The quiet call of ghosts: Dusting my grandmother’s photo reminds me of who I am
How wonderful of this inanimate object to evoke life in its captive audience.
by Tiffany Hobbs
She has her eyes.
It was the first time I’d looked longer than a few seconds into the eyes of the woman in the photograph on my bookshelf. Looking longer introduced me to the inevitability of dying and death. I was hiding from her eyes, playing a game I was determined to prolong, like dominoes before I got good.
When you get good at dominoes, you want to end your hand quick. This is not a metaphor for life, I learned. Life was long, to the chagrin of motivational posters and engraving templates that attempt to convince the living to act with haste in all things. This photograph taunted my anxious optimism, proving quite effectively how quickly and seamlessly life passes.
I never even got to smell her perfume.
I maneuvered around the photo, glancing at everything except its soul, interrupting my gaze with the numbing necessary of fleshly disassociation. Those eyes reminded me of my mother’s. Knowing. Seeing. Seeing me looking. These eyes were a shiny brown, while my mother’s were encircled by a thin, ocean blue current that sent waves of comfort or reverence depending on who was on the opposing end of her weather.
The woman in the photo was my grandmother, Earlene. Gram is what she would’ve liked to have been called. She was weighted and significant, smaller than life but bigger than its counterpart, not bound by convention and stuffy, antiquated titles like “Grandma.” There was no ocean in her eyes but I certainly felt I was immersed in a night sky while searching them. While searching for my mother.
Gram was heavenly and also living there, now. Had been for quite some time. My conscience said that I couldn’t visit her whenever I asked during my nightly prayers when I was very young. I wondered if the same restrictions still applied.
If my mother’s eyes reminded me to live, Gram’s encouraged me to explore. Looking into her eyes assured me that I was still waiting for the return trip. I smirked at it being 37 years late. Heaven must be packed with traffic. That was the only explanation. I felt jealous.
Sometimes, I hated being understanding.
A ghost annoyed me when I was 12. I saw her, glittery and translucent, behind the church next to my house. She looked like she needed something, and when I went to ask her what, she disappeared in front of my eyes.
Ghosts were rude. Entitled to my attention with no reciprocity. Gram never visited me like my uncle, grandfather, and pets did. Was I expecting too much of someone just because they were once blood and now dust? Alchemy was rendering me arrogant.
My mother was my Gram’s ghost. I, my mother’s. My mother, Connie, cheated death before I was born, having been catapulted through a window during a collision. She cheated death, again, as cancer threatened to defeat her will. She cheated the death of dreams and goals, each time rising from that which tried to drown her. She says she can’t swim. I say she doesn’t have to because she can fly.
I was birthed of omnipresent spirits, these women of endless depths and galaxies, water and storms. If eyes are windows, I was peering at a photograph containing a lifted veil revealing my mortality. And it was beautiful. I was terrified.
Living had become a chore much like dusting the tops of picture frames and wiping down the counters that never stayed clean in my drafty, old apartment. You do shit because it has to be done, and you persuade yourself to find purpose, even enjoyment, in dirt and grime.
Sometimes, you anticipate how refreshing the result might be! Other moments are irritated by the self-imposed expectation of presentation. My life was starting to feel cluttered and cramped. The nails in my baseboards were exposing themselves. My ceiling was cracked. My landlord was ageing and forgetful—herself plagued by time and caring for the dying which inevitably takes away from caring for the living.
This isn’t my first place away from home by any means. I used to travel outside of myself often before I was ever empowered to open the front door of my childhood home. But being in my apartment without the daily physical presence of the women who made me is practice for existing in this world. I was them, and their piercing eyes screamed for me to release my grip on their shells and to grow into my own.
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And now, face to face with my mother’s greatest teacher, I was being forced to uncover the mirrors covered and blackened for my ease of semi-permanence. 37 years of living and I was finding out that I didn’t actually know how.
How dare I be so shortsighted and sharp-tongued toward my today when my ancestors and ancestrally-backed blueprints were able to guard themselves against choruses of pessimism to hug their audacity tighter than their fears? I couldn’t possibly be their wildest dreams if I was too afraid to live out my own. There was that arrogance again, a crutch upon which I supported my laziness. And here was this photograph ever so gently pushing my ass over.
Expectation can be a violently intrusive demand when you’re not ready to meet it, avoiding its urgent gaze; looking in every place other than your own fear—a friend feeding you an unnecessary pause. The friend who asks you how you’re doing only because it’s polite to do before they unload their own shit. And before you know it, you’re helping them move on a Saturday afternoon when you know you’d rather be doing anything else.
The imposition of familial strength expects the same of its lineage. The woman piercing through my imposter syndrome demanded me to know who I am by remembering who she was. How wonderful of this inanimate object to evoke life in its captive audience.
Dust your photos today.
Tiffany has been featured in Ebony, Gawker, Cultural Weekly, the L.A. Times, and in other publications, on panels, and at community events where she makes her voice heard. Born in Queens, NY, and raised in Southern California, Tiffany has resided in the Leimert Park neighborhood of South Central, Los Angeles, for the last six years, where she works continuously to edify her community by celebrating the beauty of blackness and other persons of color with her activism, photography, and words. Tiffany can be found on Facebook, or on Instagram at @Tiffy.Be.Spiffy.