Beauty, Blood, and My Grandfather
B. G. Armstrong
The first time I met him I was two years old. Dad and Mom drove up to Michigan to see him while he was visiting my great-grandparents. The cottage where we stated was tiny; I remember that. It was on Lake Eerie, and at the end of the lawn there were steep and crooked stairs to the rock beach below. At two I only remember really liking Pa. There was something scary about him because I could sense my dad and mom were nervous. But I thought he was nice and he let me sit on his shoulders. He came from Texas and I understood that to be another country, and he some foreign dignitary. He had this beautiful woman with him, but not beautiful like I knew beautiful.
I knew beautiful from my father’s mother. She wore constricting clothes that showed off her hungry body and musky perfume and lots of make-up. She had big dinners with colorful dishes. She always had people sitting at her feet in the living room that looked like a bordello, sitting there gazing up at her while gave advice or told stories of being a wealthy alcoholic doctor’s wife. Beauty held court in my book. It arrested people to watch and soak in the power of power. I can remember being a baby and sleeping there until late in the night because dad and mom couldn’t leave her parties. You just couldn’t get away from the charm and the way she made you feel like you were a part of her.
Women, after spending time with her, started to look like her. She offered them her hand-me-downs and encouraged them to change hair or wear more blue tones, or red tones, or warmer blush. They became her subjects, her dolls. Men, regardless age or relation all fell in love with her. Beauty was getting whatever you wanted.
The first thing about the woman with Pa was that she wore these huge clothes. Big muumuus, flowing sundresses, and loose tops. She would explain later that it was easier to get around with loose clothes. I thought that was fascinating – beauty moving. I don’t think she ever had people sitting at her feet because she’s never sitting with her feet up. And anyway, her feet are pretty grotesque – calloused, cracked, and yellowed. She is loud, too. And I remember thinking her language was different than ours. It wasn’t that she was from somewhere different like Mexico; it was more like she talked like a man. A man that didn’t go to church.
Another issue of difference: you could easily get away from her. She’d easily let you go. In fact, she didn’t like to keep things. Always giving things away, always moving to another place on the beach from you. My father’s mom’s hugs were weak, but she nursed you, she cradled and cooed. This woman gave strong and swift hugs. Hugs that hurt I remember, but then she’d let you go to run off into the kitchen for some berries or into the work shed for more Vernor’s Ginger Ale. She had no desire to own or influence you. I think she actually wanted people to own themselves.
She had an easy smile and an easier laugh. They’d just sneak out into the air with no warning. They were free, and she gave them generously. There was depth in the lines on her face, but they were lines that were accepted, not hidden. She could tell you nightmares of her life, but there was no need, there was nothing in them except sadness.
There are different healing theories for wounds.
Some people are the bandage people. Constantly covering what once was painful. Changing the dressings daily. Being diligent to hide the marks of pain. Some people are ashamed to admit they got sucker-punched, or burned in the oven. Some people are afraid that other people’s war wounds are the same or worse than theirs. There’s no identity in being like everybody else. They refuse to show-and-tell, but they do like to sport the bandage and tell-and-tell. And boy, do they tell.
And by telling, it keeps pulling the scab off, just begging the clear juice to run, and maybe even encourage a little blood. The kind of blood that comes in little dots, separated by pore walls. If you wait, give audience to it, maybe prod it a little with a fingernail, the dots get fat and blend to what it accepted as bleeding. If the injury is on a finger or an arm, or anywhere but the knee, you can insure that the injury is not healing, that what happened wasn’t a figment of your imagination, and that you do not have to move on and find identity from something else. You can pinch the area around the fashioned place of ancient pain, and gain greater satisfaction by circulated blood coming into those small and nearly forgotten pore walls.
Because if it bleeds, then you weren’t lying back there when you were telling everybody how awful it was. How you barely survived. And when you’ve got some good drip going, maybe you’ll be lucky and it’ll stain the bandage, fill those little pores in the outside of the Band-Aid, the ones that are merely there for adhesive. Bloody bandages, that’s pretty serious. But the fact remains that you’re using other blood, and not blood from the tear to get it all going. You’re betting on blood begetting blood. And all of a sudden, bleeding down your arm, in a perfect pose of martyrdom and grace, you’re suddenly talking about how your daddy walked out on your family when you were three years old, how your mother was controlling, and how your sister was jealous of you because you were skinny. Blood begets blood, and pain begets pain. And the bandages remain.
Some people are the ‘let it air out and dry up’ people. They want the sun to heal it. It looks pretty brutal at first. Blood’s gushing from the hole in their body, and they just look at it. It’s important to point out that these are wound-lickers. They are these people that’ll lean over and suck the hole. They keep their eyes open while they do it, focusing on something over there, beyond seeing, focusing on what they feel in the broken flesh. The dark metallic and earthy taste seeps into their mouth. It’s powerful - the taste. It’s magical. It’s heavy. It’s thick with flavor because it hits all the taste buds. On the intake, it’s sweet, and if you just take the tip of your tongue to you, you can get some salt. In the middle of your mouth the blood resonates ancient and basic. It’ll ole-factory throw you back to lamb sacrifices and druid campfires. Of Jesus himself. That’s when panic sets in, that you’re really bleeding. When you taste the Jesus. Right at the back of the throat in panic of your humanity and sinful nature, your tongue registers bitterness, and it’s down the hatch. Deep red, almost brown, like when you mix all of the colors together at the end of art class right before it hits the trashcan.
So these people drink it. They ingest it. They say, okay, here it is, here’s one hell of a gash and I’m gonna really get to know it. I’m not scared of it, and I’m not ashamed of it. It pisses me off, and when I’m angry I get this annoying rush of heat on my shoulders, but I’m going to sweat it out, and suck on this hole and figure out how bad it really is. It might be pretty bad, or it might just be a bleeder and not that serious.
So they accept it, ingest it, take it in, and then they move their tongue around and evaluate it. They size it up without panic. They own up to it. They might have been a dumb-ass and banged a hammer on their thumb, splitting their nail. They might have cheated on their spouse and lost their kids. Dumb-ass. They might have been used, or stolen from, and they have to figure out how to not invite that in again. Regardless, of the level of seriousness, they work on healing the sucker. Literally.
Next thing they do, they expose it. They expose it to the elements. It might be harsh. And it might hurt a little, letting it all hang out, not hiding its unsightly reality of pain. The thing about exposure is that it props up the two former steps of restoration: acceptance and evaluation. Cause it’s right there, in front of God and everybody. And you act differently because of it. You have to favor the arm. You have to compensate for your gash. You have to say no I can’t go out tonight. Drinking wouldn’t be good for me right now ‘cause you see, I’ve got this hole in my body and drinking might cause it to bleed again. I wouldn’t be any fun bleeding my heart out at the bar, but thanks anyway. Next week, maybe, we’ll see how I’m doing.
Acceptance and evaluation. And after a while of living with it exposed, the sun heals it. The wonder of Vitamin D. The blood cells get sticky. They get tired of running all over the place and they put their arms around each other and slow their pace. Finally they stop walking and just lay down together, no longer setting the alarm in panic. Holy crap! Something just awful happened and if we don’t make a big mess she might not notice and make it worse! They lie there, knowing you know because the damn air and sun has been on them for days and you’ve been tender with them. They lie down and sleep. The scab forms and after a while the scab falls off. She lets it go. Healed.
Years later in Texas, while boiling fish heads or cutting vegetables or driving for bloody-mary mix at midnight, sneaking a menthol cigarette after Pa has drifted off to sleep, she tells me of children that died. Of fathers that abused her. Of abject poverty and drug use. Of making a living for two small children by being an exotic dancer. Of helping Pa get sober. Of the bad nights when he got scary. She tells it in such freedom. There aren’t smells or music playing, she doesn’t tell it like that, encouraging the blood of old wounds to rise from their graves. She doesn’t want phantom cells to arrive from memory; she doesn’t need it to bleed again to know it happened, to know she survived. Her face is free. Sure, there are lines, ruts of old holes, old gashes, but they are tanned, and they fade into each other along with the skin that never bled. All of this makes her glow a little because she can laugh without the fear of cracking, or showing an old scar. She can really engage with a person. She engages not for ownership, because it’s enough to own yourself, and she wants that for you, not to be owned by other people or by your bad decisions. She wants you to own yourself. She can give this beautiful smile while hugging me really tight and then letting me go to run into the house for berries.
This is the beautiful woman Pa married after my grandmother, and I don’t have many stories of him, other than him teaching me how to fish and examining my hands for anemia. I love him though because he has the same glow that his beautiful woman has. My father has frightful stories about him, and so does my Aunt Vanessa, but all I know is that he has shiny skin from exposed scars and that he isn’t scary at all. He’s beautiful.
B.G. Armstrong was born in northern Indiana. She comes from the deferred, proud, insane, and fantastic. She earned her BA in English from Pepperdine University. She taught literature and composition for several years before pursuing her love of writing. She and her family live in Avondale Estates, Georgia.