Grandmas, Angels and Brooding: a little note on brown cake and the storm of history

NB: these are excerpts from essays intended for publication in Mattering, a collection of essays. They are meant to be spec excerpts for slightly larger works.


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Article Text:

‘Yet a single sound, a single scent, already heard or breathed long ago, may once again, both in the present and the past, be real without being present, ideal without being abstract, as soon as the permanent and habitually hidden essence of things is liberated, and our true self, which may sometimes have seems to be long dead, but never was entirely, is re-awoken and re-animated when it receives the heavenly food that is brought to it.’

— Marcel Proust, Finding Time Again


A grandmother of mine got caught in the storm of history. The march of progress displaced her and her people out of their houses and into the western frontier. Skooted out of their Euro-style cabins, rifle-butted in the head, kicked in the teeth. Move. She and her people got shoved from Georgia, across the Mississippi and into Oklahoma Territory and its environs. Faster. Thousands did not make it, thousands more did. Now. That grandmother of mine escaped.

She would have lit off in the dead of night. Imagine the soldiers’ guns leaning against each other in triangles, in mini-teepees. Imagine the soldiers, passed out boozing like in movies or dog-tired and confused like in life. Imagine soldiers adding up what they knew of coins and numbers to see if their pay would stretch across Arkansas Territory to Fort Smith. Imagine the purr of their gruff breath along the slung hip of the black-cloaked Ozarks blocking the stars further north. Imagine her leaning over those sleeping soldiers and spitting.

If it was summer, she would have slipped off her Euro-buttonhole shoes to get the grip of the rock, the slant of the gulleys and traction of dirt. If it were winter, she would have tread carefully, every step raising the alarm. The alien bone of those hills rose to meet her. Each step revealing the fabric of that new land threaded through with ghosts. Though ghost now, her skin then would have been raced and weathered to match the trail dirt. That skin would grow grey with every metre of the sunrise. The scrub, too, would glisten as cobwebs caught dew to mock, threaten and terrorize. Disturb the dew, give herself away. She knew better. She hiked her skirts, held them in her teeth to disappear into the ashlight and bite of dawn. She lit off then to come to me now.

There are a lot of steps tracking from where she was in the foothills of the Ozarks in the 1830s to me now. I’m sitting here in the cafeteria of the Hudson’s Bay store in Toronto’s Eaton Centre. The Bay is the place to land to brood about grandmas gone by. To mull over enslaved peoples — natives, blacks and everyone in between — being displaced. In front of me, stacks of Calvin Klein 25% off towels are being picked over by the parents of a little Superman whose blue plastic cape is tucked into his back pocket. There is some connection, some thread, tying me and tying my novel (The Drifts, Coach House, 2010) to the Trail of Tears and to that grandmother’s sheer terror.

My book is tied to the dirt in her eyes and the thump in her chest as much as to her own people who had enslaved her. Being mixte — part Cherokee, part African-American — she and her people weren’t quite one and weren’t quite the other. They were “Black Dutch.” When U.S. Calvary soldiers drove them from their homes and settlements, their diversity unified them: from a community of people to a herd of beasts. Her black family would have stayed behind in enslavement on Georgia tobacco plantations. But she and her Native folk would have joined the Trail. She wasn’t thinking of me then, or when she snuck off that night. She didn’t know she was in a storm.

She got herself up into the mountains amidst the pawpaw and the dogwood, the sumac and the redbud. Maybe she found others up there. They could not have snuck off as one loud pack. With the sky hard to see that time of year, she would have felt her way with her fingers feeling moisture on bark, leaves and the change in barometric pressure. She would have known, roughly, which way was which by paying attention to where the land rose and fell, to how strong the wind whipped from one direction to another, to the mute clouds bundling this way and then that. Having cleared the Mississippi, she’d cut those soldiers loose. Maybe together, maybe alone, my grandmother hid out up in those caves for years, throwing stones at rabbits for food and foraging for root. She would have skinned the inside membrane of spruce, birch or maple for flour. When she came down, she came with our brown cake. Or, so the story goes.

A cake, a terror, a passion, a fright; a gesture, a word, a story, a joke, an obfuscation then, brings that grandmother of mine to my writing now. She comes through brown cake. My grandmother’s brown cake and her experiences — the fleeing, the escapes, the pejoratives — contain an original power that is movable. Like the frosting of her brown cake, though, her blood has thickened and bound her to me, and my novel. It does that through the stirring of the frosting, the tone of voice, what is said, what is not; not only a thickness of the blood but of sugar too…