An excerpt from my memoir-in-progress, The Body Is a Storehouse:
When my mother asked me if I realized that her mother, Barb, beat her when she was a little girl, I was still a little girl, five, and the question seemed accusatory. It bowled me over and engulfed me with the force of a rogue wave breaking over the shore. I didn’t understand the power of it over my mother’s life at the time. I was more afraid of its consequences for me. My grim, kindergartener’s imagination began creating cartoonish pictures of my mother hinged at the waist, rear-end raised, eyes clenched, like Bugs Bunny awaiting a paddling. As my mother waited for the blow, I saw the wooden paddle, holes bored through it to give it extra bite like my teacher’s paddle, hover momentarily before my grandmother swung it with all her strength. I couldn’t conceive of my mother as a child, so she looked remarkably like me in my imagination. Barb grinned as she barked at my mother, dramatically and emphatically, “How could you do it? How could you do it?”
My memory (Imagination?) fades into this: my grandmother and me, no taller than her hip, walking along the center of the hallway at my school, Forrest G. Hay Elementary, her high heels clacking on the floor tiles, her wide hips drenched in a knee-length black and gray plaid skirt. She filled the entire hallway, floor to ceiling, wall to wall. A slight smile lifted the corners of her lips, and like a ghost unaware of the pall it casts, she didn’t seem to notice me beside her. Her presence pushed me out to the wall. I was embarrassed by her nonchalance, her air of superiority, like she owned me, the school. I wanted to leave, pretend I wasn’t with her. I wanted my mother. She would know how to handle this woman.
As I looked up at my grandmother, armed with the knowledge she’d beaten my little-girl mother, I seemed to see her for the first time. I tried to imagine what that little girl could have done to deserve her mother’s anger. It seemed impossible that my mother could do anything wrong. I saw the woman walking beside me swinging her fists at that little girl, pounding my mother’s head and shoulders, the smile never leaving my grandmother’s lips, her chest heaving from the effort. The clacking of Grandma’s heels sounded with each blow she landed. I saw Mom, crying, cowered beneath the pummeling, and she looked at me, implicated me: “Why didn’t she love me?”
And then I was my mother, shielding myself from my grandmother’s blows. I tried to stand but my grandmother balled her fist and cold cocked my left cheek, knocking me to the floor. A red hot burst exploded there and throbbed against my skin. The blood, racing now because my heart was pounding, seemed to converge and pool on the apple of my cheek, swelling. Crouched on my knees, I touched the spot and looked up at Grandma, wordless, standing over me. “What’re you looking at?” She squared her shoulders for balance and kicked my left shoulder. I couldn’t catch myself. I tumbled over into a heap and pulled my legs to my chest as the side of my head bounced off the tiles. A starburst exploded before my eyes. My left cheek, the right side of my head, and my left shoulder, all on fire now, I realized I couldn’t lie or laugh or love, cry or beg my way out of this. I tucked my head between my arms, waiting for what came next, the way my mother probably had to.
And then it was over. I was walking beside my grandmother again, the same half smile tilting her lips, the same nonchalance swinging through her hips and shoulders as she strode along. And while I often found myself inexplicably afraid of her before, I knew then why she made me so uneasy. As I imagined her beating my mother and then beating me, I saw how explosive she was. She was a hand grenade, pin pulled, on the verge of detonation. Her only purpose seemed to be destruction.
In the hallway of Forrest G. Hay Elementary School, I realized I was staring at her as she pounded my mother and then me in my daydream. She saw me staring but instead of exploding, she smiled and asked what I was thinking.
“Nothing,” I said.