Leonardo da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” is so adored because it captures the veiled, nearly imperceptible smile of its subject—the wife of a wealthy, silk merchant who lived in sixteenth century Florence. When I saw it at the Louvre two summers ago, I didn’t think much of it. Granted, I pivoted along the velvet ropes that separated the crowds from the masterpiece and took selfies, jockeying for position with everyone else, but after ten minutes, I carried on. And today, when I think of my time in Paris, rare is the moment when I find myself reflecting on this famous Florentine.
Yet at the funeral, when someone handed me a program, I saw “Mona Lisa” anew, this time as my late great-grandmother. On its cover, captured on what I suspect must have been Women’s Day, she is seated in all white, her torso slightly turned away from the camera. A white flower is pinned to her lace sheath and a string of pearls is draped around her neck. Her face was much fuller then and bore the regal air of a woman who had been made a grandmother many times over. What struck me most about it is her sly, suggestive expression, one that revealed the restraint of a secret, or an off-color joke, or an unsolicited critique that made us cringe. It was perfect, a masterful reflection of the whole of her complexities. At once surly and silly, reserved and open, she was truly a joy to be around except when she wasn’t.
The image brought me back to the time we shared this past summer when she revealed herself to me through story after another. There was the one of her grandmother, a Cherokee Indian who would lecture about those common girls who passed the time on porches while she puffed on a pipe. There was the time that she stormed off her job because her boss, a Jewish doctor, made the mistake of asking her to spray their office building with a hose, and she “read” him as she liked to say. “Didn’t that man come in here and ask you the other day if you wanted that done, but you got the nerve to ask me?! Not me honey!”
And then she got to talking about race, which wasn’t surprising. “I don’t care if they are a white baby in the cradle. I hate ‘em,” chuckling, with no regard for shame. “Pastor Brandon used to always tell me that hatred would destroy me…” and she swallowed her words into a shrug that seemed to say, Well, I’m still here.
And she was, as forceful and as lively as she had ever been. Her smile was open and unrestrained. Her words, declarations, fixed and rooted in truth. “You got to hold your head up to any white man. Don’t be afraid. Stand flatfooted and tell any of ‘em that need to be told,” and then she paused for emphasis. “I might be afraid of a bear or snake maybe, but a human being, not me.” So satisfied was she with the absolute certainty of her words, her smile unrelenting.
I had heard parts of these stories many times before, but it’s likely that I felt them differently because of why I was in New Orleans. I had returned home to see the monuments and the remains of those that had been removed. You wouldn’t believe how mad those white people were when we took down their heroes, their Confederate granddaddies and segrationist kin. I hadn’t seen them fall firsthand but I came home as fast as I could to bask in the victory. And maybe because I already was hunting history, visiting each site around the city, looking for portals to the past, my senses were primed when we spoke.
As she went on, it didn’t take long to see how the stories overlapped. The monuments were erected to intimidate her specifically, for she had lived during the time when they rose, and I began to see her legacy, our legacy, the injuries we’ve all felt via the hands of white supremacy more vividly.
Often, I was repulsed by her stance on white folk, how she would randomly scream “cracker” at the television, but this time it seemed that I was hearing something I had missed, and listening for it intently, hanging on her every word, had me captivated. The ease with which she recalled the minute details of her story became a performance, the exact years and locations and descriptions of the people from her past just sitting there on her tongue. It was incredible.
Eventually, she came to story of her grandfather, one that I’m sure you’ve heard. He had set out from Natchez on his way to visit family in a neighboring city, but like many black men of his time, he disappeared until they found his battered body on the side of the road, discarded like trash.
“Can you believe it? For five dollars? That’s all he had, and to think, I never got to know the man!” When she said this her face tightened and froze for a beat before it receded to a faraway expression. For the first time, after all these years, I finally saw the contours of her sadness. Never had she revealed herself to me so vulnerably.
When I returned home to Brooklyn, my emotions were difficult to harness. She had bared her soul to me and I struggled to reconcile the newness of her image. You and I were closer than anyone in our family, and I had stored all of what we shared in my heart until it was full, leaving little space for anyone else. But when you passed, I had to let you go and make room for the living. I did what what I thought we must when those closet to us die. I forged new bonds and strengthened those already there in order to make myself whole again. When we had grieved you enough and emerged from our depressions, we looked to each other and found reasons to be happy. But I never looked to her, and this failure was a heavy burden to bear. It saddened me more than I expected. For so long, I had overlooked her.
The truth is we had probably overlooked each other. By the time I entered the world, she had already compiled scores of grandkids and children and friends, so many that I maintained a lowly position within the hierarchy of her affection, a position that suited me just fine.
But I wasn’t fine after we spoke, and one night, as I relayed my feelings to my wife, I was overcome by a violent bout of tears. Not since you passed had I cried so hard. She was still alive then, but I was crying as if she wasn’t. I had waited so long to see her, to really see her and understand what she meant to us all, and the time wasted left me ashamed.
I cried because I was anxious about the little time we had left. Of course, I had no idea when it would happen but I knew that her death would visit us sooner than later. After ninety-seven years, she had entered into realm of lived life that most of us never see, that you never saw.
I cried because I was proud. The reason I loved you so had so much to do with her. And while this seems obvious, that mothers exert incredible influence in the equation of who their daughters become, I never reconciled the difference between your warmth and her hardness. How could your personality stem from hers? The inner workings of our characters are more complex, I know now. She was only harsh to me and her other grandchildren because that’s the way her grandmother had been and mostly likely the way hers had been before her. That’s the way she coped with so much trauma, the way she ensured that we would survive.
I cried because I couldn’t stop the flood of regret from washing over me. I wanted to know so much more, to hear all of her stories, to document the defiance and resolve that she embodied to make a way for herself in spite of all of the forces of prejudice that would have rather seen her defeated. I count two lives that she lost to hate. The other, as you know, was her sister’s who died after being denied medical care, but there were certainly others. I get it now.
If being a black woman is the most revolutionary act there is when all the forces around you seek your physical and psychic demise, how she survived raises her in the ranks of all the women who’ve ever lived.
I cried because I felt the significance of your decision to name my mother Nancy after your own, for she had named you after her mother, and I felt the inextinguishable character of our lineage, where she sat at the head of her progeny as “Mama Nancy.” In other traditions, when men attain acclaim, they are titled Sir or Lord or Baron or Chief or Baba, but for black women, Mama is the highest there is. While Auntie conveys similar degrees of respect, Mama goes further and evokes the wisdom and omnipotence of a prime mover, a goddess who walks the earth ready to smite anyone and anything that threatens her offspring.
I cried because in your words, which still echo in my ears, I hear hers, and because your language has become my own, I hear her words speaking through me. It’s clear to me now that the source of my obsessions about race and our standing in the world spring from her.
After I had expelled all of my tears and bathed in my emotions, I committed to doing better, to probing her story further. I had even purchased a DNA test to determine if her grandmother was actually native. Sadly, the test revealed no evidence to support her assertion, but I still believe her. Many of us do. Passed on through generations as myth to disavow the systematic rape of our mothers by white men, we align ourselves with native ancestry to rewrite history.
But then she died, and I never got to ask her how she felt about the results. Fortunately, Pastor Square did get a chance to interview her a month before she passed to document the life of the church’s oldest living member. I haven’t heard it yet, but when I do, I’ll be certain to share and keep writing her story, for it has taken me too long to realize that it too, is mine.