My grandma Louise wanted to die four years ago. My pappaw had already gone, and she spent her days without him watching Fox News and smoking in the carport. She stopped eating for a while, slimmed from 135 to 80 pounds, and told me she was ready.
“I wouldn’t care if it was tomorrow,” she told me when I flew from Portland, Ore. to Monroe, La. to visit her that year.
Much of her belongings were already spoken for, she said. The cast iron pot would go to her sister. Half a dozen others had laid claim to an old paint palette she used back in her crafting days. She gave me odds and ends that nobody wanted. An old bra, my grandfather’s tie. She sent me home with months-old HGTV magazines and a roll of pennies from 1983.
When she found out Portland had banned plastic bags, she began saving hers for me. One night that spring, she spent two hours carefully analyzing 100 bags for holes. Then she folded and smoothed them into a pile small enough to go unnoticed in my suitcase.
She was anti-liberal, she said, but had a country way of conservation. She composted by feeding raccoons her table scraps. She recycled by sending those bags home with me. It had been years since she stayed in a hotel, but she stockpiled cabinets full of travel soaps.
“Here,” she said, pressing one against my nose. “They still smell.”
She gave back jewelry she had been keeping for me, a pair of diamond earrings I wore as a baby and a brooch she said I had been given for Christmas.
“You could have your grandpa’s ring,” she said.
“Why don’t we wait?” I asked.
“Honey,” she said. “You wait too long and there’ll be nothing left.”
Few people get to know their grandparents as adults. My childhood memories of her are spare. I remember the night she woke me up from a dead sleep, hunched over and hissing, “Casey, you’re restless. Get up and go pee.” Everything else is a fragment -- four letter words she said in four syllables, a red-and-turquoise outfit she once forced me to wear.
I kept my distance from her and everyone else in the family. At holidays, I read a book or wrote in my diary while relatives talked meatballs or medicines, unplanned pregnancies and prison stints.
I always planned to move far away some day. I just felt different than the rest of North Louisiana. I thought back then it had something to do with books or music, but as soon as I left for college in Mississippi, I realized it’s because I’m gay. I told my mother that Easter Sunday, inspired by the intensifying chords of praise songs to confess.
The preacher prayed I would repent and die immediately: “Save her and take her.” My mom sobbed and wrote all my professors an email, told them college was a cesspool that had ruined her daughter.
That summer, I went home. At the Fourth of July barbecue, an uncle peered at me over the meat.
“You know about Sodom and Gomorrah, right?” he asked. “God destroyed a whole nation to wipe out homosexuality. He’ll destroy you, too.”
My mom jumped up and ran to the bathroom, a tiny half-bath barely big enough for one. I followed her in, squeezed against a wall and tried to promise I wouldn’t be gay anymore. My grandma knocked then jigsawed in without waiting for an answer.
“Rhonda Jean,” she said to my mother. “Life is a buffet. Some people eat hot dogs. And some people eat fish. She likes women, and you need to get over it.”
Somehow my being gay made my grandma and I grow closer. That summer, she handed over the only thing I ever needed to inherit. She gave me a story.
We were sitting that day at a little wooden table, her fiddling with a pack of Virginia Slims, me with the hair I had just cut short.
“I grew up across the street from a woman who lived as a man,” she told me.
I begged her to say more.
Roy was born in the 1920s, she said. His parents, or at least the parents my grandma knew, had kidnapped him from an abusive family. They changed his name from Delois, she said, cut his hair, then ran. My grandma met him in 1950, the day she moved to town. Roy played “the most beautiful music,” she said, by which she meant he played the first banjo she ever heard. She didn’t know much else. Roy had died before she had a chance to ask.
After college, I moved to Oregon and became a journalist. Working at a newspaper taught me how to talk to strangers in ways that always evaded me with my family.
Distance has a way of burnishing the memories of home. The longer I lived in Oregon, the more I missed Louisiana. Finally, a few years after I left, I returned to visit my grandmother. I told her Oregon had taught me how to investigate. She said she had one mystery for me to solve. What had really happened in Roy’s life? Had anyone loved him? Did he ever feel like he belonged?
“It’s eaten at me all these years,” she said. “Am I gonna die without finding out?”
We decided a film documentary would be best. I assembled a little crew then flew down to meet my grandma on Hell Street, the road where her shotgun house once looked out on Roy’s.
Trailer homes had replaced all the houses, but I knocked on every door. Only a few remembered Roy. She was ornery and mowed yards, one neighbor said. She wore men’s clothes and kept her hair short. Kind of, a former neighbor told me, like yours.
I went to Roy’s nursing home and church then tracked down former Hell Street neighbors. I read Census records and microfiche. Mostly, though, I talked to my grandmother. We went over everything she remembered about Roy. When those stories ran out, we talked about her.
She told me about picking cotton and about the first time she saw running water. In her day, she received newspapers only a few times a month. They were always outdated.
She told me, three times, the story of the day she moved from a delta community she called Frog Island. Her parents could no longer earn enough sharecropping, so the family hitched a ride on a stranger’s truck.
“And I rode on top of a bale of cotton,” she said.
Later, my cousin and I drove round and round North Louisiana trying to find Frog Island. Google Maps, for all its flashback features, doesn’t go that far deep into the delta or the past. We stopped and asked a cottonfield owner for directions. He led us to a stranger’s driveway, one small frog statue left as a reminder.
My grandma told me about the delta quicksand that scared her and the UFO she swore she saw. I know the first time she ate a Chiquita banana was June 1952. The first perfume she wore was Evening in Paris. She used strips of tobacco cans to roll her sister's hair and fashioned Christmas tree ornaments out of candy wrappers she rescued from the trash. As a teenager, she saved all her money to buy herself a pair of red jeans but waited to buy them until she had enough for a pair of green ones for her sister.
My grandfather wasn’t the first boy she dated, but once Troyce Carter drove down Hell Street, no other man mattered. They dated three months, she told me.
“Then we zeroed in on this,” she said and pulled out the little wedding book that had cemented their lives together.
“They put my name as Louise Huffman,” she said, squinting to read the fading ink. “And right here it started Louise Carter.”
She shared family secrets I wasn’t supposed to know, reveals she told me to forget until my deathbed or the afterlife.
I went down a few times a year to ask her questions and dig up whatever I could on Roy. I found Roy’s Bible and a poem he wrote, even a few pictures that showed a curvy boy with a guitar strapped across his chest.
“Did he ever date anybody?” my grandma asked me. No one knew, I told her.
“Can you imagine?” she said. And I could. She talked all the time about my brother’s girlfriends, but my grandma never asked about mine. Finally, three years into the film project, I told her I was getting married. She changed the subject, and I started crying.
“You never ask about me,” I said.
We avoided each other the rest of the day, but she insisted I share a bed with her that night. At 3 a.m., she shook me awake.
“Casey,” she said. “I do want to know you. Bring her down, and I’ll meet her.”
A married woman, she said the next morning, should know how to make biscuits, so she tried, in vain, to teach me. I filmed her three different trips working Crisco into flour then watched them all in Portland before attempting to make the biscuits myself.
“They’re delicious,” my wife told me.
“They’re not hers,” I said. Something was missing, the sour, soft crunch created by Bulgarian buttermilk, humidity and a hundred-year-old cast iron.
My grandma never called me on my birthday, never called me period unless I was in town visiting and she needed me to pick up something. But she knew me, the real me, in a way that made me feel like I could go back to Louisiana and slowly, over time, come to know myself.
The last time we talked, she told me she had a stash of plastic bags and maybe, no promises, a few memories left to drag up. I told her I would finish the documentary, but I had realized, finally, that the film was never the point.
“Just leave me your stories when you go,” I told her. And she did.