Friday, May 06, 2011

Granny's Black Bag (an old essay / posted in honor of Mother's Day)

GRANNY'S BLACK BAG by Lori D. Johnson (first appeared in Relic Magazine / April 2006)

“Go and get my bag,” is all my grandmother would have to say and off my brother and I would run, like a couple of gunshot prompted, racetrack hounds. Leave it to us to turn the bag’s retrieval into a competition rivaling that of any canine pair’s futile chase of an artificial hare. But we were children and this was, after all, in the days prior to the advent of the Internet, PlayStation, the Cartoon Network or even cable. And while our mindless pleasures were of the simpler sort, they offered rewards, seemingly beyond the imaginative abilities of today‘s youth.

And to the winner of our quick-footed quest to comply with our granny’s “go-get” command, went the honor of making a big production of the task. Whoever reached the suit-cased sized receptacle first reveled in the opportunity to grab it by its straps and wrestle it into submission, as if an unruly rotweiller is what we had writhing in our midst, rather than a lady’s black, imitation-leather handbag.

Indeed, a beast of a bag it was, and one that, for little kids like us, required a series of military-like “lift, swing and drag” maneuvers in order to move it from point A to point B. Seasoned troopers that we were, my brother and I knew all too well the risks involved, some of which included, but weren’t limited to a subsequent loss of breath, use of limbs or permanent damage to any number of fingers or toes. Yet and still, come our turn to grapple with the grip and we’d be there with the quickness--grinning, groaning and occasionally hollering out, “What on earth do you have in this thing, anyway?!”

Not that our granny ever bothered to respond. Likewise, nor did we ever muster the courage to open the bag and brave too long a look within. The butt-beating such an act would have earned us would have hardly made the effort worthwhile. Besides, our contemplation of all that might dwell within the dark belly of the beast was half the fun.

Beyond a billfold, an address book, a rain scarf, some tissues, a pack of cigarettes and the occasional stick of gum, we never actually saw our grandmother pull anything out of her whale of a purse that might account for its stunning girth. That didn’t stop us from teasing her about toting around bricks. Nor could we help but laugh at the thought of some unsuspecting thief’s attempt to snatch the bag and run. Face down in the dirt is surely where he would have found himself, the weight of the beast, which we guess-timated to be a whopping ten pounds or more, having ultimately drug him there.

I, having always been the more imaginative type, suspected the durn thing was rigged. Something was in there, all right. Something that was just waiting for either me or my brother to poke an inquiring hand deep inside the musty folds and then boom!--the nosey culprit would be snatched in and never seen or heard from ever again.

With age and time came an increased awareness of all that my grandmother’s work as a cook in those windowless eating and drinking establishments, most commonly referred to in the south as “cafes” entailed. Whenever I’d spy her lumbering up the driveway toward the end of another day’s toil, big black bag swinging by her side, or else tucked firmly beneath her arm, I’d frequently find myself wondering if ole girl wasn’t, in fact, packing a sizeable piece, as well as an extra box or two of ammunition.

What can’t be denied is that the bag was my granny’s near constant companion. If she made a trip to the bathroom, be it for business or pleasure, the bag went with her. Whenever she ventured out to hang the wash, the bag, more often than not, bummed a ride alongside the wet clothes piled high in her basket. Besides the cozy nest she’d made for it next to her favorite perch at the kitchen table, the bag claimed its very own resting place on the floor next to her bed. Outside of when she had her eyes closed, the only time ole girl’s grip wasn’t somewhere within her line of vision was when she’d determined it safe to leave it alone at her bedside--a determination that hinged heavily upon the house being empty of all belonging to the adult male persuasion.

My granny’s implicit rule never to leave her grip unguarded in the company of men folk was one that for years knew no exceptions, whether kin or non-kin and even went as far as to include her own husband.

My poor grandfather had been home alone with his bag-coddling wife of sixty-some years the day her congestive heart condition necessitated an emergency call for help. Upon receiving word of the crisis, I’d race from my house to theirs and arrived just in time to accompany my ailing granny on the gurney ride out. The ole girl looked worst than I’d ever seen her. Her calves had swollen to twice their normal size and she barely had the strength required to draw a proper breath. But as the paramedics carted her down the backdoor steps and toward the waiting ambulance, my grandmother somehow summoned both the wherewithal and the necessary spit and wind to turn to me and bark, “Go back and get my bag!”

Had it not been for the seriousness of the situation, I no doubt would have laughed aloud. Instead, I did what I’d always done-- even though at the time I was an adult well into my thirties--I ran off and fetched it for her.

In the summer of 2002, I moved from Memphis, TN in order to join my husband who had accepted a job in Cleveland, Ohio. To be perfectly honest, the move was a painstakingly difficult one. Along with having to force my southern roots into midwestern soil, I had to accept that someone other than myself or my brother (whose military career had long taken him out of the competition) would have to see after my granny and her big black bag.

I flew back home to Memphis for the holidays in December of 2002 and got a chance to visit with my granny one last time before her death on Christmas day. In the days prior to her funeral, I found myself faced with the task of searching through the ole girl’s grip for telephone numbers, important papers and the like.

The bag, which had already been plundered by persons both know and unknown, was but a mere shell of its former self. A thorough search of the bag’s contents turned up no hidden monsters nor anything else that might have accounted for the heaviness I so fondly remembered. But shoved way down deep in one of the purse’s inner folds, I did find one small, round, dark-brown object of interest.

No one I asked seemed to know for sure what to make of the durn thing, until I ran it past my granddad. He barely even glanced at the object before announcing with all of the assurance that having lived 85 years brings, “It’s a buckeye. Some people carry them around for good luck.”

I couldn’t help but tilt my head toward the heavens and smile at what I knew to be a parting wink meant just for me.

I took both the bag and the buckeye back with me to Ohio. Every now and then I hear a whisper in my ear and I know it’s her, still beckoning me. “Don’t worry granny, I‘ve got it,” is what I‘ve taken to telling her. “Rest assured that all of the things you held precious, whether inside or outside of your bag are safe with me.”

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