Claim the Disappearing: Chapter 6
(I invite you to enjoy this free New Orleans novel, courtesy of the wonder that is the internet, unrolled a teensy bit at a time. If you are just joining us, feel free to return to THE BEGINNING and work your way through.)
Bigmama’s one and only child was birthed after the siege of Vicksburg in the American Civil War. Bigmama spent months ignoring the thud of cannonballs as she baked biscuits, drew cool water from the cistern, and watched the moss slowly crisscross the brick-lined path to the stables. Occasionally, she looked up to see the ships positioning their guns, sighting for the living room. At that moment, the deep front porch seemed too shallow, and it was. In May of 1863, the siege arrived. Federal troops blockaded the city. Bigmama and her sister citizens waltzed from their homes into protective caves, dragging their platform rockers and turtle-top tables and flame mahogany secretaries behind them.
The first Bigmama did not believe babies were a blessing. She considered them a danger, a threat, an often-fatal condition to be survived at all costs. She felt this way for the same reason we all hold our opinions: life taught her this truth.
Nine months later, at the age of forty-six, Bigmama lay alone on her full-teester bed, her toes touching the footboard, her lips pressed against the cry of labor. She was a bad-ass. She cut her own umbilical cord, rose from the bed, and lit the wood she’d stacked in the fireplace to warm water for cleaning the baby. She crouched when the placenta slid onto the wide-planked floor.
She never disclosed the name of the baby’s father, because if her husband had visited her in the cave, it would have been treason. Any other explanation would have been worse treason. All for naught, really, as by the time she gave into the labor pains, the husband was long dead, a casualty of the Confederacy’s misguided war.
Here, my dad’s mother, my own Bigmama who was telling the tale, glared at me—daring me to acknowledge she was coming close to talking about sex. She jumped ahead to when the golden-haired baby could crawl and thus fend for herself. While the little girl poked her fat thumb into the cannonball divots in the living room wall, the first Bigmama pulled the cane-bottomed chair from the writing desk, sat, and wrote. For the next nineteen years, she kept herself and her baby alive by writing the first fiction of the Old South Confederacy.
She penned stories of fluffy white cotton picked by happy enslaved men; tales of sumptuous casseroles served in flowered bone china by happy enslaved women; narratives of beautiful babies cared for by happy enslaved young girls; and scenes of prancing stallions groomed by happy enslaved little boys.
Her fellow—and sister—southerners had lived the life. They had wielded the whip, worked the children in the hundred-degree fields as young as six years old. They knew the horror. Surely this deeply false fairy-tale Bigmama was weaving would make them at least fidget uncomfortably in their chairs.
It did not.
The novels were best sellers. Southerners couldn’t get enough of her fantasies. Northerners lapped them up, too, saying, see—we need to let this go. Each time she lifted her pen, she thought, this time I will be so outrageous, so egregious, readers will be forced to acknowledge: no, it was not so. She never succeeded, nor did she give up, with the consequence that my first Bigmama single-handedly created the myth of the Lost Cause, where the Old South was noble and brave and only concerned with preserving a genteel way of life. Her engrossing, imaginative, prolific tales supplanted the known truth, doing untold damage along the way.
Imagination. That was the gift passed to me from the first Bigmama. Imagination, if not a functioning moral compass.
I’m not going to troll through the begats of her family. Suffice it to say that, with one exception (when the conceited husband of a daughter taught his babygirl to say Grandmere), every grandmother down that line birthed only one child—just enough to keep the line going but no extraneous risk-taking—and each called her grandmother Bigmama.
My own Bigmama was tall as an oak tree with strong forearms for limbs and clomping boots—rain galoshes, barn muckers, and reinforced Redwings—for her roots. While my winters were filled with Tippy’s tales, my humid summers meant languid days at Bigmama’s Jackson mansion. Bigmama was obsessed with teaching me my matrilineal heritage (you wonder where I got it from.) She would recite stories about our first Bigmama, imprinting her stories by walking me in circles along a path in her back yard.
My Bigmama liked walking in circles in the yard.
It reminded her of the only comfort she had in prison.
I would tell you she was framed, that she didn’t actually libel half of Jackson with her scurrilous letters to the editor (which might have single-handedly killed the local paper), but I suspect that somehow, some way, the Saint is listening to what I tell you. One of her Letters to the Editor libeled the mayor, who didn’t laugh at her foolishness. In her defense, she claimed he deserved to have the truth told about him, even if she had to make up a lie to do it.
Bigmama learned her lesson: libel requires publication of your version of the truth. When she was released, she stayed away from the newspaper. She didn’t quit writing.
Each morning, after she’d finished her oatmeal, Bigmama would pry a spiral-bound notebook from the kitchen drawer. Seated at the boomerang Formica table, throughout the morning, she wrote letter after letter. Some went to childhood friends who she perceived as having done her wrong. Some went to companies offering shoddy service. The one she leaned into hard enough to tear the paper went to a little boy in my Sunday school class who had shoved me against the wall forbearing him in a Bible drill. She tore the finished letters from her notebook with a rippppp, cleaned off the dangling paper ends, and stuffed the folded missives in gold-lined envelopes scrolled with her monogram: vitriol wrapped in beauty.
As she wrote, I went in and out of the kitchen. I played with the yellow-striped kittens wandering the back yard, hunting their own breakfast of skittish mice. I caught lizards among the pink potted geraniums and forced off their tails to see if they’d really grow new ones. I cawed to the crow, flapping my wings while the crow sat impassive, his beady eye unwavering. When Bigmama finished her daily dose of correspondence, she walked me around the yard, reciting. Then I was happy.
We wound past the wilting Impatiens, dipped our fingers in the mossy birdbath, kicked at the droopy headed zinnias. The sweat trickled down my neck and ran between my shoulder blades. Hot, it was always hot when I stayed at my Bigmama’s. At her house, I had a domain. Someone to hold my hand. Daring tales of strength and the will to survive. I felt destined.
So, yeah, from my two ancestors—the one on the left staircase and the one in the middle—I’ve been given an understanding of the need to kill and imagination with no morals.
That’s two out of the three, which as they say, ain’t bad.