Secrets are sometimes much too burdensome to be kept secrets. Secrets, kept inside, can damage the soul. I have a secret; a secret that protects my loved ones, but harsh enough to cause immense pain for anyone who loves me, causing them to harbor hate. Secrets such as these can only be revealed to special people and in the safest of places. Today, on my first trip home to see my family one year after my divorce, I find myself sitting here in my grandmother’s room, on my grandmother’s bed, holding my grandmother’s hand, wondering how long will I have to carry this secret alone.
When I was a child, my grandmother’s room was the only place in my grandparents’ house that I was never allowed to play in.
“Stay out of that room” my grandfather would bark if he saw one of us girls headed down the hallway.
“We know, Papa” my older cousin Tammy would bark back, her abruptness always overlooked.
The simple cottage house my grandfather built in the middle of the backwoods of Arkansas was a great place for playing hide and seek. He was a simple carpenter but he filled his house with all kinds of hidden alcoves, small cabinets, linen closets, canning pantries and even a built-in-the-wall laundry hamper. You know the kind that opens to a forty-five degree angle and closes up tightly to disappear into the wall, a secret dungeon in the palace, perfect for hiding a petite ten year old girl.
We were allowed to play hide-and-seek anywhere in the house or on either of the porches, front or back. Behind the deep freeze on the big screened-in back porch was a favorite spot for me. I would crouch down, tucked away neatly into the corner with a five gallon slop-bucket placed in front of the gap. I could go unnoticed for hours, and sometimes I did.
But we were never allowed in grandmother’s room. Sitting in the hallway looking in was the greatest of temptations and prime material for capturing the imagination of four young girls. It looked so luxurious, like no other room in the house.
My grandfather, raised in the south during the Great Depression, believed in functionality and practicality; and his house mirrored his upbringing. It was furnished with only those items necessary, a sofa and two chairs and a TV on a stand in the small living room. A school picture of each of the five grandchildren in simple homemade frames on one wall, the high school senior pictures of my father and each of his three siblings hung on the other. No one dared to move the pictures, for the sun-burned outline of the frames would be revealed on the wood-paneled walls. The kitchen and dining area were one room. In it was a large round oak table with lion claw feet and leaves to insert and expand the table when company arrived. A few metal framed chairs, one simple homemade wooden china cabinet and a wood-burning stove, the house’s only source of heat, completed the kitchen and dining area.
In contrast, my grandmother’s room appeared elegant and royal, her bed, the only one in the house with a headboard, was adorned with the fluffiest down comforter, ivory with golden piping that ran ruler-straight along the edges with a velvety shimmery burgundy dust ruffle. Her dresser, a white French provincial with light golden trim, topped by a most elegant and golden framed mirror. Atop the dresser sat two jewelry boxes full of hidden treasures fit for a queen, and a beautiful golden hair brush and hand mirror sat on the bed stand and a small silver shiny tube of lipstick sat beside it. The only sign that my grandfather shared this same room was the blue pin-striped denim cotton cap, which matched his overalls, hanging on the edge of the curtain rod that held the lacy ivory drapes.
My cousins and I longed to pick up the golden hair brush and mirror and we would imagine brushing each other’s long tresses, and primping with exotic jewels from those boxes. We wanted to peruse the row of princess gowns we were sure hung in the long closet, though their existence was never evidenced by actually being worn by my grandmother.
The summer I was ten years old, my cousins, Tammy and Kim, and my sister Donna and I, had played in my aunt’s room, all the way at the opposite end of the hall, each of us competing to be the next princess in line for the queenly room and all its treasures.
“Donna, sit still; I can’t get your braids straight if you keep squirming.”
“You’re not doing it right,” Tammy said as she grabbed the comb from my hand. She stood many inches taller than I and grabbing it back seemed futile. Tammy had a head full of bright blond cushioned curls that sprang as she bounced back to take my seat.
“Daddy says braidins not good for your hair, it’ll break it and you’ll be bald” chimed in little Kim, as she paraded around in my aunt’s high heeled shoes, a Kleenex never within her grasp but frequently within her need.
“I’ll make it look pretty,” Tammy said. “You’ll look almost a pretty as me.”
“You’ll be bald, you’ll be bald”
“Hush, Kim nobody will be bald” I told her trying my best to protect my sister.
“Tammy is the prettiest, prettier than you. She knows what Daddy said is true.”
Grandma slid into the room, as though she had been hiding in the hall listening to our banter. She stretched her arms out to pull us all in for a hug, gathering us like chicks around her curvaceous hips, except Tammy, the only one tall enough to reach Grandma’s overflowing bosom. “You’re all beautiful,” she laughed, “My little princesses.”
“But, Tammy is my favorite grandchild,” she announced as she slid back out of the room.
I felt a small jerk inside when I heard my grandmother. Grandmothers aren’t supposed to have favorites.
I was confused that day and left with a distaste that I was unfamiliar with. I searched for a place to put such an announcement. I had felt a wound I’d never known before.
Should I be angry? Should I cry?
Was I not good enough to be her favorite? I didn’t want to be her favorite; I just wanted to be loved equally. Was I supposed to hate my cousin or my grandmother or both?
Hate is not an emotion I’ve ever really known, so for years I just felt a small gap between my grandmother and me. There was no consolation when my cousin fell out of my grandmother’s favor by choosing to get married in the grand elite church across town instead of the small Baptist church she and my grandmother had attended all throughout Tammy’s youth.
It was after I got married that my relationship with my grandmother started to shift. She adored my husband; he had a way of making everyone feel loved and he had adored her as well. My grandmother would visit us as often as she could and many times she chose to stay with us instead of at my parent’s house.
“Your house is more comfortable,” she would say, “There’s more love here.”
She and I spent one whole summer in my kitchen. She taught me to can vegetables from the garden and by the time she was sure I had the biscuit recipe down, trial after trial ending up in the scrap bucket for the pigs, I had flour on the tips of my eyebrows and woven in among the threads of my socks. I laughed with her over childhood stories while we sat together and crocheted the family name to frame and hang above the door sill.
“There,” she said, “David will be so proud of you.”
My grandmother was the one who taught me affection. She taught me that summer not to let anyone in my house without a hug to welcome them. Though we grew closer through the years, I still felt a small gap between us and I often felt a twinge thinking that perhaps she loved my husband more than me; perhaps she only felt close to me because of him.
“David,” she would say, “I don’t know how you weren’t born into this family, you fit so well.”
So when I divorced, I had feared telling my grandmother the most. In fact, I had put off calling her until the day before my divorce was final.
It was later that week when she called me back and I could hear in her voice that she had spent the week crying and praying; her words were some of the most comforting I had ever heard her say.
“I can’t say I understand,” I had heard, “but it’s not my place to. I know in my heart you made the right decision.”
I remind her of those comforting words she had shared with me as I find myself sitting next to her on the bed, here in my grandmother’s room with her leather bound Bible wrapped in a quilted book cover and study notes bursting from the pockets and in-between the pages. The Bible she reads daily in loving discipline now replaces the golden hair brush and mirror on the bed stand next to us. The TV on the dresser where the jewelry boxes used to sit is tuned to The Gaither Gospel Hour, my grandmother’s Saturday night ritual.
“Sweetheart, how have you been doing out on your own? Do you miss being married?”
“I’ve been okay grandma.”
“You are so quiet. You didn’t have two words to say while your uncle Wesley was here and you guys always cut up and tell stories.”
“I guess I don’t have any fun stories to tell right now.”
“Well, I’m so glad you’re here; it feels good to hug you again. I know you’re hurting, I can see it in your eyes and I can feel it in your touch. Your hands are cold, so I know your heart is still warm.”
“Thanks, it feels good be hugged, and you can warm my hands like you always do,” I mustered.
“Your mom and dad are worried about you. They don’t understand why you don’t talk to them. They don’t understand what happened and why you got divorced. Your mom wants you to open up to her.”
“I can’t grandma, they won’t ever understand. I can’t ever tell them, it would only hurt them and they would have too heavy a burden to carry if I did; it wouldn’t do anyone any good for them to carry around hate.”
I can see the confused understanding in the twist of her brow, her acceptance of my reasoning, but unsure of its validity.
“Well baby, there is only one that you have to share it with; only one that will carry the burden for you. Just give it to God, baby.”
“But you know, I’m always here to listen if you need my ears, God gave me two of them,” she adds as she hums along with the gospel music that takes over her attention.
The firmness of her grip holds the burden in my chest down, the gentleness and love in her touch provides relaxes my thoughts, momentarily. I need someone to tell, someone to share this weight, but I can’t be sure she’s safe; the secret gets pushed a little deeper.
Grandma, did you love David more than you loved me, I want to ask but the words only flitter across my taste buds and never develop into speech.
“Grandma, I know you miss David, I know you all do.”
“Well, you know we all loved David, he became very close and I don’t know what happened, I always believed the two of you loved each other very much. I can’t imagine what could have happened to that.”
We sit in silence awhile, watching Bill Gaither and listening to the wonderful gospel singers. She watches in her room so she doesn’t disturb Papa while he’s watching the news. Because I love the program as much as she does I’m temporarily allowed in her sanctuary to watch it with her.
“I will always love David for what he was, and I will always pray for him, but that doesn’t mean he has the right to be back in your life,” Grandma says.
As I sit here holding her hand, the silky soft fingers wrapped around my own, the gap begins to close and I can feel the twinge of past hurts as they drift up gently tugging to be released. I look at my grandmother’s gentle face softened with time and I realize that my grandmother is the only other person, besides me, who does not have the ability to hate and I know that she is the one person who will safely carry my secret.
I hold her hand tight, as I release my entire burden and tell her of the pain I suffered, of all the ways that David violated me and the sexually violent world he forced me into. I can hear the television, I Surrender All, the final hymn in the episode, beckons all that lies within my heart. My body begins to shake and the tears take over and my voice cracks and my whispers turn to sobs, but I can smell the sweetness of the perfume laden room. She holds me as I sob and my shaking begins to cease and her peaceful elegance warms me. My aching and my secrets, my 19 years of a hidden underworld of secrets, drift up on the bubbles of lilac aroma and sift out into the coolness of the hallway.
Gently she lifts my chin with her silky smooth and thin bony fingers, her pearl opulent fingernails shimmering with the last tear drop.
She looks into my eyes and says to me, “You are a very special girl. The Lord has a special plan for you. I know you are going to be fine.” I lay my head in the softness of her lap, the down comforter cradling me as she whispers,” I’ve always felt a special closeness to you. You are my favorite grandchild.”
Grandmothers aren’t supposed to have favorites.