Roots

“There is that in me – I do not know what it is – but I know it is in me.”

Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass, 50

My great-grandmother’s handwriting loops and ducks, evidence of her existence. We are separated by time but death has made space irrelevant. I like to think of her existing in death, existing where I can’t see her because of time, but she exists right here by me.

Great Grandma Emma died the year I was born. We’ve never met, but my mind is filled with stories of her: sauteing onions and garlic in butter, slicking back pigtails with curls and ribbons, reading women’s magazines, inviting “bums” from the railroad in for a meal, living in a chicken coop, and repeating the homily “an injustice takes two people, one that’ll do it and one that’ll let them.”

There she is. I can’t touch her, time doesn’t let me, but there she is in the stories, handwriting, and fabrics she stitched. Although her body is gone, Great Grandma Emma holds space in my memory and my mind; the science of our DNA, the verbal stories, and the unsaid, unrealized similarities she shares with my mom, aunts, and grandmother pull her through time to me.

When my one-year-old daughter yanked a crockpot of bubbling barbecue chicken onto her head and I pulled her little body from the boiling red sauce on the vinyl floor, I begged, “Oh please,” thrusting my baby under the faucet of cold water. Her flesh was red with welts. Realizing there were no cuts or bruises, I waited for the blisters, the horror of my sweet baby’s skin falling off, but, miraculously, it didn’t.

While I held my wet girl sleeping in a towel, the memory of Emma held me. My mom was hundreds of miles away, my grandmother thousands; space seemed much more difficult to circumvent than time and God seemed far out of reach, so it was Emma right there by me. I wished she could have collected her atoms into one glowing apparition like men have testified of in scriptures, but I knew she would if she could. And she kind of did.

Part of the miracle of this experience happened a hundred years ago in the generous way my angel grandmother lived her life. The person she was shaped my mom’s and my grandmother’s memory of her that they gave to me. Thus, when, as a young mother, I pull my baby from boiling sauce and gashes in the floor and walls, my great-grandma whispers in my memory. We are no longer separated by space or time. Because she lived and died, she can be here when no one else is.

Faith in God is slipping from my body like condensation on a cold day. With God vaporizing around me I am left clinging to photocopies of my grandmother’s handwriting and stories of women who lived. By only looking beyond the canopy of leaves for God and angels, I’ve forgotten to look down. Down at the dirty roots beneath the soil that gave me life. Down at the human family whose miracles are the stories that bring them right here to me.

I want to thank the women who gave me my great-grandma Emma. Through their stories, my great-grandmother enters my kitchen just when I need her most. Thank you for the stories of a human woman who loved her family. Who ached for her unborn babies and the babies she was forced to bury. She wore clip-on earrings, loved conversations and stories, and always let her grandkids eat in front of the television. She suffered and sang and spent the last years of her life crippled with strokes.

She exists. Right here within me.