For the first nine years of my life
I had only two memories of my father’s mother.
One was a sock monkey which she had hand-sewn,
wrapped in brown paper and sent through the mail.
The other was camping with her when I was four.
We got up before everyone else to pick huckleberries. After we got back to camp, Nana turned those berries into a delicious red syrup which we poured over the fluffy white hotcakes she fried over the campfire in an iron frying pan. Those were my two memories of Nana and for years I stretch my mind to see if I could remember anything else, but I had nothing. I sometimes dreamed of seeing her again, but Daddy explained how she lived far away in California while we lived in Northern Washington. This meant the chances of seeing her were slim.
Just before my ninth birthday, Daddy announced we were driving to California to help Nana and Grandpa move up north and my dream was about to come true. I was excited at first, but then I began to worry. I wanted to see Nana, but I wasn’t sure if she would approve of me anymore. After all, it had been five years since I had seen her—more than half of my life. I was now twice as big and not as cute as my little brother and sisters, but the main cause of my shame was hidden underneath my long hair.
My hair fell most of the way to my waist. It looked fine on the outside because it’s woolly thickness was a facade, but if someone got close enough to play with my hair, they would soon notice I needed to do a little more self-care. Underneath this smooth, false front was what Mama called my “rat’s nest.” It was a matted mess of snarls so thick it would take hours of brushing to untangle it. I had begged Mama to let me cut my hair, but she and Daddy firmly believed that long hair was given to a woman for a covering. They explained how cutting my hair was to fail at God’s design for me as a girl, so I must suffer with it.
One day not long before this trip, Mama gave me a bottle of something called “No More Tears.” She told me to sit in one place until I brushed all of those snarls out or I would be embarrassed when Nana saw them. The bottle didn’t take away my tears at all–if anything it only facilitated more of them. I sat in the back of our red, Volkswagen camper van with a brush in one hand and the detangler in the other and cried from one end of Washington to the other, then I sobbed on from one end of Oregon to the other. By the time we got to California, I had barely made a dent in this thick mat and I was afraid for Nana to see me. I figured if she knew my shame, she might reject me.
It didn’t help that Mama kept warning me not to let Nana get too close when I hugged her or she might discover my dreaded secret. So as we grew nearer to meeting up with Nana, I began to rock back and forth on the car seat out of anxiety. What if Nana thought I was ugly? Why couldn’t I have straight, smooth hair like the other girls?
If I thought I was going to avoid a hug from Nana, I was mistaken. No child would go unhugged as far as she was concerned. And not only did she hug me, but she soon jumped in the back of the VW bus with us kids as we headed North again. This made it impossible for me to brush out any more of my ugly tangles without her watching me.
As I was wondering what to do, Nana saw the bottle of detangle solution and it must’ve signaled to her that I had a problem. She traded places with one of my siblings and came to sit beside me on the back seat. She took my hairbrush and the magic solution out of my hands and began to brush out the tangle-free hair first. Then working from the bottom up, she began to very gently comb out those ugly snarls. Her touch was so gentle that my tender head felt no pain. And as I looked into her Irish green eyes, I felt no shame because I found only empathy there.
As our little VW Bus purred through the Redwoods, past Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox, past Crescent City where Daddy and Nana used to live and on up coastal highway 101, Nana reversed snarl after snarl one millimeter at a time. Grandpa followed behind us with his pickup and camper, but Nana continued to ride with us and gently combed out my hair.
By the time we got to the Sea Lion Caves, I was relieved to have a much lighter head. I held Nana’s hand while we descended into the stinky earth to view the sea lions. Later, in the gift shop, Grandpa bought each of us an ice cream cone and Nana helped me pick out some polished rocks. Those agates stayed among my prized possessions for years because they represented my joy. I finally had a relationship with Nana and it was good.
One night as we camped next to the ocean. Daddy built a fire and we all gathered around it sitting on logs and rocks. I liked roasting marshmallows with Nana. I’d spent most of my childhood taking care of younger siblings. I’d changed diapers and heated milk in bottles and picked up toys and rocked my baby sister a thousand times. I had loved them as much as a young girl can love her siblings, but sometimes it felt I was the grownup. With Nana, I felt like a kid again. I knew Mama thought she was pushy and while Nana still seemed a little bit like a stranger, I decided to let her hold me and brush my hair. There was something about Nana’s arms around my shoulders that made me feel safe.
Just when I was beginning to trust Nana, she did the most magical thing of all–she began telling us stories in a very animated voice. The poem I remember the most was, “The Cremation of Sam McGhee” by Robert Service. My heart still soars whenever I hear those gruesome words–
“There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
I cremated Sam McGee.”
Nana made the cadence of the poetry slide from her tongue like it was music and she knew when to pause and make my heartbeat stop in anticipation of the next verse. Every time she ended a story, we begged for another. I shivered as if my blood really was running cold. I had heard Daddy tell these same stories before, but now I knew where he learned to be such a good storyteller.
A new dream came to me while I sat next to Nana and the rolling ocean and stared into the crackling cedar fire. I realized a woman could tell a story just as good as a man could. Mama never told stories like this and until this day, I had thought only men were good storytellers, but Nana showed me what was possible. I didn’t tell anyone–not even Nana, but I decided that night I would become a storyteller too.
As our tiny caravan turned inland from the Coast and headed toward Portland, Daddy and Nana talked about how Daddy was born in a house where the clover intersection now sat next to the Gladstone Camp Meeting Grounds. They told me about Johnson Creek where my Danish great Grandfather and Grandpa had built some houses. I still have memories of Portland—it had only been three years since we moved away. I wondered if we would ever move back, but not this time. We continued on up north on I-5. Past Vancouver, past Chehalis, past the Olympic Brewery waterfall, past Mount Rainier and up the interstate to Mount Vernon where we finally turned west toward our new Island home. All the way north, whether Nana rode with us or Grandpa, I felt safe around her and no longer worried about hiding my messy hair.
Nana seemed as excited as I was when we stopped to walk across the Deception Pass Bridge on our way to Whidbey Island. Staring down into the green water 180 feet below us, I could feel the wind whipping my hair up and off of my back, but it was okay. I no longer had anything to hide under it. I ran back to grab Nana’s hand and pull her along with me because, by this time, my tangles and all the shame that came with them had vanished because of her loving hands.