My grandmother, Lena Faye Bridges Cockrell, or Nana as I called her, was the most important and influential adult in my formative years. She and I became quite close, possessing an altogether uncanny understanding of one another. She taught me to make biscuits from scratch when I was six, how to use a typewriter when I was nine, and gave me safe haven when I came out as gay at sixteen. She made time to attend my theater performances, bought me school clothes every year and consistently professed her belief in me. To others, her opinions were intractable, her pursuit of perfection was inflexible, and her judgments were implacable. To me, her love was unmistakable.
On Sunday, September 21, 2014, my grandmother passed away at age 87. It was also her birthday. Below I have shared two Nana-inspired writings to honor her memory.
Coffee and Biscuits
Once when I was five years old, I woke up with my Nana before dawn and watched her brew coffee and make biscuits from scratch. We sat at the Formica counter side by side on chair-stools and the scent of the roasted beans and buttery biscuits wafted all around, thick and heavy. Nana never took cream or sugar in her coffee. She was a serious woman and took pleasure in austerity, order and cleanliness. I understood. She poured herself a cup and and I peered into it, imagining a tiny me swimming in the steaming amber. Mistaking my stare for interest, Nana asked if I wanted to try it. I said okay wanting to appear like an adult. She passed the cup to me and poured herself another one. I let it cool a bit and then took a big gulp. Instantly I rained the liquid all over her spotless counter like a burst fire hydrant. Nana shook her head. “Some people don’t take to it,” she said, grabbing a dish towel to mop up the brown puddles. “Some things aren’t for everyone.” I nodded, my tongue and the roof of my mouth scalded. I reached for the butter and the biscuits and we watched the sun rise though the window over the kitchen sink.
Yellow Pickup Truck
I quietly close the screen door behind me and tiptoe across the concrete carport, staring hungrily at my granddaddy’s yellow pickup truck. My heart is beating fast. Sometimes my Nana catches me sneaking out she says, “That night air is going to give you a cold! Come back in here before you catch your death.” Then she makes me go back to bed. But some nights when she’s gone to sleep before me, I creep outside to where Granddaddy always parks his pickup on the lawn. This infuriates Nana, but he tells her, “It’s my farm, Lena. I’ll park where I damn well please.” I will never tell her, but I am glad he parks it here, in this ocean of perfectly mowed grass, so close to the six foot tall stalks of corn in the field that flanks the house. Acres of soybeans grow across the road, with the forest looming beyond them, dark and dense. All this land is theirs and there’s not a soul for miles and miles.
I place my hands on the door of the driver’s side and stick my foot in between the tire and the truck frame. I swing myself up, climb to the top of the cab and I lay flat on my back, staring at the sky. My eyes adjust to the darkness. So many stars. Not like the skies in the city where I live. The stars there are scattered and lonely. Here the stars are like God tossed a bag of glitter onto wet velvet. I lift my hands up until they are numb from the cold. The blood rushes out of them and tiny pinpricks race over my skin, but still I keep them up, my fingers splayed. I place them directly in my line of sight and I wiggle them until the blood flows down and out of them, and for a moment, they aren’t mine anymore. They feel like how I imagine the stars to feel. Half alive and half something else, like a sparkler about to go out. Sometimes I see a falling star and I make a wish. Sometimes I pretend I can catch the stars and I make a game of rearranging them into new patterns, creating new constellations, naming them as my breath comes out in small bursts of fog.
My back is so cold it burns. I feel like someone super-glued to me to the frame of the truck. Maybe I even turned yellow to match. My mind is a swirl of stars and my neck has an ache. It’s time to go inside. I slowly lower my arms and wrap them over my chest. I don’t want to catch my death of cold.