Gemini in Twilight by Galen R.Faison

My mother’s mother died years ago. Her passing, as passages do, led me to reminiscing of my two other grandmothers who had also “gone home" but will always be eternally linked in my memory.

My great-grandmother, Sally Lackey, relocated to Pottstown, Pennsylvania after some of her children moved (to escape the oppressive South) from a rural area of Virginia. She was my granddaddy’s mother and I always found it a source of amusement that a man his age still had a mother to answer to. Upon arriving in Pottstown, Grandma Sally settled in and married Mr. John -- a widower. From what my mother tells me, they were both pretty ancient even then.

My grandmother, Emma, moved to Pottstown from one of the Carolinas. There, she settled down and married Levi Faison, Sally’s next-door neighbor. Sometimes proximity is all the seed of love needs to germinate. That was the case when Emma’s son and Sally’s granddaughter eventually fell in love and married. I am the product of that union. Sally and Emma, once neighbors, were now almost family; when my parents later divorced, the only reason they remained that way was through me.

550 and 552 Walnut Street, those were Sally’s and Emma’s respective addresses. You can’t squeeze a nickel in the space between the houses. When I was younger, the houses themselves were near identical except for hues, porches and floral landscaping. The backyards were practically the same: mini gardens, more flowers, doghouses and requisite mutts. Grandma Sally’s house was probably the last still using coal. That lasted way into the 90’s as it was consistent with her way. She could be insistent in her beliefs and rarely followed trends.

My grandmothers were always a package deal. As ancient as the cosmos, they were my twins, although they didn’t resemble each other much. Sally was born sometime between 1900 and 1905. The facial features of her West African ancestry: a broad nose, high cheekbones and skin as dark and smooth as black obsidian--were a constant reminder of her bloodlines. Emma (about twenty years Sally’s junior) had a deep caramel complexion and more modest features. Both wore their hair in braids, although Emma regularly adorned a wig; she wasn’t going to allow old age erase all vestiges of her feminine vanity.

Their personalities were akin but also different in many aspects. Emma had a light temperament and was generally a sweetheart. Grandma Sally was stern and had an appraising way of looking at you when she thought you were full-of-it. Both spoke freely and while Emma may pity a fool, Sally didn’t suffer them gladly. Their interactions had an interesting dynamic, mostly because they didn’t always see eye-to-eye. And when they were having an off day (or month), it was more of a cold war than a war of words.

Those storms would pass and then the women would sit on their porches and meter out conversation

“Hot out today, Ms. Sally"

“Yeeees ma’am. You called tha’ one right"

“Don’t seem to 'ffect the younginsmuch tho’' “Need brains t’feel heat"

When I arrived each year for my summer stay, it was always an ordeal if both women were sitting on their porches at the same moment.

We’d pull up, I’d get out the car and stand on the sidewalk--directly at the midpoint between their houses (my Treaty de Tordesillas, of sorts). It was torment. Which porch do I go to first?

Who gets the first kiss? Neither grandmother would ever admit to being petty or of wanted to be greeted first--but I remember those looks: Sally with her strong, tractor-beam stare; Emma with her Siren-like, come-hither smile. I’d eventually just run up and kiss Granny One and then immediately relay to Granny Two and give her a little extra 'sugar' to make it right.

During the day, I divided my time between their command posts (porches) when not playing with my cousins. I spent most nights with Emma. We had a morning ritual that consisted of breakfast while watching My Favorite Martian and Gilligan’s Island. Somehow, it felt appropriate to watch old shows in an old woman’s house. Emma didn’t have any vices; she once admitted to pilfering a batch of whiskey- soaked peaches and learned a lifelong lesson when she got sick from eating them. Sally was a lover of oral snuff and her house had an accessory that was always a source of great comedy: her ever-present spittoon. She’d pack that powdered tobacco between her bottom lip and gums so tightly, that she slurred lightly when she spoke.

The nights I spent with Sally were for exploration. I’d secretly rummage through her drawers to see what artifacts I could find. The interior of Sally’s house was museum-like: antiquated furniture and appliances, faded photos and a host of familial relics. It was always a bit dim but always tranquil. Emma’s décor was livelier and a smidgen more modern; her appliances, a generation newer (she owned an old color TV, as opposed to Sally’s old black-and- white one).

Neither watched much TV. In fact, the only time I can remember Sally watching television in length, was as Oliver North sweated through the Iran-Contra hearings. But when it stormed, TVs and radios were to be cut off--that was a time to commune with God. With each flash of lightning and clap of thunder, she’d nod her head approvingly and reply to the ether, “Yes, yeeessss Lawd. I hear you Lawd. Talk to 'em Gawd."

Emma was a church-Sunday lifer, she’d leave in the morning and come back late in the afternoon. Sally stayed home most Sundays and although she was illiterate, if you read a Bible verse wrong, she’d say, “That doesn’t sound quite right, read it again." Both were women of strong faith and it radiated from them. Thankfully, they weren’t overbearingly pious. Still, I suspect that their faiths fortified them and carried them through the more turbulent times in their lives.

I often wonder what life must have been like, growing up in the South, when Jim Crow was king. Sometimes I would pursue them for information (for history) about living in that era. Neither grandmother seemed eager to expound much about those times. They’d give me a tidbit or sometimes not say anything at all. Even today, I’m uncertain if their pasts were too painful to talk about or perhaps they felt I was too young to discuss such heavy content. Maybe they’d already come to terms with their histories and didn’t see the point of me carrying on about things that were settled with them. However, for all they didn’t say, I saw for myself. I saw the shotguns hidden around their homes. I heard stories about those shotguns; Sally threatening to blow a hole in my aunt’s abusive husband; Emma leveling her shotgun’s barrel at some thug threatening my cousin.

Yes, they were tough--growing up as vulnerable black women in an unforgiving South had seen to that. Yet, they never appeared bitter. I remember Emma debating a man about mixed race relations; they were fine by her (as long as the parties involved were Christian, of course). I always felt she was pretty progressive despite her age.

Sometimes, I like to visualize my grandmothers as young women and imagine what their love lives were like; were they flirty, modest or salacious? They certainly obtained love later in their lives. I never knew my Grandfather Levi, but I’d come to understand that he was a sweet and upstanding man; that Emma loved him dearly. Anytime she spoke of him, her eyes glowed with a knowing affection.

Sally’s Mr. John was alive a significant portion of my childhood. He was quiet and gentlemanly.

I considered him my grandfather and he treated me like a grandson. I forgave the fact that he could never quite pronounce my name. Although they married as an older couple, Sally and Mr. John were together for over twenty years. Mr. John was a few years older than Sally. He died--as should we all--peacefully in his sleep. At the wake, I watched Grandma Sally closely. I was curious about her state of mind. At first, she seemed unaffected. That led me to think that when one dies of old age, perhaps it's not an occasion to mourn. But when she was escorted to his casket, her knees sagged and her strength waned as she keened deeply for a moment…then she was right again.

Sally had many children; some died in adulthood from cancer. Grandma Emma also knew the grief of tragically losing her children. My father was murdered by a jilted lover who set his house afire. He lived just down the street from Emma. It always pains my hurt to know that she had to watch that house burn knowing her son was inside. Emma’s daughter, who lived in North Carolina, was shot to death by police in a botched rescue attempt during a bank robbery/hostage scenario. Emma was cut deeply by those losses; she’d often beg me to stay clear of trouble. She was essentially telling me that she couldn’t shoulder another loss. I obliged her by staying drug free and managing not to get myself killed--which isn’t always so easy living in Newark, N.J. I ran the streets but didn’t succumb to them.

During my summer stays, I made it my duty to be Emma’s personal jester. I loved to see her bent over, laughing: hak-hak-hak--that dry cackle escaping her belly. Emma always enjoyed a good laugh and her cackle, could often be heard emanating from the closed doors of her home.

Sally was more sober but she wasn’t devoid of a sense of humor. Once, the family had decided to throw her an (eighty-something) birthday party. My crude aunt had bought her a phallic sex toy as a joke. Everyone was a bit nervous that the prank would raise Grandma Sally’s ire. As she unwrapped it, everyone became still. She held the toy, studied it and after a beat said, “What’d I need with this thing? I don’t deal with plastic. I deal with meat." As comedians say, she killed.

Grandma Sally died in her ninety’s. But she somehow managed to linger on through Emma. It was if Grandma Emma was a historical place-marker for Sally. As long as l had one grandmother, the other could never truly be gone. I now only had one porch to perch on during my summer stays. Emma and I would relax in the afternoons and I’d glance over at Sally’s empty porch. It wasn’t hard to imagine her sitting there. It felt only right. Grandma Sally’s house eventually ended fell to some contractor. Emma and I would look on suspiciously as the intruder made changes to the facade. Emma was oddly protective of “Sally" house and would harass the contractor for what she thought were unseemly renovations. She consistently fussed over his work and although he was always cordial, I knew he had to be quite annoyed. I found her badgering to be sweet and valiant in a way. Grandma Emma died on Thanksgiving of 2003. We were eating dinner when the call came. I had called her earlier that day but to no answer. Had I called in the morning, as opposed to the afternoon, we may have had one last conversation.

I still visit Pottstown two or three times a year. I always make the customary pilgrimages to the houses where Sally, Emma and my father lived and died. My last drive to Pottstown was on Memorial Day. My young son made the trip with me.

It was a good day to reminisce. Sally’s and Emma’s houses haven’t changed much; not much at all, so the memories come easy. We got out of the car and stretched our legs. And I wasn’t surprised--not at all--when my son walked up and stood, right at the midpoint between their houses.


New Heading

New Text

All Rights Reserved--2007-2024