A Visit to Grandmother
by William Melvin Kelley
Chig knew something was wrong the instant his father kissed her. He had always known his father to be the warmest of men, a man so kind that when people ventured timidly into his office, it took only a few words from him to make them relax, and even laugh. Doctor Charles Dunford cared about people. But when he had bent to kiss the old lady’s face, something new and almost ugly had come into his eyes: fear, uncertainty, sadness, and perhaps even hatred. Ten days before in New York, Chig’s father had decided suddenly he wanted to go to Nashville to attend his college class reunion, twenty years out. Both Chig’s brother and sister, Peter and Connie, were packing for camp and besides they were too young for such and affair. But Chig was seventeen, had nothing to do that summer, and his father asked if he would like to go along. His father had given him additional reasons: “All my running buddies got their diplomas and were snapped up by them crafty young gals, and had kids within a year- now all those kids, some of them gals, are your age.” The reunion had lasted a week. As they packed for home, his father, in a far too offhand way, had suggested they visit Chig’s grandmother. “We might as well drop in on her and my brother’s.” So, instead of going north, they just had gone farther south, had just entered her house. And Chig had a suspicion now that the reunion had only been an excuse to drive south, that his father had been heading to this house all the time. His father had never talked much about his family, with the exception of his brother, GL, who seemed part con man, part practical joker and part Don Juan; he had spoken of GL with the kind of indulgence he would have shown a cute, but ill-behaved and potentially dangerous, five-year-old. Chig’s father had left home when he was fifteen. When asked why, he would answer: “I wanted to go to school. They didn’t have a Negro high school at home, so I went up to Knoxville and lived with a cousin and went to school.” They had been met at the door by Aunt Rose, GL’s wife, and ushered in to the living room. The old lady had looked up from her seat by the window. Aunt Rose stood between the visitors. The old lady eyed his father. “Rose, who that? Rose?” She squinted. She looked like a doll, made of black straw, the wrinkles in her face running in one direction like the head of a broom. Her hair was white and course and grew out straight from her head. Her eyes were brown - the whites, too, seemed light brown - and were hidden behind thick glasses, which remained somehow on a tiny nose. “That Hiram?” She turned then to Chig. “Now that man, he look like Eleanor, Charles’ wife, but Charles wouldn’t never send my grandson to see me. I never hear from Charles.” She stopped again. “It Charles, Mama. That who it is.” Aunt Rose, between them, led them closer. “It Charles come all the way from New York to see you, and bring little Charles with him.” The old lady stared up at them. “Charles? Rose, that really Charles?” She turned away, and reached for a handkerchief in the pocket of her clean, ironed, flowered housecoat, and wiped her eyes. “God have mercy. Charles.” She spread her arms up to him, and he bent down and kissed her cheek. That was when Chig saw his face, grimacing. She hugged him; Chig watched the muscles in her arms as they tightened around his father’s neck. She half rose out of her chair. “How are you, son?” Chig could not hear his father’s answer.
She let him go, and fell back into her chair, grabbing the arms. Her hands were as dark as the wood, and seemed to become part of it. “Now, who that standing there? Who that man?? “That’s one of your grandsons, Mama.” His father voice cracked. “Charles Dunford, Junior. You saw him once, when he was a baby, in Chicago. He’s grown now.” “I can see that, boy!” She looked at Chig squarely. “Come here son and kiss me once.” He did. “What they call you? Charles, too?” “No, ma’am, they...
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