Here’s Nichole Perkins’ story about her grandmother from our June theme “Once.” Enjoy.
Muh’Deah With Her Hair Down
Muh’Deah, my great-grandmother, ate onions and tomatoes like apples. She pressed money, wrapped in aluminum foil or Kleenex, into your hand as you were leaving her home. She kept candy in the trunk of her car, and if you were good in church, she’d walk you to that treasure chest and let you pick a few pieces. Muh’Deah would comb my hair, using a pink Goody brush with white bristles. She had old people’s strength, the kind that came from years of raising six children plus farm work then domestic work. She’d pull my hair into a ponytail so tight, I’d have a look of constant surprise for at least a day.
Muh’Deah’s favorite color was red, and it became mine, too. We’d sit in front of her large floor model tv—the kind with the knobs that thunked thunked when you turned them—and she’d brush my hair into that death mask ponytail while reruns of Gunsmoke or Bonanza, Big Valley or The RifleMan ran in the background. I had a book of fill-it-in word puzzles. She’d give me a red-ink pen, slim and striped like a piece of peppermint candy, and keep half an eye on me as I connected words together. I’d show her my completed puzzles and she’d say, “That’s good, baby,” before she touched my shoulder to signify she was done with my hair. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I learned Muh’Deah couldn’t read. I like to imagine that seeing me work those puzzles made her proud.
My memories of what Muh’Deah looked like are cloudy. My mother says that by the time I was born, Muh’Deah wore her hair short, just under her ears, but I remember something different. Once I saw Muh’Deah with long hair- a braid that rested curled on her chest.
Muh’Deah lived in one of those senior citizen complexes that looked like a tropical vacation resort. It was late evening, and I was in the living room, fresh from a bath, smelling like Camay. Or maybe Irish Spring. I can’t remember that exactly but I know I smelled good and had a belly full of biscuit and jelly. I was waiting on Muh’Deah to finish getting ready so I could use the mini-steps that led to her four-poster bed, so thick and fluffy. Even though Muh’Deah would warm the bed with her onion-and-tomato fueled gas, floating on the cloud-like mattress made it worth it. So there I was, fidgeting, trying not to ask if she was ready yet when someone knocked on the door. I froze in place. I knew I couldn’t answer the door. It was night time and no one visited Muh’Deah except family.
She came from the back of her apartment, wearing a long, white cotton gown. She didn’t have her glasses on. And her hair… an unfinished braid lay against her right shoulder. If my eyes hadn’t fallen out of my sockets from a too-tight ponytail, surely they would fall out now. I think I even stopped fidgeting, and I know I stared in that open-mouthed, uncaring child’s way.
Muh’Deah answered the door, and it was one of her neighbors. A man. His glasses were so thick, I couldn’t really see his eyes clearly, but they were watery and shiny. He smelled like mouthwash but… more. Muh’Deah’s mouth pulled into a tight line that I would see on my own mother in later years. She invited the man in and let him sit on the couch, closest to the lamp with the bright, bright bulb. She sat in a chair and would occasionally give me The Look that meant I better behave, but she didn’t send me to her room, out of the way, which is what usually happened when grown folks talked. When I look back, I think I must’ve been insurance that Mr. Neighbor Man didn’t try to get fresh.
I have no sense for how long they talked. Muh’Deah touched her braid and finished it. I watched, fascinated. Then I noticed that Mr. Neighbor Man was also staring. Muh’Deah’s lean fingers, taut with age and strength, moved quickly, working her hair into a simple braid, while she tried to remain polite. Suddenly she dropped the completed work and made moves to stand. Mr. Neighbor Man struggled to be gentlemanly, despite his arrival without notice, despite his more-than-mouthwash smell, and helped her. Again, I can’t remember what Muh’Deah said but she ushered him out and made sure to put the locks on the door.
After wiping my face free of any more biscuit and jelly crumbs, Muh’Deah pushed me down the hallway to her bedroom, hand on my shoulder. She made me say my prayers then held on to my arm as I climbed into her bed. It was a child’s heaven—all white sheets, a thick cushy mattress, with equally fluffy pillows and comforter, and love. The kind of love that leaves you with your eyes wide, that shares colors with you, encourages you to be more than she could, and the kind of love that lets you protect her as she protects you.