"Mother, where is my shoe polish? It's not where I left it. Why must you move my things about?" my grandfather, Kent, barked at my grandmother.
"Daddy, you moved it to the shelf in the closet so it would be easier for you to reach, remember?" she gently responded.
My "Nanny" was a Southern woman, strong and proud and wise enough to know remaining demure and unwitting while in his presence was the easiest way to keep the peace.
My grandparents referred to each other as "Mother" and "Daddy," something I found disconcerting and confusing as a young child. It was a generational idiom and one my parents never adopted. I stayed with my grandparents often in my formative years, escaping the cloud of chaos constantly looming at home and the sexual abuse perpetrated by my father.
I always thought my grandmother was meek and submissive and, although outwardly happy and content, there was a palpable undercurrent of resentment and disdain when Daddy would intentionally berate and humiliate her at family gatherings. I never saw him strike her but he'd come close when he'd been drinking.
Normally, when I came to stay, Nanny made Kent stay with his sister, Bernice, who lived two blocks away. I didn't realize then, but she was shielding me from the very man who taught my father his sadistic and torturous ways. She would not take no for an answer.
One weekend, I arrived early. It was evident even to my 7-year-old self that they were in the middle of a very heated discussion. Although they both did their best to remain calm and speak in vague terms I couldn't understand, their body language spoke volumes.
He wasn't going to leave "his home" just because Little Mary (my nickname) was coming to stay. It was only 11:00 AM but his newly freshened bourbon told me to make myself scarce. Nanny rushed to greet me with her usual bear-hug and smattering of kisses but this time, whisked me up into her arms and into the bedroom. "Huneee, you stay put 'til Nanny says goodbye to Daddy and then we'll walk to the park," she reassured, handing me her box of jewelry to play with.
The argument escalated quickly and I grew frightened. This was the first time my sanctuary felt like the very place I fled. I had never heard my grandmother raise her voice, much less to my grandfather who, now fully inebriated, was visibly agitated and aggressive. As I peered through the bedroom door, I saw him grab her arm and pull her toward him.
I scoured the bedroom for a weapon, anything I might use to fend him off when my hand wrapped around a globe-shaped paperweight. I ran into the living room, eager to defend the most important person in my life–my protector—the woman who took on the role of my mother, since mine was negligent and depressed. My grandma stood eerily still, Kent looming over her, her frame suddenly so much smaller than I'd ever realized.
I charged into the living room brandishing the paperweight, unafraid. Their eyes became wide with astonishment. No one was more surprised than I at the low, guttural and almost sinister voice escaping my 56-pound body: "Leave her alone or I'll kill you, I swear I will do it, Grandpa!"
He began to move toward me, hands outstretched. I did not budge. Nanny stepped between us, raised up high on her tippy-toes while simultaneously arching her back, adopting a firm defensive stance and demanded, "Kent, you get your bag and leave this house. As the Lord is my witness, I will kill you where you stand if you take one step further toward that child!"
He gulped his drink down, picked up his bag and left. I never saw him again. Not because I didn't continue to visit, but because my Nanny saw to it.
Years later, when the abuse by my father surfaced in my memories, she was the one person I could speak to about it. She knew all along what my father was doing and kept me with her as much as possible to protect me from his violent attacks.
Her secrets were a dark abyss of haunting experiences never spoken of, only endured. Southern women don't talk of such things. "Why what would people think?" I often heard her say if I said or did something inappropriate.of such things. "Why what would people think?" I often heard her say if I said or did something inappropriate.
Southern women like my Nanny may not talk of such things but they take care of business in their own slow-cooked, graceful and subtle ways. Make no mistake—when push literally comes to shove, they're all grit.
She was the most influential person in my life. The paperweight sits on my unfinished manuscript cluttering my desk. Like her, it is small but mighty.