I’ve been told that I had an unique childhood. Always hard to feel unique when you’ve never known any different, but statistically speaking, not many people are raised by their great-grandmothers. Even fewer were raised by both their great-grandmother and their great-great grandmother. And even fewer had a childhood lacking in any consistent adult figure under the age of 60. But that was my childhood.
To say that there was a generation gap is a vast understatement. Perhaps ‘generational chasm’ is a more appropriate phrase. I grew up playing Dominoes and Gin Rummy and Old Maid with women who knitted winter scarves and potholders and men who returned their empty Coke bottles to the corner store for the 5 cent refund. If I wanted pecan pie (and I always wanted pecan pie), I was told to go out back with a bucket and grab all the fallen pecans…we’d sit on the back steps and shell them. Well, Nana would crack the shells with her strong, calloused hands and I’d separate the nut out with my tiny fingers.
On school days, I would ride the bus to Mama’s house where I would stay for a few hours until Nana got off work and could take me home. Every single day (there are no bad weather days in my memories of her house) we would grab an empty trash bag and set off for our walk. We would walk up and down streets and pick up aluminum cans that people had carelessly discarded. Mama was a collector of oddities and, if she saw something worth having (and practically everything was worth having to her), she’d send me running down into the ditch or between the trees to grab it. We found many dolls missing limbs and toy cars missing wheels in this way. These prized possessions would get cleaned and then displayed in her garden. She had the best garden. I drove past her house a few weekends ago and the new owners don’t share her penchant for oddities. Or gravel driveways. Or fruit trees. Or porch swings. Or anything worth a damn, apparently.
There’s a separate story about the aluminum cans we would collect. Unbeknownst to me, there was a purpose apart from picking up litter. Mama died when I was 17 and when I graduated high school at 18, Nana gave me access to a bank account that Mama had opened for me when I was born and was only to be given to me upon graduating. It was approximately $3,000, and there wasn’t a cent in there that hadn’t come from selling those cans. There’s a Greek proverb that says “A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.” I’m not sure my society is great, but hers sure was.
And so I was raised by the two most beautiful women on earth, because any vestiges of physical beauty had left them long ago and all that was left were their souls. They were strong southern women who would be unable to comprehend the modern concept of a “struggle to find oneself” because how the hell did you lose yourself in the first place? They would never have proudly declared Pinteresque sayings like “find someone you can be yourself with” or “find your happiness” because, in the first instance, who would you not ‘be yourself’ with, and in the second, happiness isn’t something you find, it’s something that lives in your skin (or, it doesn’t).
And so in this no nonsense way I was raised. And modernity has had its way with me because I do not know joy the way that they knew joy. I chase happiness but am jealous and suspicious of it once I get it. Is this true happiness I’m feeling, or will it be gone as soon as an angry driver flips me the bird? I question and dissect it and misunderstand it constantly. I say ‘to be truly happy you have to do things that make you happy’ but when I think about what made Nana and Mama happy, I think of everyday things. Their lives were mundane by my standards, but big whoop. They were fucking joyful creatures and I am finally starting to understand why. And it goes against everything I have built the last 12 or so years of my life on, so that accepting it as a fundamental truth requires some element of demolition. And this, of course, means that moving forward with this truth as a central tenet of my life requires some element of building anew. But there are only two outcomes when you bury something: (1) you toil and sweat until you dig it back out again; or, (2) you never find it. I guess there’s also a third: (3) you forget that you should even be looking.
So today, I’m committing myself to Outcome #1. And here is what I am going to start digging up…the crux of the joy that Nana and Mama had in their lives:
They never sought to understand where the source of their happiness came from, because they were too busy enjoying it.
Here’s to not trying to understand. Here’s to living happiness instead of searching for it. Here’s to Nana and Mama.