hospitality.
It was summer and Tony (I called my father and mother by their first names as my very hip mother of the 70s had taught me) stopped by to visit Nana and me. He wasn’t alone—he had brought Shirley, my other grandmother, with him. To me, Shirley was like a human flower. She wore a flamboyant wig with hugely cascading curls. She wore makeup all the time, not just for church or family portraits. On this day, her brown eyelids were colored a deep violet color and her cheeks were a vibrant pink. Her lips were a shiny ruby red, and her finger and toenails were painted to match. Her neck was covered by multicolored beads, and she wore a patterned dress made of what can only be described as “that 70’s material,” which was thin, flowing, and scratchy all at once. Shirley’s outfit sported every color of the rainbow plus a few.
What was most notable, though, was her fragrance. She wore a flowery perfume with notes of rose, honeysuckle, and gardenia.
Shirley stepped inside, opened her arms wide to scoop me up, and yelled, “Give Granmomma some sugar!” I was immediately painted with a rapid succession of lipstick kisses. Nana was caught off guard by Shirley’s visit. She was without her wig or her teeth and wore just a simple cotton shift. Nevertheless she quickly pulled herself up tall and uttered a very genteel, “How do?” in a high shrill voice that I didn’t recognize. The odd voice floated in the air as a harbinger of things to come.
I was too young at the time to know the details of my par-ent’s divorce. I did not know that the bitterness leading up to the end of their marriage had quickly attached itself to all members of the family—even grandmothers. There had been harsh words between my Nana and my Shirley. No apologies had been offered, and the wounds were still fresh. Tony had gambled in bringing her to Nana’s home. But my Nana had mercy on them because as she had often said of people who weren’t from around our parts, “Bless they heart, they don’t know no better.”
We settled down in the living room for a good chat. Nana served lemonade for Tony, Hawaiian Punch for me. She and Shirley were diabetic (one thing they had in common), so they sipped ice water. We nibbled cucumber slices with vinegar and salt while Nana wove easy yarns of tales from her youth. Her voice and composure had settled into her normal graciousness. Eventually Nana told of her dear Harvey and how he had so loved the Virginia sun. Shirley with genuine ignorance inquired, “Who was Harvey? One of your dogs, Miss Smith?”
The smile dropped from Nana’s face, and her spine stiffened. “No, Ma’am. Harvey was my husband.” Now both Tony and Shirley’s faces mirrored Nana’s. I didn’t see what the big deal was. Everyone knew Nana always had some dog or other. She always talked about them more than she did her late husband. Nana stood up and began to tromp out of the room. I grabbed her heavy hand and began pulling her. “Nana,” I said, “show Shirley your garden. Nana grew these cucumbers in her garden.”
“These are delicious. Miss Smith,” my dad chimed in. “Come on, Mama, let’s go see Miss Smith’s garden.” At four, I had no idea what I was doing. I just wanted them to see the most amazing place I knew. My father, however, knew the only hope to save them from banishment lay in that garden. He had Shirley up and toward the back door in a flash. “Wait!!!” Nana yelled. “Queenie will eat you!” Like I said, Nana always had a dog.
Once in the garden, Nana transformed from a formal, slow-moving older woman into Gaia the Earth Goddess. You could practically hear music as she moved from millet to watermelon. The plants almost seemed to reach out to meet her. She handed Tony a basket and began to fill it with any vegetable that Shirley mentioned. “Oh Miss Smith, look at those string beans.” Into the basket went the beans. “Oh my goodness, those cantaloupes are huge.” Into the basket went the cantaloupes. “Do you think I could have a few ears of corn?” In went the corn.
Nana showed them the hen house that she had built with her own hands. A handyman at heart, Tony promised to come by and fix it up a little for her. Nana popped a few eggs out of nests and into Shirley’s dress pockets. Shirley began to tell Nana a story of her late husband, Felix the West Indian, and how quickly he could butcher a chicken and get it ready for the pot. Nana got a sparkle in her eyes. Challenge accepted—she was not going to have some West Indian man outdo a good Southern woman for chicken butchery. I began to cry and run for the house. I knew that one of the poor chickens was about to head for the dinner table.
After dinner, Tony and Shirley prepared to leave. Nana and Shirley hugged each other like old friends, and Shirley peppered Nana’s cheek with lipstick kisses. “Miss Smith, I don’t have much of a vegetable garden, but, you have to come by the house sometime and see my flowers.”
“Oh, I surely will.” Nana offered. I kissed my Dad and Grandma goodbye and flicked the light on and off as they drove away.
“She sure is a kissin’ something.” Nana laughed as she wiped away lipstick.
Though no apologies for past hurts were ever offered, my Nana and my Shirley got along well after that. They were content to share a scrawny wee granddaughter, though Nana certainly got the lion’s share of my time. We had many wacky meals at both Nana and Shirley’s homes. And their acceptance of each other helped foster civility between my parents.
Many years later when my Nana passed away, my Shirley put flowers from her own garden on Nana’s casket. Shirley then opened her home to all of our family and made everyone feel welcome and comforted. She served a chicken dinner much like the one Nana had served all those years before. Though she didn’t kill the chicken herself, it was still a mighty fine meal.
I think Nana would have approved. ❖