By Jeannie Alexander
I remember my grandfather’s smell. It is my first memory. My second memory is of being carried by my grandfather through his backyard. We carefully considered the apple trees, muscadines, figs, and plums, but farther back in my memory, we first considered the mud puddles.
My grandfather was a brickmason, and he and my grandmother made their home in Stone Mountain, Ga., where both of their families for several generations before had planted their homestead; the modest dreams of sharecroppers. Their plots of land were stitched together like a quilt: my great-grandmother Annie-bell’s home, my great-aunt Irene’s home, my great-grandfather Doc’s home, my grandparents’ home, my great-uncle R.L’s home and Uncle Pete’s home. One winding twisting piece of property divided into artificial plots. A geography of tragedy, toil, love and grace. Why is it that we think the modest dreams of the poor are any less grand than those of the wealthy? Surely they are no less holy.
When my parents were first married they lived in a small trailer that my grandparents had moved to the back of their property behind the main house. When I was 2, I would kneel on the bed, my face pressed against the window screen of my parents’ bedroom window each afternoon, waiting for my grandfather to return. His old burgundy car would pull in, and before his feet could hit the deeply rutted dirt path I would begin shouting, “Papa come saaavvveee me!” This was our daily game. He taught me how to unlatch the screen and push it out so that he could then lift me through the window. This is where my first memory erupts, the smell of sweat and the taste of masonry dust stuck to the roof of my mouth as I pressed my nose against his neck to identify his scent every afternoon. His hands were the roughest, gentlest hands I have ever known. And each evening as he pulled me from the window he did so with the purpose of connecting me to the earth in the daily baptism ritual of dunking me into the dirty muddy water that always seemed to exist in the large rut in the middle of the driveway. It was a child’s ecstasy that I experienced in those moments. I would not undergo true baptism again until many years later when I tried to drown myself.
As a teenager embarrassed by rural ways and honest poverty, I immersed myself in the alternative political and drug culture of Atlanta’s Little Five Points neighborhood. Heroin, cocaine, LSD and the Revolutionary Communist Youth Brigade ironically threw me into the intellectually bourgeoisie, disaffected, punk-rock culture of angry youth, often from wealthy families, supposedly fighting for the rise of the proletariat peasant class, a birthright I had abandoned. Sometimes the universe laughs.
But in the early hours of barely light mornings following nights of insanity, I would pull myself together and return, bruised and disoriented, to the gardens of healing, the waters of remembrance, my grandfather’s section of plowed earth. I was 19, hungover and standing by my grandfather’s side, a cup of coffee in my hand, watching his honeybees swarm in and out of the hive in the already hot humid air.
“Aren’t you afraid of getting stung?” I asked. “No, never” he replied. “You just have to learn to think like a bee.” As we moved from bees to fig trees to chickens I knew to my shame the truth: that the sacredness of connection was to be found here or nowhere on this earth, and all of my endeavors to find truth through separation would lead me back to this yard.
My grandfather died while I was in law school, and I was so furious with grief that I refused to leave New York and go home to Georgia to attend his funeral. The fury has long since turned to peace and gratitude, and my grandfather keeps speaking to me, slowly softly tracking my often tumultuous life. My friend Bill has beehives now. A few weeks ago he removed the top of the hive so I could look inside the secret world of the feeding tray on top. The bees are fed sugar water. They moved slowly in the cold wet morning air and most stayed inside the wooden hive box, but a few came cautiously out of the small entrance hole in front and moved slowly, their thick stout golden honeybee bodies covered with fine hair, so very beautiful. I hear my grandfather’s voice: “The entire source of food for the whole world rests on the backs of these bees. All of this, everything around you is connected so you can’t do nothing to these bees this land that don’t affect you. These bees are you and you are the bees.” I think about this when Bill shows me the old feeding trays that he had discarded because they were death traps for bees, so deep the bees drowned, caught between metal screen and water. A simple mistake, but the cost was dear, and I ran my finger over the screen and over the tiny hairy corpses trapped inside.
One of my last conversations with my grandfather was about bees. We stood staring at the hives while I ate a fig pulled from the tree. I had focused on the bees to avoid the truth that his once robust body was being wasted by the cancer growing inside of him.
“Pa-pa, what do bees dream? Do they dream together as one, a collective sigh? What happens when the light goes out inside of a bee? Do they have souls, and if so are they little golden sparks of light that make a snapping pop noise. Do trees breathe in the souls of bees?” He put his arm around me, pulled me to him, and I kissed his cool cheek. I still do not know these things.
So I am buying a house and planting a fig tree. Both acts of faith.
Wendell Berry writes, “The relentlessness of the tragedy is redeemed by the persistence of grace.” My grandfather did not trust books; he trusted lived experience, and his life was the embodiment of the persistence of grace. Our ancestral ties are reinforced through daily lived sensory experience. The way light changes slowly through the progression of a year, the sounds of animals, birds, bells. The way the smell and taste of lake or river water clings to the air and shrouds us after a storm. What my grandfather tried to teach me throughout my whole life is that this lived experience cannot be purchased or owned, and if we tend our imaginations and memories properly, then home in its deepest truest sense is always accessible to us, for it is us, dwells within us. It is old memory. It is what is meant by living a good life. Its roots plunge deep into the waters of love, and nurture within us an affection and tenderness that I think perhaps can only be lived not described; one can only point and nod and say, “Ah yes, that.”