A blur of a year...
Y’all, I keep hoping I will make a more regular appearance here, but I think part of me always wants it to be perfectly edited and clever, and really, I should just settle for regular. I do want to be in touch, and I always have plenty to say. Sometimes I have so much to say I simply lack energy to pull it together for you in a coherent and loosely cohesive way. Perhaps my standards are too high… at least if I intend to feel I’m in conversation with readers and friends, and that was the entire point.
Anyway, it’s been a very good year in some ways and a very hard one in others. We started off with the federal shutdown to ring in the New Year, which was a fairly serious financial hassle for me (especially as a contractor with no prayer of recouping any of that lost income). I’m still working two jobs even now as a result of that time.
And my grandmother died. Those of you who’ve read the book will remember a bit about my grandmother. She was 92. It was hardly a surprise, but in some ways it hit me harder than I expected. I could ramble and update you on literally everything that has happened since last autumn, but who really wants that jumble?
I started writing this when I got the news that the end was upon us—that she had been put over into hospice—simply as a way to process. Writing has always been the way for me to figure out my own head.
Here you go:
The first real-feel of spring was in the air. We ate out on the porch for the first time. Corn, shrimp, tomatoes. Early for them yet, but I’d been out on the coast in Wilmington that afternoon, and it was hot. I stopped by a farm stand, hopeful.
As I ate that night by candlelight that night, unbeknownst to me, my grandmother lay in her nursing home bed, soon to be found unresponsive and cool to the touch. She wasn’t dead, but she wasn’t too far off. Her time was near. She was taken to the hospital. The next morning my mother texted to say it was time for hospice, and that Mema was resting peacefully with her lone daughter as company.
I knew this was coming. It’s been surfacing from my subconscious on and off for months now. It never feels any easier. I have a lot of guilt about the person I’ve been (or rather, not been) to my grandmother in recent years. I’ve not been very present. I was never the kind of grandchild who called regularly. Sometimes I wrote letters. I usually tried to see Mema if I was home from school or wherever I was living after that. I was usually present for both Thanksgiving and Christmas.
But by the time Mema reached her final days she existed as more of a symbol to me than a person… Her mind had gone. She was kind to me at Christmas, but not so interested in interacting. She told me she loved me and was glad to see me, but I’m not sure she really knew who I was. I was familiar, but did she know my name? Did she know that she was my grandmother? I can’t be sure. She was almost deaf by then and suffering from dementia, but mostly pleasant even if she was no longer independent. She wouldn’t even be living at home if it weren’t for my uncle’s care. He lived in the house across the driveway, which my great-grandmother lived in until she passed away sometime in the 1980s when I was still too young to feel death apart from the upset at seeing one’s parents upset.
Mema had grown up when the world was analog and agricultural, tied to the land and the seasons. Not too many days before, I had been in New York, watching a film by one of my friends and mentors, Bill Ferris, called Bottle Up and Go. It depicts a world that looks utterly foreign to most Americans now… A ramshackle wooden house, a garden, canning, carrying water from the well, feeding pigs… But not in that glamorous, Millennial farmer way… In a poor-but-strangely-rich, subsistence-farming kind of way. These were African-American folks in the 1960s in Mississippi. They lived the way my grandmother lived in the 1920s and 1930s, the daughter of a white sharecropper and his illiterate wife, who had ten children. The only difference besides the color of their skin was the half-working television owned by the Dotsons.
I watched that film, and I felt sad. I felt pangs of longing for a life that I’d only ever experienced in bursts—living in large part off the land in lucky moments, with no television, no internet, no mobile phone, no social media… Some strange merging of poverty and peace, struggle and contentment. I don’t want to romanticize what truly was dire poverty, but there is a peace to living a simple life, in touch with nature. (It leaves in times of illness, drought, infestation, etc, but it is a less sanitized, removed, specialized kind of life. There is a satisfaction and a contentedness to it that I think we can’t get when we hermetically seal ourselves off inside the house with HVAC systems, buy produce out of season from Chile, and can’t identify the birds and plants around us. It doesn’t feel healthy—spiritually, bodily, environmentally—and yet I don’t how we go back to anything different than utter consumerism and hyper-connectedness.
The last memory I have of my grandmother growing food—something she’d done most of her life since beginning it on a cotton tenant farm in Upstate South Carolina in 1927—is of her corn patch, sometime in my late twenties.
The morning, as news arrived from the hospital, I thought of Mema’s corn patch. I thought of the last time she made me creamed corn, some Thanksgiving not long ago, but long enough back that she still had her mind. Cooked it down in fatback. It was the best I’ve ever had—ever will have. I thought of all the letters we used to write when I was on the farm that summer in 2012, living in a one-room cabin alone on 40 acres and eating right out of the fields every day. I think of the interviews I did with her on cassette, and where those might be, and what I even have that could play those at this point. I did those in grad school, trying to get to know my own family food heritage. What the hell did I do with those tapes? I could kick myself. Are they in my filing cabinet? Some box in a shed, deteriorating every second I neglect them further? Are they gone? It is all just gone?
My grandmother’s death for me removes that last living link to a world that predates so much of what I despair of now… the last living link to an agricultural way of life, to a personal, local way of life, to Louis Dotson’s way of life.
I travel internationally multiple times each year. I don’t think my grandmother ever went farther than Florida. She didn’t want to. She liked being in the place she knew. The place I know at home has never been enough for me… it’s too politically backward, too evangelical. In the age of Trump, I have never felt farther removed from it than I do now—like I wouldn’t ever go back except that my parents are there, and they are so good.
These notions of home and past are so complex. This passing just brings it all to the surface in a more tumultuous way than ever.
I don’t want to live in the same world as Donald Trump and the people who admire and support him. I don’t want to live with Facebook and endless targeted internet advertising. I don’t want to live in a broken and corrupt political system. I don’t want to live hermetically sealed in by HVAC and better windows. I don’t want all of my food wrapped in fucking plastic. I don’t want to live in the suburbs. I don’t want to stop traveling internationally. I don’t want the climate to continue to change. I don’t want to eat eggs with pale yellow yolks, or drink water full of fluoride. I don’t want to eat out of season, or to live a life in which I am too busy or too peripatetic to grow some of my own food. I don’t want the internet to somehow abscond with all of my free time, and I hate myself for letting that happen. I don’t want to live a life where I don’t have the mental or emotional space to journal regularly, where I don’t make time to quietly contemplate, where I don’t make art.
And yet I like keeping in touch with my scattered friends. I like streaming BBC Radio 3 over the internet. I like that I’m not totally reliant upon a garden that might fail. I like that if I need it I have access to modern birth control and antibiotics and vaccines. There is a lot good about the modern world, but so much of it I wish to leave behind.
I also know that my grandmother and I may have both loved living off the land and eating with the seasons, but her politics are not my own. Maybe she’d have supported Trump? She certainly went to an evangelical church. I’m not sure where she might have stood on immigration, or whether she’d see right through Fox News like I do. The one thing I have learned is that you can’t predict people like my grandmother, who really, really knew struggle. She knew her mind (while she still had one), and I truly believe that there were things about my life she just couldn’t understand, but the takeaway from her was, “As long as you are happy and can afford your bills.” That’s all she ever said aloud that she wanted for me… My strange life in construction and any number of trades after my graduate degree, my barely concealed relationship with a much older foreigner, who came to her house for Thanksgiving, my choice to live away from home on a mountain in a house that—in its original state—would have been very familiar to my grandmother in her youth… a simple, wooden farmhouse built in 1911.
But my grandmother had not a disingenuous bone in her body. It didn’t serve her to be anything but plainspoken. She wasn’t meant to be a charming, beguiling creature. She was meant to keep things ticking over—to work, to care for children, to cook beautifully without a lot of money. She didn’t drink. I never knew of her as a smoker or a person who swore or cheated or spent lavishly. She was good and simple.
So it’s springtime, and my last grandmother is dead, and I’m not sure yet what that means.
The beginning of new life (lambing and daffodils and cherry blossom fill my Instagram) and the end of another. The end, for me, of an era.
I am nearly 36… the age my mother was when she had me. I probably won’t have a child. My brother probably won’t have a child. None of my mother’s brothers had children. I am the end of the line.
Mulling it all over as I walked carefully between the tombstones in blinding April sunshine, I carried my grandmother to her grave, the lone woman amongst eight pallbearers.