My Grandmother, Langston Hughes, and the Work of Interpretation

I often characterize my maternal grandmother as “hard to love.” And she was. Her emotions were kept tight, though she made her disapproval readily apparent when I did things like try to drink pop out of a can or chew gum. Her reserve made my mother’s life difficult in ways that I can’t really imagine.

But she was not unloving—just unable to take the risk of showing love. Her own parents died painful, wretched deaths within months of one another when she was a teenager in the 1920s, leaving her, an older sister who soon married, and her younger brother, my Great Uncle Lee (from whom I got my middle name, and my love for him is the reason I insist on keeping that clumsy L. in my bylines).

From what we can piece together, more heartbreak followed. An avid reader and excellent student, she received a scholarship to University of Michigan that she had to abandon to care for the then-wayward Lee. For a time, she worked and lived among a racially integrated staff of women at a “mother’s home” in Coldwater, Michigan, a home for single mothers and abandoned children. I imagine it was there, not at the Indiana farm where she’d grown up, that she and Lee did the work of rejecting racism. She was quiet about her beliefs, never an activist, but they were deeply held. Lee eventually moved to California, then nearly died in WWII, and she spent years nursing him back to health, terrified of losing him, the boy/man she’d mostly raised on her own.

I don’t know all the twists and turns that eventually got her to Kalamazoo and the teachers’ college now known at Western Michigan University. (But I know that she lived in a room in a house on Davis street, exactly the same house where 60 or so years later, my friend Amy Milligan lived, greeting me once with a spoon headed towards my mouth and the question Do you believe there can be too much garlic?) She taught in a one-room school and then at other schools the rest of her career, even after she married my grandfather, a man with a grade-school education who ran the Bronson general store. Legend has it that she’d read poetry books propped on the ironing board, and that my grandfather wore more than one scorched shirt because she’d gotten wrapped up in a poem. She read, she wrote, she worked, she ensured her daughters were provided for and tried to keep them from embarrassing her. I don’t know that she mothered as such. There’s so much more to say about her, but I’m actually trying to keep it succinct, and there’s a point to the details I’ve included, I promise.

Onward. She gave me books, over and over again. And in the books, she wrote inscriptions in perfect handwriting.

But more important were the tiny checks made in pencil. She’d mark poems for me. I don’t know the message—were they poems she loved? Poems she thought I would love? Poems she thought were important, or just especially good? Was she telling me something? Someday, I’d love to write this all out in some epic essay, trying to divine what she meant, but I don’t know if it would be something that translates to readers. It might just be too individual.

The book the inscription above is from is Selected Poems of Langston Hughes. And here is one of her checked poems—you can see it faintly in the upper right corner. I can’t do better on the picture without breaking the spine of the book!

And this poem. I’ve written so much, and I haven’t even gotten to the poem yet! “Luck” talks about unfairness, deprivation. It almost tells us to suffer because Heaven will be our reward, but it doesn’t actually get there. It speaks with remove and reserve, the way she would have spoken.

What kind of message is this to give? Was she reminding me of the injustice Black Americans face, that the “tables of joy” are the tables of injustice? Very possibly. Langston Hughes was not someone I was likely to have encountered as fully without her—I read every page of that book more than once. I became aware of the Harlem Renaissance because of that book, not because of my very white 80s education. Or was she telling me about her own life, using the metaphor to talk about her lack of “luck”? Was she warning me to get ready, because life is mostly terrible?

When I try to crack the check-marks, I know what I’m doing: I’m trying to build a relationship that we didn’t really have. I want her to have loved me deeply, to have been proud of me. I want to see her teaching me, telling me to keep going. What is the secret message? I can tell you what I want to believe. I can tell you that I don’t know.

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