On My 79th Birthday
by Audrey Y. Scharmen
Who will authenticate Julia when I am gone?
Just six, moonfaced and petite, she stood tiptoe to peer into the coffin where her tall, slim grandmother lay in a gauzy cloud of fabric the very shade of peaches and cream. Her mother said it was a negligee, a sort of nightdress. The little girl, accustomed to seeing her grandmother always in drab cotton garments, was fascinated by such elegance. The image would remain vivid throughout her long life.
More than sadness, she felt a sense of wonder, a curious indefinable emotion. Her grandmother’s hair was loosened from its familiar bun and lovingly brushed to a sheen, heavy and black and barely streaked with silver. The dark slanted eyes slept, black lashes brushing the high cheekbones and tawny skin that defined her bloodlines. Shawnee? Osage? Kansa? No one would ever be certain. It was whispered that she was a squaw who married a maverick Englishman. Her grandchild, instinctively proud of her heritage, would never come to understand the cruel intricacies of racism.
As she clung to the side of the bier, she recalled summer nights and sounds of crickets in her grandparents’ neat lamplit house. She remembered washing her bare little feet at the outdoor pump in the glow of fireflies on nights when she was permitted to sleep over, and falling asleep quickly afterward with her cousins on a pallet spread on the floor. It was a shotgun house. Three narrow rooms, one behind the other in single file. A row of the sturdy homes — some of which still stand — were built for railroad men who labored in car barns and yards just down the street, beneath a viaduct that arced above a maze of rusting tracks and machinery. Her father was one of five children born and raised in the tiny dwelling in the early 1900s.
Shortly before death, her grandmother had given the child a rare gift for her birthday: a ragged little Bible and a unique cast-iron paper-weight rooster she had cherished. Many years later when the grown woman asked what had become of them when she left home, her mother replied that she had sold them to the local sheeny-man, along with other discarded toys. Mama hadn’t been one to collect things.
Thus she has only her memories of that brief time with Julia. Not even a photograph remains. Her older siblings barely recall their paternal grandmother, and the younger ones were born after she died. The precious tales gleaned from her father during his life have been all but disclaimed by the family geneologist, newly empowered by computer technology. However, she considers his information unreliable in comparison to what is in her own head and heart, and she clings stubbornly to her memories.
All are gone who share my special memories of her, and soon I will be, as well. Then who will authenticate Julia? she muses.
The moon is gone from the face that stares back from her mirror. But the sepia-tone visage there — all nooks and crannies and angles — reflect the dark eyes of Julia: deep-set and subtly slanted above high cheekbones revealed now by time and travail. She is comforted.
Audrey Y. Scharmen has written for Bay Weekly all of its 13 years, winning first prizes two years running from the Maryland, Delaware, District of Columbia Press Association for her Bay Reflections.