by DL Minor
Two little black boys are here today, third-graders nearly bouncing off the walls in their shared joy at having brand spanking new library cards, much too boisterous for a quiet library Saturday, but way too cute to put out the door. Both are skinny, sneakered and blue-jeaned with lively brown-black eyes and wide, mischievous smiles; they could be brothers, biological brothers, but are quick to scoff, assuring us no way. Each of them in his moxie little way reminds me of Joe at that age… sort of. Well, no. Under certain circumstances my brother could be an absolute terror, but more often Joey was shy and soft-voiced, especially at that age, especially with strangers. One of the boys may have developmental issues or perhaps a learning disability; he doesn’t listen well, and despite the branch manager’s patiently repeated instructions remembers only the simplest directions with great difficulty. His frustration plays itself out in whining, noisy squabbles with his tattletale companion, “accidentally” pushing pamphlets and flyers off tables, and finally, foul-mouthed defiance.
Maybe they’re not as cute as all that.
The biddies are here today, too. As usual one is testifying in the bluest of terms and the other, predictably, is Hallelujah-ing and Amen-ing everything she hears. It’s parody almost, an In Living Color skit, and Gramma—who would not have approved of the hilarious and often raunchy Wayan Brothers landmark comedy had she lived to see it—would be appalled.
My grandmother didn’t curse, ever. That’s not boast or sarcasm; it’s a statement of fact. Mary Ellen Walker Wimberly was a devout and proper Catholic with decided ideas about what did and did not constitute appropriate public discourse. Also—and I’m inclined to agree with her on this one, in principle if not in practice—she considered swearing unworthy, the mark of a lazy and ignorant mind; she especially deplored base talk coming from women, who in her upbringing were held as creatures of modesty and refinement.
Well, that’s what they told her.
My mother, in normal conversation, did not use bad language, the key phrase here being “normal conversation.” When Mom was angry—by which I mean ready to take you down—she swore like the proverbial longshoreman, but even then she drew the line somewhere. “Shit” she would say. “Fuck” when she was seriously pissed and “goddamn” would be nothing at all for her. But I don’t recall epithets like “pussy” or “dick” or “cunt” slipping between her lips no matter how exercised she got, not within my hearing, anyway. As I say, there were limits.
I curse, but guiltily, self-consciously. I am that much my grandmother’s child and grateful for it, generally. When I use coarse language, I often feel foolish and vaguely frustrated with myself, wishing my fuse was longer and my vocabulary bigger and more sophisticated.
All bets may be off whenever I am confronted by serious stupidity, still I know there must be better, more elegant ways to express momentary irritation at human frailty—my own and others—and am ever conscious of the possibility of Gramma pausing at a bingo table somewhere in Heaven, shaking her head in keen disappointment, and sighing heavily.
“I know I taught her better than that,” she’s telling Saint Peter sadly, who is patting her shoulder and nodding sympathetically.
“Kids,” he shrugs. “G-17?”
I miss my grandmother, so much. I miss her lively, inquisitive eyes, her gentle sheepish smile and the warm grip of her strong, gnarled caramel brown fingers. Her voice is with me still, soft and quirky, amused and wheedling, I hear it even now. October is her birth month, and as we are pulled inexorably closer to the winter holidays I feel Joey’s loss as well; his absence underscores hers.
My sister Geri is my memory’s third rail, the ghost girl I do not touch. I failed her, failed us both, miserably. Our break was a casualty of the falling out between my father and me, an eerie echo of the lost Teresa, the aunt who died at eighteen, after being sent away under circumstances about which my grandmother would never speak. Was this, finally, the moment in her life when Grandma allowed herself to curse? I cursed my father, and when Geri stepped between us cursed her as well, pushing them both away, banishing them both, keeping my angry distance until the phone call that interrupted a hectic working day with the news that an enraged ex-fiancé, sneering at yet another Order of Protection, had found an address, got a gun, and ended Geri’s life.
And then Joe. Nearly five years on, and my brother’s death, the stark, unholy fact of his gone-ness, is still a stinging slap in the face, a wound that is taking its slow, stubborn time to heal, assuming it ever heals. I mean, how dare he? How dare God? Why him? Why us? How many more times would I have hugged my brother, laughed with him, leveled with him, had I known how relatively little time we’d have together.
I mentioned God. That was in jest.
Despite my grandmother’s loving influence and all her towering, unshakeable faith, I am not a believer in the concept of Afterlife.
And I don’t give a shit what the biddies at the next table say—or how flagrantly they say it. I don’t give a shit what anyone says. There is only one life, this life, this world, one shot.