I have three distinct memories of my father's mother. And it's rather odd at this moment to consider them in the absence of a great deal of other stories about her. Sometimes it's as if she never lived, or as if she were an unfathomable legend part human part myth. Someone asked the question, 'What was the best advice your grandmother ever gave?'. I didn't know her well enough to parse any, but I have these memories.
The first thing you have to know about Lucille was that her nickname was 'Miss Madam'. She was exactingly proper. She survived polio.
I am about four or five years old. That would make it 1965 or 66. I am to go downtown New Haven with my grandmother to the fancy department store. This, in a time when such things were not done by Negroes. I am dressed up in my light blue double breasted jacket with navy shorts. I am casually, but notably on my best behavior. Eyebrows are raised and I am reminded in no uncertain terms to be good. We go. I am good. We stay quite some time. We return. Miss Madam reports that I was a perfect gentleman. Eyebrows are raised again.
I am ten years old. I am spending the summer with my uncle in Cleveland Heights. Miss Madam will be there for a few weeks. All of my cousins are dreading the prospect. They call her 'Mee Ma' and says she is as mean as a witch. I have no such memories or experience. This will be my second time seeing her. She is as frightening as they say. She bosses everyone around. It's fascinating to see how she bosses my uncle around. I don't understand her. She seems relentless, but I have no idea of the reason. She sits on the back screen porch and smokes. My uncle told me the story of the Tell Tale Heart. I knew that it was Poe, but I hear it every night when I go to sleep in the attic. My grandmother tells my uncle to leave the poor boy alone. Aha. He was knocking on the wall.
I am 12. I visit West Haven's icy winter. My grandparents live on Captain Thomas Boulevard in a new condo. Down on the beach there are horsehoe crabs. My grandfather now shows the effect of years living with Miss Madam. He waits for his time to be free, and then indulges himself. I see that he has made several ships in bottles. My, what a patient, perfectionist man. One evening we have spaghetti for dinner. I use a knife and fork and cut the spaghetti. My grandmother explodes. She knew my father married a woman with no sense whatsoever. I am taught to use a knife and spoon, swirling the spaghetti around. I never had seen such a thing in my life.
That's it. Other than her raspy voice, her crisp diction and her stringent discipline, I have few other memories of my grandmother, and almost nobody tells us any funny stories about her. She died of emphysema around the age of 65. She smoked three packs a day. She was admired; she was respected. She was feared. She gave no easy compliments, but she was fiercely proud of all of us. She made us make her proud. The story I hear most often about her comes from my uncle. Somewhere around the time I was born, he received his PhD in microbiology. The local newspaper came to interview the family and asked her what she thought of this achievement. "It's what I expected. He's my son."
It's odd that she stands as she does in such shadows of memory, but I do remember other things. She introduced me to fruitcake, which I do indeed like, and sherbet. But I do not remember anything resembling advice coming from my grandmother. No. She gave orders.