I remind both my parents of Nanny (Celia Kallis), my father’s mother, though my looks are softer, tempered by my mother’s genes. Celia was one of the eccentric Kallis women (expressive, as my father’s cousin Sylvia puts it), but she hid behind her role as a well-to-do Chicago businessman’s wife. Her clothes were Celia’s only tangible expression of who she really was, along with her severe haircut. She combed her short black hair straight back, accentuating her long face, dark, deepset eyes, widow’s peak and aquiline nose. In photos she looks like an elegant, mysterious priestess. To be honest, she looks a bit like a witch. A good witch, I think.
Rows of Nanny’s dresses now crush against each other in my closet, a long velvet gown with a bustle, a black velvet coat lined in silver satin, a chiffon dancing dress flaring below the knees, lacy bed jackets, a red robe fit for a countess and wide-brimmed hats with fruit and spangles.
Nanny had a nearly obsessive need for light, for curtains open all the way and for quiet. Whenever I open curtains and follow the sun around the house like a cat and then out onto the front porch with my books, I can hear my mother say, “You’re a Kallis. You’re acting just like Celia.” She also says this when I’m bothered by the sound of an air conditioner or the freeway too close to my house.
I remember spending the night with Nanny once in Chicago’s opulent Edgewater Beach Hotel. Nanny told me to brush my hair one hundred strokes to bring the oil out of my scalp and make my hair healthy and shiny like hers. I remember touching Nanny’s short hair slicked back like a seal’s pelt.
That night Nanny wore flannel pajamas with large, pastel polka dots. I still have a swatch of that cloth, the size of a sheet for a doll’s bed, I saved from her old pajamas when I found them in my parents’ basement.
Once I made a plaster mask of my face and painted a widow’s peak on it, mindlessly. The mask looks strikingly like Nanny, as if it were a white death mask, with sequins and sparkles under deepset eyes—mine, black, peering through holes.
Sometimes I wonder how much I’ve inherited from relatives. I wonder if Aunt Gert, Aunt Anne and other Kallis women were interested as I am in mystical aspects of Judaism, the Kabbalah, the tree of life and its ten powerful spheres, “the sephirot.” My father’s great-grandfather was a rabbi in Russia. I wonder if I carry his ways of seeing the world. I wonder what he thought of a rabbi known as the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, who broke rigid conventions and spoke of finding holiness and joy in one’s daily life. I’ve heard similarities often skip a generation. Maybe this is a double skip.
I wish I’d known Nanny’s husband, Grandpa Mitch, a Chicago businessman whose final words were spoken in Choctaw learned from childhood friends in Pontotoc, Oklahoma. At Mitch’s deathbed his brother Charlie said, “He’s talking Indian talk.” Maybe those Choctaw words were the only ones grandpa knew that could begin to take him where he wanted to go.
The mystery of Nanny has inspired me to write about her many times. In a poem recently I realized I was angry with Nanny about all she hid and never shared with me and about her unwillingness to discover and be who she really was.
Nanny, how could you! Wolf, loon
coyote night diver raven’s wing pendulum
stalk how could you
wear white gloves to search for dust
and set no place for yourself at the table.
Daydream back. Somewhere in your ancestry is a Celtic musician, a slave prisoner, a Druid priest or a Cheyenne Contrary. You may just sense it and never know for sure. List the people you know are your ancestors, then add other types of people with whom you feel a kindred spirit.
Ask yourself and your family questions. Begin piecing together who you feel you come from. You might want to focus on one family member who helped form you.
Title a poem with his or her name or relationship—Poppa, Granny, Ima, Aunt Belle, etc. Make your poem a letter or a request, whether this person is alive or dead. Ask all the questions you want. Include the answers given back to you if they come. Say everything you’ve ever wanted to say to this person, angry, loving, sad, confused, accusing, or grateful. No one has to read what you write.
How could you
Why did you
Thank you for
Where were you, etc.
This post is a reprint of the “from my grandmother” chapter in poemcrazy: freeing your life with words. Used by permission of the author.
Want to discuss this post with Susan? Catch her on Facebook!