*Image from the “Ethnic Karen Textiles” collection by Stewart Manley, Photograph
Knit to Feelings
by Megan Bush
Tell me about yourself, humans ask. We query friends, family, lovers; in supermarket parking lots, at dinner tables, in bars, in bedrooms. Over time, the answers become threads woven into cloth. The stories wrap us together, like children pressed against their mothers’ chests, like naked lovers held between one set of sheets. What we tell—what we remember of our lives—are the stories that matter. As facts knit to feelings, our brains pick through reality to create our own sets of truths. Once we have told each other enough stories, we call it love.
“Tell us a story, Grandma,” we asked. She sat in a plastic chair in the shade of the porch, children and grandchildren seated around her. I was 21. The Sacramento heat undulated over her suburban square of grass in front of us. Sleek cars tipped up and over speed bumps. High-pitched voices reached us from the park across the street, while the oak trees that lined it whispered hush. Family chattered on the other side of the house, only their laughter carrying all the way to us. I leaned against my cousin’s knee, the dangling soles of my feet grazing the garden hedges fronting the porch.
“What would you like me to tell?” Grandma asked. She looked around, a close-lipped smile firming her cheekbones. Rouge or sun still flushed in the perfect circles below her eyes. Over time the creases of her face had multiplied until the skin softened, the individual wrinkles gone. She had positioned herself so that the porch’s shadow made a decisive line across her face, her lips washed out with sunlight, her sharp blue eyes protected by shade.
“Why don’t you tell them about your father, Mom,” Aunt Nancy suggested, from where she leaned against the doorframe above our heads.
“Oh! Papa? Well, alright.” Grandma patted her hair, checking that no strays had escaped. “My Papa was a peddler when he was seventeen. He met Rahija in Blissfield, where she had a sister named Maheba. They got to know each other and they got married.” Grandma pronounced each detail with precision, like a coy school girl, both pleased and shy about her exactness. She added names and dates even when they seemed unrelated to the story. Her parents, AJ and Rahija, moved to Williamson West Virginia when they married in 1914. Williamson had a large Lebanese community and economic opportunity for the young immigrants. They had six children—five girls, and then finally the much-wanted baby boy. Grandma was their fourth girl.
“By the time I was born Papa had opened a confectioners store in Williamson, West Virginia,” Grandma continued, as if telling us things we had never heard before. “Williamson is where I grew up.”
Stories of our immigrant great-grandparents had nourished our childhoods, whispered by parents at bedtime, woven into the cloth of our lives. We knew of our Lebanese heritage and our great-grandparents’ immigration to America to start anew. We knew Grandma could speak Arabic and that her insistence that we eat, eat, eat, was cultural. Yet we listened closely, because for once Grandma was doing the telling.
Humans are communal—our need for intimacy extends beyond one-on-one connections, and finds its expression in stories. The Greeks understood, and Homer pronounced Achilles’ name to an audience that already knew the tale of the Iliad. Native Alaskans understood, and the stories of Raven stealing the sun echoed through clan houses again and again. Were these stories true? Perhaps. But truth was not what brought clans together. It was the stories and the telling. The stories themselves gathered histories. People leaned towards the bard or elder, listening to stories they knew as well as their mothers’ faces.
It was rare that Grandma told stories. “She lived in the present,” my mother says dismissively, shrugging at the way Grandma chose to talk mostly about her superficial, immediate life. It was safer territory, where reality could not be disputed, where no one had to acknowledge that something was not right in Grandma’s head. We had long conversations about the weather, or a new haircut, or a gift she would like us to have. The same subjects she broached with supermarket strangers.
Yet that day on the porch she looked radiant, eyes like Raven as he discovers the sun. She reached into the past, adding emphasis, pause and detail. A natural storyteller, her hands moved with her words, her eyes looked from face to face. And we looked up to her like sunflowers. Rarely could she hold our attention like this.
I had always craved a grandparent who told stories. I knew snippets of Grandma’s life, but little more. She had learned to fly airplanes when she was a young, single teacher in Michigan. What compelled her to do it? What did it feel like to be up in the sky, solo, for the first time? She had worked as a cryptologist, breaking Japanese code in World War II. What happened behind the top-secret doors of Arlington Hall, U.S. intelligence headquarters? Was it challenging work, or mindless? Did she feel as though she had made a difference, changed the tide of war in some small way? She had met my grandfather on that army base. Was he shy and awkward? How did she know, after just four months, that she wanted to marry him and move to the other side of the country, far away from her West Virginia home?
I wanted the stories I didn’t even have the beginning threads to. And yet, as I grew, the confines of routines held my questions inside me, as if my tongue were caged. When we visited, I asked only the cheerful small-talk questions, in imitation of my mother. I stuck to the superficial, as if the defense mechanisms Mom had perfected were my defenses too.
“Hi Grandma, how are you? What are you cooking? What a pretty day!” I’d chirp, as if this were enough for our relationship. Schizophrenia had not upended my childhood, as it had my mother’s, and yet I was born with shields already in place. Mom was two when Grandma had her first mental breakdown. She was about thirteen when Grandma stopped taking medication. By Mom’s high school years, Grandma had days when she thought Mom was the devil. Mom was Grandma’s conservator by the time Mom was 23. By the time I came along, Mom had moved far away, and came to see Grandma for short visits twice a year. Those visits were always smooth and superficial.
As I grew older, however, in the silent moments between our cheerful prattle, questions formulated on my tongue: Who are you? What do you regret? What do you care about? I’d think. But the questions felt too personal and solemn. There never was a right time. She seemed happy with our visits, happy with our interactions. There was a balance to uphold, a whole house built to contain the instability. I tiptoed through the rooms, questions ready but stuck in my throat. I didn’t want to drag up something she was trying to leave behind.
On the porch that morning, Grandma was finally answering the questions I couldn’t ask. She nodded and looked from one of us to the next. Her wide lower half filled the plastic chair, and her short legs opened straight out from her body, barely bending at her bloated knees. Her walker stood behind her at the ready. But her eyes were thirteen, sparkling at the prospect of a new car, and an hour or two with her Papa all to herself.
“The first car we had was a little old black box of a Chevy,” she said.
I could almost see that Chevy on the street outside Bassett’s confectionery store, gleaming in comparison to its surroundings. Everything in Williamson, West Virginia was coated with a fine, gray-black layer of coal dust that made the town look tired and prematurely aged. But the car’s tall, square frame and bulbous headlights sparkled in the street lamps.
Across the street, I imagine the train depot quieted for the evening. A thick, pleasant silence has replaced the train’s whistles and the stream of people crossing the street to buy newspapers, cigars, and sweets. All day, those whistles dictated AJ Basset’s life—the rush of people on and off the train, the lulls between, like tides.
Inside the shop, AJ and his fourth-born daughter Alice work in proficient silence. Alice’s siblings have long gone home to their mother’s Lebanese supper and their beds. AJ stoops over the account books, his mouth puckered around his cigar and his extra chin showing as his head cranks down over the pages. Alice, still wearing the school frock that cinched around her neck, mops the black-and-white linoleum with the focus she gave to all her endeavors.
Every day after school, Alice worked in Bassett’s. More than her sisters, Alice seemed to claim the roles left vacant by a lack of older sons. Her baby brother was still just an infant. Alice was the family’s star academic, she played tuba in the marching band, and she helped out at the store while her sisters helped their mother at home.
That evening, AJ stands and stretches. It is past midnight, and he has to be here to open shop in less than six hours. Alice has to be up early for band practice before school. AJ closes the account books gently and looks at his daughter.
“We should be done for tonight, Tamem,” he says, calling Alice by her Lebanese middle name. His accent both smooths and accentuates his English words, each syllable staccato, his “Rs” rolling, his “Vs” softened into “Fs.” He always spoke to her in English, while her mother spoke Arabic, each parent choosing an allegiance.
Then AJ holds up a set of keys, his eyes glowing over the hook of his nose. Despite working sixteen hours, six days per week, AJ always had a smile on his face. “But, you would like to come drive now?”
On the porch, Grandma’s tongue traversed her memory as if she had learned to drive yesterday. “We’d close the store at night, and then after midnight, we’d drive up the mountain rooooaaaad.” Her gnarled hand wound up the hill of West Virginia with her father at her side. She so rarely got alone time with her Papa outside of the routines of the store. I imagine her sitting in the passenger’s seat, as giddy as her schoolmates on their first dates.
At thirteen, Alice was not yet beautiful. Each feature was prominent and striking, but not cohesive. Thick eyebrows framed large blue eyes. The Arabic curve of her nose seemed at odds with her strong, broad face. She was short, and had a thick build that had yet to bloom into feminine curves. She was bright, and knew it, and she worked hard. Even her cheerful demeanor, so similar to her fathers, had a determined optimism, as if even positivity had an edge of solemn discipline to it.
They wind back and forth up and out of Williamson, into the Appalachian foothills. The car headlamps light the deserted road, and though they are tired, they relish the way the car floats and bounces, spotlighting leaves at each bend.
“Papa knew of a place, a big open place,” Grandma said, holding onto “big,” for just a moment longer, gesturing with her hands.
They reach a pullout. At this time of night, the forest feels ancient, old-world North America, with thick deciduous oaks arching over the parking lot where AJ slows the car to a stop.
“Your turn, Tamem.”
“Me, Papa?” Alice looks up, surprised. She sucks in her mouth, her wide blue eyes scared and excited all at once. “But I can’t!”
AJ stares at her fluttery, girlish fear and laughs, a deep sound like chocolate. “Oh yes you can, my daughter.”
And without another word, AJ walks to the other side of the car and squeezes Alice over to the driver’s seat.
Grandma smiled. “So we’d go there and he’d teach me to turn corners and back up and stop and start and then he’d say, ‘Ok, now you drive home.’ And I’d say, ‘Down the windy road?’” Her mouth mimed her teenage trepidation, her hands covering her mouth. Then she breathed out matter-of-factly. If Papa told her to do something, she did it, no matter how nervous or unprepared she felt. “So I’d go down the windy road.”
If I listened close enough, I could see in Grandma the little girl who had learned to drive. She had been close to her father, had wanted desperately to make him proud: AJ, who had moved to America and worked tirelessly day in, day out, so that his children–and especially his sons–could have educated, American lives. Grandma had pursued a bachelor’s degree, then a master’s degree, in a time when women went to college to find a mate. She worked as a music teacher, and then she joined the army, serving her country and her family. She molded herself into the American dream that had propelled him to this country and pushed him to work tirelessly year after year. She was the perfect son, missing only maleness.
Grandma leaned into her story. “And then…” she said, pausing, looking to each of our hungry faces. “And then…” And then she went to college, and then she joined the army, and then she moved to California as a young bride. These were all directions the story could have gone, truths we could follow.
“And then… Papa discovered the LSD and he died.” Grandma sat back, nodding, the corners of her mouth tweaked up like a lemon, expecting awed nods of appreciation at this sad tale.
A breeze pushed at the hot day and we looked around. A baseball bat cracked against a ball in the distance. Someone honked down the street. There were puppies we could be playing with in the neighbor’s yard. Suddenly, I remembered why we didn’t ask Grandma to tell stories.
“Maaaam,” Aunt Nancy said, speaking for all of us. She stood with her arms crossed, looking down. “Your Papa died of a heart attack before LSD was even invented.”
“Pshh,” Grandma said, her hand brushing Nancy’s truth away like a bothersome fly. She shook her head, pursed her lips, holding herself aloof like a priestess.
But as she lost the truth, she lost us. Our faith in the story, our need to know. We weren’t an audience who would travel through her paranoid tunnels. We weren’t interested in that part of her memory. Besides, we had learned from our parents not to listen to that part of her. We stood up, stretched, wandered toward the puppies next door and the snacks in the kitchen while Grandma stayed sitting where she was.
Truth, capital T, singular, humans scraping toward God. How firmly Western culture puts faith in Truth as the tip of the pyramid, as the singular torch, as the opposite of wrong. Now I wonder how dangerous it is to know the answer without a doubt. Especially when it comes to human history. How many stories are lost behind Truth’s wall?
Only now, years away from this memory, do I wish I’d listened. Tell me the stories that mattered to you, Grandma. The emotionally charged moments of her life, as real to her as any reality. Her identity clung to that story we didn’t care about. Why did we sit down to listen in the first place? It is not the accurate history of the Trojan War that we remember.
AJ died of a heart attack when he was only 62. The last time Grandma saw him was on her way to California, just after her wedding day. AJ never met his grandchildren.
The shock of his premature death must have hit her like an overdose. When that long-distance call came, she must have sat, alone with her children, in her new, suburban home.
Her hand falls to the floor. The fresh paint, the waxed floors, the new curtains, all look gray, like coal dust in her childhood.
He had always been there, always believed in her. She sees his face when she walked across that stage with a diploma in her hand. She sees the tears in his eyes when she told him she would join the army. She remembers the Telegram AJ and Rahija sent at the birth of their first grandchild, her son. They had been planning a visit to California in the spring.
How does one go on without one’s parent looking on?
Alice couldn’t afford to go back for the funeral. She sits in her new rocking chair, my Aunt Nancy lying in her arms like lead. Nancy would never meet her maternal grandfather.
Her Papa is gone.
“When my Papa died, I was so upset that my milk dried up,” Grandma said once.
Now, when it’s too late to ask her, I want to listen to her tell the story. Over and over again, I long for the tapestries the way she saw them, false memories and all. I no longer think of her as always wrong. Grandma, I’m sorry.
I think about that day on the porch, her grandchildren bounding around her. She must have felt so alone.
Illustrative Imagery by Stewart Manley
These images were taken in Mae La Refugee Camp on the Thai-Myanmar border. The majority of refugees there are from the Karen ethnic group. One of the ways in which they earn a living and keep busy despite the military guards and barbed wire is by weaving beautiful shirts and skirts. My artistic objective was to capture the beauty of their work up close. All photos were taken of clothing being worn at the time of the shot.