by Julia Marks
I spent the first six years of my life with my mother and the woman I call grandmother, although she has no genetic relationship to either of us. Alice was appointed guardian for my mother when Ellen was thirteen. Alice never married or had children, but was proud to call me grand-daughter and give me her name. The story is long, complicated, and personal; I rarely discuss it with anyone. I have no intention of doing that now. You only need this little bit of information to understand the disparity between the voices these women contribute to me as a woman and a writer.
Ellen’s voice goes down my throat like a cool Eiswein and comes up as a horrid Irish Rose. I remember her as a strong independent woman until she decided to become a middle class housewife. I call on her when I need a passive-aggressive bitch character, so determined to erase her own past, she erases the past of all of those around her. The petite dark beauty with emerald green eyes who taught me to be strong and unafraid became a chubby subservient wife overnight when she married my stepfather. In a home where physical punishment was never practiced, I found myself in a house where beatings with belts were an almost daily occurrence. My mother was gone and she sent my grandmother away with her.
The voice my mother left me with more than anything is the one I try to suppress: spite. Four years after my stepfather died in the line of duty I told her I was pregnant. She did not yell or threaten, then say everything will be okay. She quietly informed me she was too young to be a grandmother, that I had three days to get my things and leave her house. Alice said Ellen must have amnesia; she was young when she became pregnant with me, by a married preacher no less. Alice did not tell her to get out of the house; she and my mother would raise me together and give me the best life they could. I use my mother’s voice deliberately, when I need a lonely old woman bent on self-destruction. She died when my son was thirty-three years old; she never met her only grandson. Ellen’s voice provides me with characters you love to hate or at least pity.
Alice’s voice tastes like homemade eggnog served with cinnamon twists created from brown sugar, cinnamon and leftover pie dough. She is who I call on when I want warm fuzzy characters. But do not mistake warm and fuzzy for old and weak. Alice was tall and proud and worked as a psychiatric nurse in a state mental health facility. She was one tough bitch who called me on my shit. She loved me and my son unconditionally. Her patience and understanding taught me empathy. Walk a mile in their shoes, Julie Bird. In a small town late to everything, including desegregation, her best friend was a black woman she worked with and whose children I went to high school with. Two wrongs don’t make a right, but four rights make a square! I am older than my chronological age because of her voice.
I have books on gardening food crops and flowers, but it is Alice I listen to when I need help in the gardens. It is her voice that speaks through characters in a folksy style with grace and ease. She is the reason my voice is not noticeable as being that southern Ohio twang. Emote; there are reasons the word is pronounced that way, don’t be lazy. Don’t be lazy, indeed! That certainly applied to all she taught me. Her voice is the one I keep close to my heart, in my life and in my work.
It is said we all stand on the shoulders of those that came before us. I realize this usually implies the giants, the important people of the world, but each of us has someone that is a giant to us alone. I stand on the shoulders of my grand-mother, who gladly holds me up and not my mother, who told me to get the fuck off. That which does not kill us makes us stronger. Thank you Alice. You are on your own, kid. Thank you, too, Ellen.