below my waist
The word comes out mangled in Grandma’s southern drawl. Her breath is raspy and rushed. She excuses herself to eat the last bit of pound cake she made two nights ago. I imagine her licking the icing off her fingers.
“Hell, you know what I’m tryna say, girl,” she says. “Back then, that’s all you could do. When the doctor say go, you go. It was that, or lay down forever ‘n bleed to deaf from my privacy.”
I rise to open the windows in my apartment. October’s cruel heat in Oakland strangles the air. Droplets of sweat cling to my neck and armpits. The soles of my feet make sucking sounds along the tile floor.
“So, I went,” Grandma continues. “Doctor did what he had to do, patch me up, and send me on my way. They tol’ me to stay up off my feet for lease a couple months, but you know that didn’t happen, not with mouths to feed ‘n pots to clean.”
“No ma’am,” I add, balancing my cell phone between cheek and shoulder.
I take a red Popsicle from the freezer, tear off its wrapper, and smear the frozen fruit juice over my lips the way my cousin, Audrey, and I used to do at Grandma’s house when we were kids. I imagine us giggling and pretending the Popsicles are lipstick. We rub them over our mouths as fast as we can during dress-up to see whose lips can get the reddest. Crimson juice trickles down our chins and falls on the waxy faces of the baby dolls we hold in our arms. No matter how much we tried to clean up, Grandma always found the remains of those Popsicles—the stickiness on her freezer door’s handle or dried juice on our sleeves—and chastised us for making a mess in our school clothes.
Back then, Grandma was just Grandma to us: an outgoing, chocolate woman with high cheekbones who wore housecoats and smelled like Vanilla Wafers. It rarely occurred to me that she, a 70-something-year-old church usher, had a life before menopause. And I never thought some of the unseen pieces of her past would lead me to make decisions that were critical to my health.
It started during a road trip to Mississippi in the summer of 2003. Audrey and I, both college students in our early twenties, were glad to ride next to our favorite uncle in the backseat of Daddy’s truck. Uncle Navi, Grandma’s youngest son, was visiting from Northern California, and we couldn’t wait to hear about his new life on the west coast.
Uncle Navi told us several stories while we traveled. He talked about his partner, his love for gardening, his furniture business, and the diverse group of people he’d befriended in the Bay Area. He showed us pictures of his new house, his dog, and a trip he’d taken to Wine Country in the Napa Valley.
Towards the end of the drive, Uncle Navi decided to share what it was like growing up under Grandma’s care. Having never heard about the life our grandmother lived before we were born, Audrey and I gushed with excitement, like teenagers eager to hear the latest gossip.
According to Uncle Navi, Grandma always did the best she could to raise four children. She was a good-looking young woman, a full-time homemaker, and a thrifty but tasteful shopper who spent her spare time hunting for bargains in coupon books or neighborhood Goodwill stores. Uncle Navi told us that Grandma’s love for her family was always evident even when she did some things he didn’t understand, like retiring to bed each month for days on end. During those times, he said, she refused to cook, clean, or perform any other household duties.
“That don’t sound like Grandma at all,” I said.
“Nope, shol’ don’t,” Audrey chimed in.
“Why’d she do that?”
“What was wrong with her?”
“Was she tired?”
“Was she sick?”
“The hell if we knew, or even wanted to know then,” Uncle Navi answered. “But looking back now, I’d say it must’ve had something to do with women’s troubles. You know how y’all get during that time of the month.”
I dismissed Grandma’s odd behavior as her way of recovering from physical and emotional burn-out. I never discussed it again with Uncle Navi or Daddy, not even Audrey. For years, the story remained untouched in the back of my mind like a packaged Popsicle, waiting to be unwrapped and ingested.
Learning about the condition in 2008 didn’t prompt the clues in my memory to magically resurface. The relief I felt for finally knowing the cause of my own discomfort quickly dissolved. My brain leaped in a thousand different directions after I walked out of the doctor’s office that day with a copy of the ultrasound’s test results in my hand.
Before then, I’d never heard of a fibroid. The way it forced its way into my vocabulary—my life—left me reaching for answers that could explain its suddenness. For months, I was trapped inside my own anger and remorse whenever I revisited my chain-smoking and binge-drinking habits in college. The discussions I had with other women who shared similar experiences with fibroids were helpful but not enough. I showered my gynecologist with questions but failed to pinpoint any new possibilities other than genetics, diet, or stress.
I felt like I was sitting in front of a television with a missing screen. The frame was sturdy and the sound was polished, but the picture didn’t exist. Instead, the middle was black and bottomless.
I kept squeezing my eyes shut in front of the imaginary device, expecting to get different results when I opened them. But every time, my focus landed on the same box with a gaping hole. The hopelessness of it drained my will to continue researching and almost wooed me into accepting the condition as just another nasty inconvenience I earned for being female. I was preparing to close my eyes for the final time and walk away from the broken TV that I believed would never produce an image when Grandma changed my mind.
“I didn’t have no more problems after surg’ry,” she says into the phone. “Lease not down there. My diabetes come next ‘n honey, you don’t never want nothin’ to do with that.”
I sit at the kitchen table and bite down into the Popsicle, grazing its wooden stick with my front teeth. The pain explodes in my mouth. I wince and purse my lips, wondering how we went from talking about the weather and latest happenings in St. Louis, to what it was like for Grandma during this stage of her life.
Even after my move to California, Grandma’s history still has a way of creeping into our phone conversations. She pulls events from her memory that seem unexaggerated, but deeply vivid, and full of quirks that I associate with the uniqueness of her time. I’ve soaked in each of them, remembering the juiciest moments filled with candor, affection, bleakness, and sometimes a bittersweet humor. I listen intently, grabbing for the double meanings behind words, the rise and fall of her high-pitched voice, the rhythm of her laughs and pauses.
Through Grandma’s reflections, I become the youngest of nine children — after Pearl, Margaret, Clifford, Ida, Henry, Alice-Faye, Irving and Ceola — a scrawny but lively girl who’s considered pretty despite her condemnable dark complexion. I hear the screams of a man being attacked by some mysterious animal in the middle of a dark road one night near my family’s shack. I witness a sharecropper’s wife give birth to a baby in a cotton field under the Mississippi sun.
I burp up the fishy aftertaste of cod liver oil during flu season and cry for mercy when learning to pluck my first chicken. I shimmy to the bottleneck guitar on Son House records in the middle of a weekend juke joint. I hold my breath for two years, waiting for my husband, who’s moved up north, to save enough money and send for me and the children.
In St. Louis, I boast to relatives back home about being the first black family to live in a house on our block. I walk my two youngest children to the school bus stop at the end of the corner every morning, with the exception of those week-long spells that confine me to my bedroom each month. I twist underneath the covers, sweating out the horrible cramping, the piercing backaches, the vile constipation.
Blood oozes at the same dogged speed throughout the entire week so that even if the throbbing fades, I’m ashamed to stand upright, afraid that the fluid will seep through my clothes.
“Did you ever find out why?” I ask Grandma.
I lick the Popsicle’s sweet residue off my palm and wrap the end of my faded shirt around its stick to curb the flow of juice. The stained cloth weakens between my fingers.
“Why what?” Grandma says.
“Why the hysterectomy?”
“Oh chile, it was so long ago… you didn’t talk about it much back in those days…”
There were many things people just didn’t talk about back then. Grandma had also told me about the times she and her siblings witnessed their relatives talk in code around the dinner table as if the truth would somehow damn both the storyteller and the listeners.
“Ain’t seen Mary in a long while. You?”
“Naw, not since last winter. They say she, uh, broke her leg, you know.”
“What? She broke her leg? I never woulda thought it, not a nice girl like that.”
“Yeah, and so young. Anyway she’s with some of her folks from outta town to, uh, get it took care of.”
“Tsk-tsk…I s’pose she’ll be back soon then.”
All the Marys returned like everyone knew they would. And, when Grandma, always the loud, inquisitive kid in the bunch, once asked about the babies they nursed at their bosoms and their cast-less legs, she was scared into never questioning the adults again.
The phone is hot and slippery against my ear. I nibble off the last chunk of the Popsicle, letting it melt between my tongue and the roof of my mouth. A brief chill crawls over me before the heat chases it away.
I try to imagine Grandma’s reaction when her physician explained the only so-called treatment for her pain. I see the handful of baby knots sleeping inside my uterus as I listen to Uncle Navi’s disclosure during the drive down south that day. For several years, they hide in the comfort of their underdevelopment while hundreds of memories pass from Grandma’s mouth into my ears. Thousands of sighs, giggles, and words form our Sunday phone chats until the idle book in my memory eventually flings itself open. Although small, filmy, and out of sync with its sound, the screen-less television in front of me begins to birth a picture.
“Tell me somethin’ funny, girl,” says Grandma, changing the subject.
“I just ate a red popsicle,” I reply, and spin its wooden stick on the kitchen table.
Her laughter explodes through the phone and rings in my ear. We giddily complete each other’s sentences, reminiscing about how Audrey and I sat pouting at the bottom of her basement stairs one time. We were whispering about how mean Grandma was for punishing us after she’d found cherry Popsicle juice on her freshly mopped kitchen floor. We promised we’d run away at the end of the summer and return to Mississippi where Audrey lived.
As we plotted, we noticed a light spilling over a corner in the dark space, and we heard the tired creak of the basement door opening. We looked behind us and saw Grandma standing in the doorway with her arms crossed as if she had been waiting for us to turn around the whole time.
lyndsey ellis is a writer and media relations professional living in Oakland, California. She’s a Voices of Our Nation (VONA) alumnus and earned an MFA in Writing from the California College of the Arts in San Francisco. Ellis is a columnist for 7×7.com and contributing writer for Shades Magazine, with work also appearing in Know the Names of Things Online Literary Anthology, Synchronized Chaos, For Harriet, and InDigest.