It was a sticky early summer southern afternoon. Neither my father, nor myself, were particularly thrilled to be there. For different-but perhaps similar-reasons, we'd put North Carolina far behind us long ago. We were waiting, which was something of an insult, for one of the twin cousins, one of the twin dragons, as I'd call them, to come and unlock my father's mother's house, so what we could do what we came to do and be on our way
"When I came back to bury my father, I didn't know it at the time, but I buried my mother too," my father said. "What was reborn, was this creature named Aunt Rose, who was controlled by that family."
That family being the southern relatives. Some of which I'd not seen since I was fifteen or sixteen years old. In some ways, this was not an earth-shattering revelation. A little less than four months earlier, at the funeral, it was not about Mom, in the case of my father, or even Grandma, the case of my siblings and I, but Aunt Rose. We, her closest blood relatives, were the outsiders. My father, all but disowned upon her deathbed. Parts of the story are still missing; the full tale behind the sister. Why my father's mother, a devout, if not fanatical, Southern Baptist, found it so easy to convert to Methodist just a few years before she went to dirt.
There are a lot of things I don't know about the southern side of the family. Hints, allegations, and things left unsaid. Perhaps I should be glad for that, but I do get curious. Over the years and lifetimes, fragmented stories, mismatched puzzle pieces, have surfaced, but, as is the way of good mystery, for every answer, every clue, there are more and more questions. The mystery deepens. I would like to perhaps someday find all these missing puzzle pieces, but catch myself sometimes wondering, outside of the mystery itself, why I should even bother.
Perhaps that's because to find some of the answers I seek, I might have to go back down there and deal with demons, ghosts, and dragons all wearing topcoats made of human flesh. Monsters I'm related to. Blood, and blood is a funny fucking thing. Not to mention sometimes more than a little terrifying. Perhaps that's a commitment I'd rather not contemplate.
It is not a earth-shattering revelation to say I was never as close to my father's mother as my maternal grandmother. A friend of mine called me on it by virtue of monikers. Part of this was simple geography, being most of my life, I lived half a continent away. But some was choice, and perhaps even the fickle winds of fate, though I have a hard time believing in that sort of thing.
There are those who doubt me when I say time is an abstract that moves differently. And yet, here is the grandest example; as of this sunrise, for me, it has been four years since my father's mother died, getting the word from my sister within minutes of putting my daughter to bed. But, in the Confederacy, things happen hours sooner and later, and, officially, my father's mother passed into the bardo just shortly after the witching hour of Saint Patrick's day. I suppose it hardly matters. Dead is still dead, and you don't always get the luxury of walking away from that.
My father's mother was a fanatic, a bigot, and rattle-snake mean. There is speculation that she preyed for and upon one of my father's heart attacks. When I heard that, I wanted to eat her liver, but not before she saw what I did to the deity she preyed to in retribution. And yet, upon hearing the news of her malignancy, which devoured her entrails and lungs like insect larva in a host body, I found a profound lesson; the futility of a grudge. It hardly matters when it comes down to the brass tacks and bedposts. Besides, grudge entails giving an individual or thing power over one. Feeding a dragon. That lesson came at a very good time, although that is another story, which should be granted its peace. The price to be payed for this lesson was my father loosing his mother, and my siblings and I finding ourselves out of grandparents.
The other profound lesson I can take from my father's mother came from when I was twelve years old, and my sister and I traveled with my father's parents throughout the south. We ended up in Daytona, where my father's father bore witness to me eating a pound of crab legs, baked potato, leavings from everyone else's plates, and half a package of cookies. That next mourning, I awoke to see, for the first time, the largest body of water I had ever seen in my life.
"Grandma, is that the ocean?" I asked, awestruck by the lapping waves with no visible opposing shore.
"It sure is, honey," she said to me.
That was when she told me nightmare stories of a force held within those waters much more beautiful and terrible than an beastie from the depths. A force of primordial chaos, which knew neither malice nor compassion. It could swallow an experienced swimmer whole, just as easily as it would spit a newborn babe unto the shore. She spoke of this phenomena in the same revered tones as I'd heard her zealously speak of her god. She called it the undertow.
After a big breakfast and waiting an obligatory hour, my sister and I ran out to the beach, to play in the ocean for the the first time. We did not return to the rented room until the deepest blue of evening. My father's mother watched us go.
"Ya'll have fun," she called after us. "Watch out for the undertow."
So many years and lifetimes later, I see what profound statement that is. The undertow, that primordial chaos, is samsara, Mara, grudges and drama, and dragons to be fed. It is an important lesson as my maternal grandmother telling me it takes a bigger man to walk away from a fight than to get into one. I cannot help but chuckle ruefully at the irony that my fanatically Christian father's mother, who once got after my sister and I for considering the theory of evolution, was telling me at twelve years old to exercise mindfulness.
"Have fun...watch out for the undertow," she said.
...Don't you be worrying none. I have fun, for I like to be entertained. And I am exceeding mindful of the undertow...
...Thank you, Grandma...