Saturday, October 6, 2007

Old memories & colorful lives

When I was a kid I spent a lot of time at my grandparent's house. I actually lived there, along with my father and three of my aunts, between the ages of 2 and 5 years old. It was an idyllic life, those few years, doted on by 4 incredible women, and being the light of my father's eye. My grandmother was very much the center of my world during that time. Her warmth and comfort and caring made all things right in the world.

Periodically, my grandmother would have these Club Meetings. I guess these were the equivalent of a mom's night out kind of thing for her generation. For a couple of days before a club meeting, there was lots of preparation. I would get to help her with dusting and polishing silver and watched as she cleaned the house and washed the china until they both sparkled.

On the day of the Club Meeting the ladies would arrive in their suits and dresses and hats, carrying their handbags and smelling of powder and flowers and the saccharine they carried in tiny, fancy, embossed metal boxes in their purses. They were all old, and beautiful, and regal, and refined. A little distant and intimidating and I always knew to be on my best, quietest behavior when they were around.

For the most part, I don't remember individual women - they were all of a flock - except for one - Mrs. Broyard.

Mrs. Broyard was different from the others to me. She was, maybe, a little less refined and a little more human. She was the only one who I could imagine had once been a child. I loved it when she came to the house. I looked forward to Club Meetings, partially because I loved polishing silver - but mostly because I knew I would get to see Mrs. Broyard.

In the way that memories fade and leave things out, I only remember that it seemed that Mrs. Broyard would sometimes come earlier and/or leave later than the other ladies. Once, when I told my father about my memories of her, he told me that she would actually sometimes stay for a day or two.

Knowing that, it makes sense that her image is imprinted so perfectly in my mind. I remember her delicate, pale skin - translucent - and run through with veins. Her hands soft and smooth and dry - as though she were made of silky paper. Her softly curling, and always a little messy, white hair. Her gentle voice. But what I remember most are her eyes.

Oddly enough, I can't tell you the color of her eyes, because I guess that's something that a young child doesn't notice. I have a vague sense that they were a lighter color, maybe grey or green. What I do remember, though, is that they were large and expressive. For years, whenever I would read anything about someone having a twinkle in their eye - I would imagine them with Mrs. Broyard's eyes. Actually, I think I still do that. Her eyes twinkled and danced and pranced and frolicked. She had the kind of eyes that, no matter what you were feeling, you could look into and know things would be OK.

But I also saw a sadness lurking in her eyes. Even as a little kid I would wonder why Mrs. Broyard, who was so kind and gentle and friendly and different, why was she sad? Sometimes I wondered if she was sad because she was different. And for many years this stuck with me. Growing up I always felt a little off beat, a little different and I never felt comfortable with this aspect of myself. Especially as a teenager I would think of Mrs. Broyard and wonder if that sadness in her eyes was because she was a little more real, a little less manicured than all those other ladies. I've often thought that I wish I could meet her now. She is someone I'd love to know as an adult.

As an adult I learned about an aspect of Mrs. Broyard's life that I now wonder if it played a part of that sad look in her eyes. Mrs. Broyard had a son - Anatole - who chose to lead a different life. He chose to live his life as a white man.

"Passing" is something that went on (still does go on, but I think in a different way) fairly regularly back in the day. I became fascinated with the idea of "passing" and asked my father and aunts about it. Apparently it was common for people to choose to "pass" for work. But most of the people they knew would come home to the neighborhood at the end of the day to be themselves. Apparently, Anatole Broyard felt more himself while he was "passing" than when he was back in the neighborhood - so he decided to make it more of a permanent arrangement.

Even though Mrs. Broyard holds such a prominent place in my chilhood memories I think it's only been about 7 years or so since I first heard about Anatole. But he immediately captured my imagination. I wondered what it was like for him to make this decision - what life experiences led him to it and how he lived it. I was particularly fascinated with the idea that he didn't tell his children about his background until just before his death. What was it like for them? Had they known their father's family (he had 2 sisters); did they know their grandmother - the wonderful, gentle, funny and kind-eyed Mrs. Broyard? I wondered how it affected their outlook on life and on themselves and on the world.

Well, I'll never get to pick Mrs. Broyard's brain, or Anatole's, but it seems that I can find out how all this affected his children, or at least one of them. Bliss Broyard has written a memoir that apparently encompasses her father's revelation, history on their heritage, background on his experiences and her own reactions to all of it. I can't wait to get my hands on it. I've put it on hold at the library, but I might just have to run out to a bookstore tomorrow and buy a copy. I don't think I can wait to read it.

Race is such a twisted and convoluted thing in this country. Black people are so diverse - in ethnic make-up, history and heritage that it's a wonder that so many of us can even feel comfortable using this one word to identify ourselves. I think, so often it is a state of mind, a cultural comfort much more than any physical make-up. Anatole chose to live life as a white man. My maternal grandfather, on the other hand, who is the son of a Native American mother and Irish/German father, would be irate if someone suggested to him that he is anything but Black. Those are two extremes, but there are so many of us who fall along a wide and twisting spectrum between the two.

For whatever reason, I've been thinking about race and ethnicity and heritage and ancestry a lot lately. So Bliss Broyard's book comes along at a particularly good time. Look for more of my thoughts on this topic - and a review of the book once I finish reading it.

In the meantime, I think I will enjoy thinking about my grandmother and Mrs. Broyard - they sure knew how to make a little girl feel great.


The Bear Maiden said...

Too funny you write this. I've been STRUGGLING with a similar post/thoughtline for about a week... it's still sitting in my drafts folder.

The Bear Maiden said...

And P.S.... my mother has been talking about this book for weeks. Too funny you knew of them.

That first chapter is harrowing. I don't think I can read any more...

Fat Lady said...

I bought the book last night. I couldn't go another day without having it in my possession. I rarely get obsessed about things - but sometimes I do. I was working until late and so I only got to read the first two pages. I don't know if it was hormones, lack of sleep or what, but it made me cry to read about her looking at these boxes of the ashes of the grandparents she never met. I feel so sad that she missed knowing her grandmother, who I have such fond memories of.