I am a patchwork quilt. I’m made up from fabric scraps and bits of cloth that were once apart of greater things, but have been sniped down by time, sewn together with love and pain. It’s scrappy, it’s disjointed, but it covers me, this quilt of many stories, and provides me with a connection to people I’ve never met, yet have constructed the people I love, who, in turn, constructed me.
My own stories are tame ones. Happy, but tame. That’s why I’m in love with my ancestors. They lived lives that my suburban mind could contemplate in wonder, and gasp at the honor that I am apart of such a legacy. I speak of people who affected those around me, with too much familiarity for someone who doesn’t even know what they look like, let alone met. But I see them, characters more dense and profound than any fiction I could hope to write. There are times when fiction is more real to me, and so I see these stories in my mind’s eye with the same reverence and remembrance as anything I could ever experience on my own. I wish I knew the stories in completion and not just fragments told over the course of years, but they still fascinate me.
They are my surrogate memories and I see them. I see church ladies like Kitty Crowder, who wore gloves and hats, and played the organ with gusto, resulting in a weekly battle royal between the choir and the instrument, fighting to see who would hit the congregation first with the Holy Spirit.
I see my great great grandfather, the old scottish soldier who sat in a linen suit, fighting the surinamese heat, while watching his grandchildren run the length of the porch under the brim of a pith helmet. I see his crooked cane, whose arch would become his fishing line hooking a grandchild by the neck, mid-sprint, and reel them in to stand beside him. I don’t know why he hooked them in. Perhaps it was to tell them stories, or maybe it was out of spite that the children could move freely, unencumbered by old age, or perhaps it was just for company, wishing that the younger generation would stop rushing by and simply sit beside him.
These people inhabit a time and a world that I’ve never been in, but is held by the corners of photographs, filtered by nostalgia. I could speak of Aunt Fanny and Uncle Ben, who weren’t blood relatives but were treated as such. These two people loved completely, though they showed it in different ways: Uncle Ben’s greeting was always one of immense adoration saying that you were so sweet he could “eat you with a spoon”, and in the span of seconds Aunt Fanny would furrow her brow take your hand and say you looked ill. Aunt Fanny was the greatest enigma. She was a sweet old lady with hair so white it was blue, pale skin and blue eyes: the picture perfect auntie; shocking strangers with her thick Jamaican accent. Aunt Fanny had the old world philosophy that if you paid for a meal you should take everything with it. This meant ketchup bottles, napkins, sugar containers, salt and pepper, and any other condiment on the table would disappear in her voluminous purse. The day that sugar and ketchup packets were invented was the best day of her life. Not only did she smuggle sugar packets, but she also kept the cardboard strips that came with boxes of hose for lists, bookmarks or sermon notes. Aunt Fanny survived the great depression, the grit and habits of adversity buried in her character. She kept her life savings in the freezer for the same reason my Oma never threw away food: survival. In my childhood ignorance, I followed Fanny’s example and kept my money in an ice cream tin for upwards of seven years, hoarding my wad of twenty dollar bills from a half baked distrust of a banking system that both terrified and confused me. But Fanny kept her cash chilled in the back of a frigidare for a different reason. Her’s was an active fear, a fear that came from a time when banks were predatory beasts that took homes and lives, and bled money from people already dry. She wasn’t just an old woman with a pale face and caribbean tongue, but a wonder, a marvel, a mystery. And I see her, I see her as the cotton corner of a dress, faded rosebud patterns and softened through use, made comfortable with time.
I could speak of my great grandmother, who’s blunt apathy sharpened my Oma’s character to a dull point, yet decades later, openly wept when she heard her 6 year old grand daughter call out the words she was deprived of in childhood: I love you. My great grandmother knew how to insult, how to cut quick and deep with backhand words thrown with violent indifference. From stories I’ve heard, I wouldn’t be surprised if she enjoyed it. My mother told me that she would eat an entire roast chicken, flesh and bone, till every part was consumed, her hunger satisfied. I believe she did that with people, consuming them flesh and bone till nothing was left. Her daughter, my grandmother, was raised in a wealthy household, but was emotionally bankrupt, deprived of motherly compassion. I never liked my great grandmother, that raw silk taffeta, cut for luxury but rough to the touch.
My mother’s side of the family doesn’t monopolize my memories though, my father with his loud loving family also have history, though I’m ashamed to say that I can’t trace them back more than three generations. My father says he doesn’t remember his childhood, giving a humorous shrug when my mother, sister, or I try to ask questions. But I know that’s not true. I’ve heard my father speak of his grandfather with pure admiration. When my father was young, his father, my Abuelo, was taken as a political prisoner under the rise of Castro in Cuba, and during those six years of manual labor my great grandfather had to fulfill the role of father. He was the one to wake my father, making him hot chocolate and toast before walking him to school every morning, the one to hear his trials and guide him through youth. My dad speaks of him rarely and with reverence, this man who was brave enough to stow away on a ship from Spain to Cuba in his youth and later raise his grandson in times of political turmoil, while his only son was imprisoned. He was the fabric of his family, the starched linen of a Guayabera unbending in heat. My father always regretted that we never met him. The truth is I already have. When I see my dad, I see him, I see my Bisabuelo in my father’s movements as he lovingly makes breakfast for his wife and daughters, reflecting the nurturing care that he received in his formative years. Everything my father is today is because of him, and for that I am eternally grateful.
There are more people, and even more stories that collaborated to create me, some of which I was even present for. I’ve finally realized that my admiration with these stories is that they are immortalized. I am a historian of my own past, collecting scraps of fabric and even adding some from myself, and in the construction of this quilt I see the patches intertwine and create beauty. When I’m done, I’ll fold that quilt corner to corner and hand it down to my children, because there are always more scraps to be added.