Her name was Placida— my mother’s mother– but to me she was Pat-Pat, the fixture of our family vacations, waving from her back porch to greet us as we turned onto the gravel driveway that led to her door. She was soft and welcoming (as the best grandmothers are defined) without being overly indulgent, and going to her house meant coca-cola in bottles and playing with cousins and swimming at my uncle’s pool and all the bliss my small heart could hold.
During our visits my mother became younger, once again the baby of the family, the little sister, the darling daughter, and as the days stretched on in our East-Texas surroundings, her voice settled into a familiar accent and made itself comfortable. We teased her about it, but only because we loved the glimpse it gave us of the person she was before she was Mom. Inside my grandmother’s house, layers of love surrounded and encapsulated me, the tiniest matryoshka doll within the cocoon of generations.
I never thought much about Pat-Pat’s life in my self-saturated youth, never wondered about her upbringing or probed her for details of her hopes and dreams and joys and sorrows. I’m not sure she would have appreciated the impertinence of the questioning anyway. It was enough that she was the woman whose heart had shaped the heart that formed my own.
Nowadays, though, I want to piece together what I know, to make a whole person out of her, to catch a glimpse of what bits I might have been blessed enough to claim for my own, beyond noses and brows and what formal portraits can give me. I rifle through photographs and pepper my mother with questions and speculate extensively.
Placida was a child of the new century, arriving at adulthood in the roaring 20’s, a time I imagine as wild and frenzied and perched on the edge of possibility, when new discoveries were met with excitement instead of glassy-eyed indifference by a society inebriated with technology and bloated by progress.
She was born and raised from French and German Catholic stock, the sixth child of nine. She lost her father, a jovial man who ran the town’s telegraph, when she was eight, and was raised by her no-nonsense mother into a sensible young woman with a prodigious musical talent. Her family was well-respected and genteel. She met my grandfather, surname Patterson, and married him at the age of 20, in the year 1924.
Those are the facts, as I have been told.
Poring over family photos reveals a bit more of the picture, gives wings to imagination and fleshes out the story. Here we have Placida, on a summer outing in the hills of East Texas with a group that included my yet-to-be grandfather, a man who loved to take pictures and later made a living out of doing so.
I love this photo for so many reasons. I love it for the fact that her hair is in braids and she is poking around with a stick in the water and she is barefoot and she is wearing overalls. I love it because her smile says to me that she is a woman besotted with her photographer, whether she knew it herself at the time or not.
Another picture from the same day shows the photographer himself, claiming space next to Placida, whose right hand is in parts unknown. It is the only photograph I have ever seen of him where he looked the least bit uncomfortable, and whether it is from the sun in his eyes or the suddenness of the shutter, or the fact that he was sitting on her hand, I will never know. I do know that he looks just enough the part of a bad boy to make me like him immensely.
I like to believe that we would have been great friends, this braided beauty and I, had I belonged to that earlier era. I imagine myself in the picture too, poking into streambeds and giggling over the attention she was getting from Mr. Patterson, lands sakes!
This girl joined her life to the just-bad-enough-boy, and together they raised a family of six through the depression and war years, the optimistic fifties and beyond. She lost her beloved photographer in 1974, when I was six years old, and I saw her cry. That event is one of my most vivid childhood memories; it was raw and real and startled me with the realization that some things were so sad they caused even grown-ups to discard composure.
Placida lived another 20 years after him, outlived 7 of her siblings, and saw the gracious house she raised her children in levelled by the city to make way for a hospital parking lot. The building had suffered from too many structural impairments to warrant moving it, so she bought a mobile home and infused it with so much joy and life that we hardly missed the old place; if she could be philosophic about it, so could we.
As I became an adult, visits to Pat-Pat’s grew less frequent, as tends to happen. She welcomed the first few of my children before she was unable to differentiate one from the other, and the last time I saw her was a heartbreaking event that impressed upon me the truth that death is most often like birth, painful and confusing and lasting far longer than seems fair.
When she died, I felt that my childhood was officially over, although I was already a married woman with five small children at that point. But I was not the grandchild of anyone anymore; the outermost layer was gone from the nesting doll and I was pushed forth with only my mother between me and the largeness of the world.
One day it will be only me there, the outermost shell around generations spiralling down through the years. I hope to be like Pat-Pat to my grandchildren, larger than life, a solid and steady fixture no matter how much changes in the world around them, always ready to peel the years away and let them be children again.
Just as she is in my mind, standing on the back porch of a house long-gone, waiting to welcome me back.