Thank you to author Abe Louise Young for today’s beautiful guest blog about writing letters to her grandmother. Abe is a poet, journalist, and teacher, born in New Orleans, Louisiana and now based in Austin, Texas. She travels nationally to write, teach, and create community writing circles for social change. Her special interests are in human rights, the lives of youth, environmental justice and artistic innovation.
Writing to Louise
My family wheeled waterlogged records, books and papers out to the curb with a red wheelbarrow. They were not glazed with rainwater. They were covered in black sludge from the flooding of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
According to Mom, it took three days to empty the attic, fifteen trips. Another week to clean out Grandmother’s apartment, and two more weeks to empty out the wet paper from Floorcrafters, our family business on Canal and Carrollton.
Imagine a whole city losing its paper memory-- photo albums, birth, death, and criminal records, letters and newspaper clippings in one day, and the fragility of paper comes clear. Can we rescue orality, grasp our stories aloud? Can we carve poems into stone? William Stafford writes--"the signals we give—yes or no, or maybe— / should be clear: the darkness around us is deep."
For at least twenty years, I’d been writing monthly letters and postcards with my grandmother Louise, who was born in 1906. An atheist in a family of born-again Christians and Jewish converts, she read The Nation religiously. She helped to start the first Teacher’s Union in New Orleans, and taught math at a segregated Black high school while raising six children. My grandfather worked as a timekeeper on the railroad, and later, at Swift Meat Company, and was not often home.
Sensing a literary compulsion in her sixteenth grandchild, Louise bought me a Brother word processor in 1989, for my graduation from junior high. That gigantic clacking, humming box spurred on every thrill of ambition in me. Louise believed that I'd be a writer. She saved every scrap I sent with a postage stamp on it—my mother says she planned to give them all back to me one day. Inheritance and herstory.
Our written letters floated in details of weather and meals. The tone was formal, antiquated. Content was irrelevant--it was the action that mattered, the consistency of our attachment. I knew, with complete certainty, that she would write me back.
“Remember me to Myava,” she signed and then, “Remember me to Samara,” and a few years later, “Remember me to Judith.” This was the first, and only, recognition of my female lovers by a family member.
Those boxes of letters I wrote to Louise, and all the memories she was saving for me in her closet, were submerged in floodwater. They wore a month’s mold fused into a solid pulp of fiber. She'd evacuated to an aunt's house in Atlanta, where she broke her ninety-six year old hip. Within a year, she was unable to speak or walk, and her hospice care started.
A photo of Louise at age twenty hangs above my desk. In a blue crepe dress, with a brunette bob, she's serious and still. A faint Mona Lisa expression flirts around her lips. She's about to marry a man twenty-five years her elder, leaving behind seven younger brothers and sisters in Arkansas.
I'm writing to her still. Sometimes I hear her unfolding my poems, scratching on them with her pencil, licking a stamp, completing our circle.