Voices of history

The voices of my grandmothers slowly heave out of the tape recorder as though the women resisted the idea of their becoming stored history. They protested, when I showed them the machine, suspicious that their spirits might somehow be swallowed up and manipulated by technology. They are from the same tribe. ''What you want me to talk into that thing for?'' they asked, their heads at an angle, eyes squinched into fine, tiny wrinkles. So I cajoled and soothed them and never mentioned the self-serving, acquisitive facts of life: I want keepsakes: rings, shoes, locks of hair, pictures and words, not only because I love my grandmothers, but because they are historically valuable. Instead, I rubbed my rouged cheek onto their soft, worn faces and hugged and kissed them until they were both exasperated enough to say, ''Oh, go ahead, girl.'' They sat in their small kitchens, miles apart, and poured words into my microphone. Under the tables, the stillness of their feet stunned me. For most of my life those fierce feet had always stamped forward, kicking relentlessly at the boulders in the road.

Grandma Mary has always been a country woman, her entire universe a tiny southeastern corner of the Tar Heel State, a church of less than two hundred, a patch of land from which she pulled butter beans and yams. The births, eleven in all, snatched her girlhood from her and transformed her life into a twenty-two-year cycle of labor, nursing, and weaning. It could have been a vicious circle, but she prayed as she went around.

She would awake before the sun came up, preparing the meal that would stoke my grandfather's belly for his day in the logging mills. He was chained to that place by ritual and harsh circumstance and sweated out his life there. Grandma wiped his brow, determined early on that life would not stomp them if they kicked harder. ''Ned, we needs a house.'' And Grandpa sweated just a little more.

She raised her children with an unyielding switch and hard, fast rules: a bath every Saturday, church all day Sunday and school during the week. ''My young-uns had to walk three, four miles past a brand new school to get to P. W. Moore. Them other young-uns had buses, too.'' She planted their feet away from the mill and inevitably ended up waving to them as they left for New York, Philly and Jersey. As soon as their buses pulled out, she began praying. They returned home several Mother's Days later, the better life she'd always scrambled toward, clinging to their new shoes. They were nurses, teachers, union officials, preachers and businessmen sitting down at her breakfast table, driving her to church in style. They walked into Mount Carmel Baptist Church with heads held as high as she had aimed them, wearing red carnations right over their hearts.

Nana, my mother's mother, loved the ballrooms of Philly more than anything. In the fifties, when I was little, her suitors would come to our house to escort Nana to the places where they could rumba, samba and cha cha cha until after midnight. They were courtly, southern-born, brown-skinned men who'd fled north only to find that their allotment of asphalt and brick, cordoned off by highways and rivers, was a Northern variation on the Southern theme. By day, the factories incarcerated their spirit. They broke loose at the dance halls, swirling my grandmother around and around the floor until the freeing dizziness overtook them. Nana, astonishingly youthful and pretty as she approached fifty, decorated their arms with peach-colored gaiety; she knew their sorrows in the North and how to ease them with a quick joke, a light, unexpected step on the dance floor. When Nana was whirling, anyone who didn't know would have sworn that her feet had danced their way through life. But, of course, that's not where her aches came from.

There had been little dancing during her first marriage. ''Your grandfather and I lived on a farm at first. The owner kept promising to make Ed the foreman, but time and time again he'd bring on somebody new, have your grandfather train him and then make the new man foreman. One day Ed came in and said, 'Betty, start packing.' He should have been a doctor or a lawyer . . . a foreman . . . but that was way before civil rights, honey.''

Her babies came with stunning rapidity. There were three girls before she was twenty-three; Nana looked in the mirror and saw the young girl who'd won the church oratorical contest and the spelling bees at school disappear. She followed my grandfather through what seemed an endless succession of new starts, none of them a real beginning. Their marriage withered and finally died.

On her own, with three girls to care for, Nana scrubbed her way through a progression of daywork and then punished her feet further by running to fill orders and clear tables at night. ''I had a neighbor, God bless her, who would keep an eye on the children.'' She fed those little females before she left, propped books in front of their bright eyes and uttered one firm admonishment: ''Study!'' She scrubbed furiously toward something vague and shadowy, not even a promise, a thin point in her consciousness: their future. She beat the dirt out of their dresses, slammed the iron over their collars, squared their shoulders and put them in integrated schools. What the working-class Irish, Italians and Jews would learn, her girls would too.

Only years later, when the younger two were secretaries and the oldest had graduated with honors from the University of Pennsylvania, when she finally realized that she'd delivered them to the place where mops and buckets could not lay hands on them, only then did the dancing begin.

My grandmothers share one hundred seventy years of tramping, stamping, of kicking their way through mountains: their glorious feet are hobbled now. The slow voices on two tapes blend, mingle, then merge.

''I member one time, boy up to Sawyer's store went and called me Aunty. I told that boy, 'Now son, I ain't no kin to you. Call me Miss Mary.' I wouldn't let them do that to me. Just plain wouldn't let 'em.

''Had the nerve to tell me to go sit up in the balcony. And that was in New Jersey, honey. Atlantic City. Boy, I pitched one, right there in the movie. Trying to treat me like dirt. No, honey. No-ooo.''

They are from the same tribe and bear identical markings across the spirit, but no brands. I have keepsakes, but no real proof that they are not one woman.

So, I must be Griot,* repeating all they've told me, all I've seen, with expressive urgency. My children must glean from the history that is frozen in the asphalt and petrified in the muddy indentations of the timeless Carolina loam . . . a path . . . of craters.

*African oral historian

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