Thursday, November 27, 2014

Giving Thanks and Telling Stories

This Thanksgiving my heart is full. I returned from NCTE 2014 brimming with stories, but I'll be sharing about that experience in a separate post in a few days. 

For now, I'm thinking about my grandmother, Phoebe Cowen, and giving thanks for the stories I inherited from her, one of which I shared over on Facebook Wednesday, along with this photo of a Cranberry Orange Mold I've been making since 1982. I always put the salad in the green bowl, which belonged to my grandmother and which my grandfather gave to me when grandma died during my freshman year of college.
My grandmother and I often had a rocky relationship. She wanted me to quit school when I was in seventh grade and take care of my father, who had lost his sight the previous year from complications from juvenile diabetes. 

I kept grandma's request from my father for a year. 

Having just read Jacqueline Woodson's Brown Girl Dreaming empowers me to see the poetry in the stories from my own childhood. They, too, are best expressed as free verse. Such is the rhythm of life; it has no set meter, no constant form. 

One of my favorite pastimes when visiting grandma was dusting the furniture. As I sprayed Pledge onto the coffee table or buffet, I pledged to myself that I would one day own matching furniture, that I would have a comfy couch to sit on. I dusted away my childhood poverty as I polished grandma's furniture and dreamed of a more prosperous future for myself. 

After I learned to drive, I hauled grandma around town. She never acquired a driver's license but freely dispensed advice about driving. Her nagging made me nervous, and one time I pulled to the side of the road and scolded her: "Grandma, you have to stop nagging me about my driving. You make me nervous, and if you don't stop, I'm taking you home." She crossed her arms, scowled, and closed her mouth. 

When my niece saw the Facebook post featuring grandma's bowl, she, too, began reminiscing. "Loved grandma Cowen and her purple bathroom." I shared that I hadn't thought about that bathroom in a long time. It had a purple tub, a purple, toilet with a padded purple seat, and a purple sink. I reminded my niece that the wallpaper was actually contact paper grandma had stuck on the wall. I didn't remind her that grandma died in that bathroom. 

This Thanksgiving we'll tell stories and create new memories with family. We may not realize the significance of these stories to ourselves and to our relationships with others for many years. Jacqueline Woodson wrote Brown Girl Dreaming after turning 50, even though it's the story of her early life. 

I turned 56 last week and am only now beginning to understand the complicated relationship I had with my paternal grandmother. Only now am I beginning to understand her role in a poor white girl's dreaming and in the symbolism of a green bowl filled with those dreams.