by Rodi Brown
Rodi Brown is a Compton native living in Detroit, MI in hopes of getting to experience seasons and write more often. Previously published work can be found in Peculiars Magazine and on her website.
This Snapchat filter makes me look like my dead grandmother.
I stare into my phone, turning my face from side to side, but her face mirrors mine.
It doesn’t make me talk like her, though I try to record myself saying, “Ay-nee-nae-na,” her nickname for me that only made sense to the two of us. I repeat this multiple times. In the end, it’s just my voice from her mouth.
I put my phone down and decide to see how far my being her can go. My grandmother was an artist who created so many things with her hands and mind that I only wish I could emulate. I decide to start out with something small, a drawing. I put pencil to paper to sketch something subtle and beautiful with hidden hearts scattered throughout. The hearts are important. She would never draw anything without a heart in it. I used to watch her sketch quickly. Her creativity seemed to strike her instantly. Within moments of looking at her canvas, she knew what she wanted to draw. By the time we would finish an episode of “Landscaper’s Challenge” on HGTV, she would have a full sketch complete and would merely add in small details for depth. I know the details of my favorite drawing by heart. There are two lions lounging in the savanna, a flock of birds in the distance. She could even draw the wind.
I know her technique in form, but I cannot execute it in practice. She had a talent and she worked hard to develop it. My grandmother had 45 years of life to practice her art before I was born. All I have are vivid memories and hands that cannot deliver. I try to draw the way she did with light lines that build up as the form takes shape. Where her lines naturally became what she intended, I must force them. No matter how hard I try to be just like her, I can’t do it.
All my favorite memories of my Grandmother involve her art. One day, my Grandmother woke me up and told me we were going to work on a project together. I loved these days. The last time she told me this, we ended up painting the hallway. She turned one wall of the hallway into a mural that began with a rainbow. The rainbow wasn’t made of colors. It was a rainbow of circular mirrors so that everyone who walked by became a fragmented piece, as she explained it, of God’s promise.
This time, I followed her to the backyard where she had stacked different colored tiles. I prepared for a difficult day laying tile. Instead, she thrust a hammer into my hand, grinned at me, and said, “Go break all of those tiles. Strike them right in the middle so that they break into triangle-like pieces.”
I gleefully got to work, and in the end, I was covered in dust, surrounded by so many small and broken things. Then, we gathered up all the pieces, and I sat and watched as my grandmother refurbished her kitchen table. She used the broken tiles to make a flower mural as the tabletop. I ate oatmeal on top of my grandmother’s creative genius.
I don’t have any tile to break, nor a table to refurbish. So I settle for trying to replicate the lion drawing. I know exactly what the lions look like, with their soft lines, voluminous manes, all the way down to their heart noses. I still can’t get it right. I can’t draw worth a damn. I try as hard as I can. She was slight, with strong slender hands that could paint, sew, and braid my hair into flower patterns. I’m heavy handed and not meant to deal with delicate things. I take my time with these sketches, drawing and erasing, but my lines are harsh no matter how lightly I sketch. Despite how clearly I visualize these lions, I cannot translate them to paper.
Her dancing was a lot like her art. She would take a bunch of movements—flailing arms, rocking hips, and make them come together beautifully. My grandmother lived her life guided by her art, and when she lost her art, we lost her.
I’m grasping at straws now, wondering what else she has left for me other than the possibility of morphing into her as I age. I wonder what gifts and curses she imbued me with. I dig through the ashes of my memory trying to find the good memories from before she left me the first time. They are there, but they are locked away under the feeling of abandonment that comes when someone leaves you long before they die.
When my grandfather died, my grandmother stopped creating. Her grandchildren were getting older, and there was no need for her to keep us on the weekends when our parents were busy working. My grandparents had long since moved from the house that was home to my best memories of them. They had left Watts for a house further west, but it still was not considered to be in the “West Side”. The neighborhood was nicer, with no warehouses polluting the air around the corner. It was quieter there. But that meant that the mirror rainbow was gone, and the lions were packed away never to be seen again. This new house was a dream deferred— and one that had come too late. They were too fragile to keep doing the back-breaking work that had occupied their entire lives. They never finished renovating the house.
My grandfather died, and my grandmother stopped making art. Her only efforts went into trying to dull that pain in any way she could, even at the expense of sacrificing her relationships with her family. She would come and go at will, try to find new companionship with widowers, and she drank. She never drew again. There were no more murals, no more projects.
The last time I remember seeing my grandmother was on my father’s 50th birthday. We were having a party at the marina, and it was a beautiful day. Her presence was met with confusion because by that point, she had already bought a house across the country and moved without telling anyone. I didn’t begrudge my grandmother the happiness she had been desperately trying to find since my grandfather passed away. It just hurt that she could never feel that happiness with us, with me, anymore. She left so many times, both physically and mentally, and no amount of pleading with her would bring her back. My grandmother spent the entire party sitting and smiling at us, as if she were keeping a secret.
I did not find out how sick she was until shortly before she passed. Still, I resisted calling her because I was not sure if I could keep my anger at bay. I just wanted her to tell me—to talk to me like she used to when we were one another’s best friend. My final act of cruelty was to send her text messages:
Sun, May 12, 2019 15:19
“Happy Mother’s Day. I hope you’re safe.”
Mon, June 3, 2019 18:19
“I hope you’re okay.”
My logic was that she would see these messages and call me like she always did. She did not call me.
I grab my phone again, a new thought possessing me. I am going to try to be her one more time, and this time I am going to get it right.
I pull up the filter, watching as my face morphs into my grandmother’s. I press the record button, recording my face as her face.
“I’m sorry,” I(She) say(s) to her(me). “I love you.”
And this time, I sound exactly like her, saying the words I had been wanting to hear for so long before she passed. I watch the video three or four times as the grief becomes anew. I delete the video and close the application.
Alone in my house, over a thousand miles from where she once loved me, I lift my arms, bent at the elbows, rock my hips, and dance. I can do this just like her.