The first person to witness Grandma Unoma’s return was her ex-husband, my grandfather Charlie. We didn’t pay much attention because he is a drunk, and once claimed to see Jesus Christ and Martin Luther King Junior smoking weed during a stupor. He was married to my grandmother Unoma for nearly fifty years, though they only actually lived together as man and wife for two years. Apparently, they had a lot of makeup sex, and that’s how she managed to give birth to six children. My grandfather claims he became a full-fledged drunk after marrying her. One night, he got so drunk that he wandered out of the house and onto the railroad tracks. He passed out, and a freight train ran over him. He lost his legs. Grandma Unoma, called him “Stumpy” after that but occasionally became teary eyed when she noted that his survival was nothing short of a miracle. Grandfather Charlie says it was the work of the devil and his favorite disciple, Grandma Unoma. God, according to my grandfather, would have killed him, freeing him from her.
Lest you think I’m exaggerating about my grandmother, here are two incidents that reveal everything you need to know about her. One of my most searing memories was watching her inspect for dust during a family barbeque that my mother was hosting. The food was delicious. The weather was gorgeous, and the bugs were nowhere in sight. But Grandma Unoma couldn’t just enjoy the barbeque, the melt in your mouth spare ribs, the tender and succulent steak, the fresh tossed salad, potato salad and macaroni and cheese with four cheeses. Mama had marinated the meat overnight in her secret sauce. Everything was well-seasoned, nice and peppery, like Daddy likes his food. It was all so delicious, and the music was playing, and everyone was having a good time. Even the neighbors stopped by for some food. Meanwhile, Grandma Unoma was inside the house inspecting for dirt and dust. I spotted her running her index finger across the second shelf of a bookcase in the living room. She just rolled her eyes, and shouted, “Lazy little girl, why don’t you help your mother cleanup sometime?”
There was no love lost between me and Grandma Unoma; I rolled my eyes and said, in the most disrespectful manner I could muster, “You’re such an expert cleaner, why don’t you come over and help clean up sometimes. You seem to have a lot of time on your hands.”
She tried to grab my neck, but I ran. Grandma Unoma came running after me, but took a detour to tell my mother what an arrogant and rude child I was. Fortunately, my mother was enjoying herself too much to pay attention. My grandmother left the festivities about an hour later, but not before whispering in my ear, “I’m not done with you, little girl. I’ll remember this day, and you’ll regret it when I’m done with you.” Her breath reeked of stale cigarettes, which she smoked incessantly, and brandy, a glass of which she seemed to always have in hand.
That’s when I learned to dislike my grandmother. My dislike bloomed to hate, the following year, during a Thanksgiving Day gathering. After too many glasses of brandy, Grandma Unoma declared, “The only child you have that’s worth anything or who is going to amount to anything is Bettina. Those other two are losers.” Now, nothing against, Bettina, but even Stevie Wonder could have seen that her future was dim. She is pretty, beautiful even, but as my paternal grandmother use to say, “Pretty is about as useful as a car in the driveway that won’t start. Where is it going to take you? Nowhere.”
Grandma Unoma only said that about Bettina because she had a different father, and my grandmother didn’t like my own dad at all. She referred to him as that “old nasty thing’ and was always suggesting that he was a bigamist with another wife and several children in his native Louisiana. Bettina’s father, as it happens, is serving a life sentence in prison for murder, and according to my mother was also a drug dealer who dumped her once she became pregnant. Despite all this my Grandmother adored him. She visited him in prison, and he sent her money once a month. Everybody knew he was up to no good. Who earns a six-figure income in prison? But Grandma Unoma thought Bettina’s daddy was a fine man. She even tried to get Bettina to visit her father, but Bettina swore she wasn’t going to visit any man in prison, even if someone claimed they shared the same bloodline.
Years later, at Grandma’s Unoma funeral, I sat bewildered by all the people crying over her death. I thought they must not have known the same woman that I did. I mean, I was sad but in a detached way. You know how you feel sad when you see victims of earthquakes, terrorist attacks and other disasters, natural and man-made. Like my grandfather says, she was just mean and hateful.
One woman, I don’t know who she was, cried throughout the service, and during the viewing of the body, took off her heels, a really nice pair of Michael Kors sling-backs. I had admired them at Bloomies, but decided to wait until they were marked down. Anyway, she took off her shoes and climbed into the casket. Well, of course everyone jumped up and tried to stop her, but she cried and said she could not go on living without her best friend Unoma. She raved about her dearly departed friend for about 40 minutes, and then she just got tired of carrying on and sat down. She stared at my grandmother’s corpse for a few minutes and then, squinting her eyes, started complaining about the Navy knit dress and jacket my grandmother Unoma was wearing. I guess she'd been too busy crying to notice the outfit before. She said, “I loaned Unoma that outfit. She never returned it. It wasn’t hers to be buried in.”
My aunts, uncles and other relatives swore the woman was lying and threaten to throw her out of the service, but I believed her. It was just like my grandmother to borrow something and ensure that she would never have to return it by being laid to rest in it. Well, that woman, whoever she was, wiped her tears away and stomped out of the church. She left plenty of other folks crying behind, though. Honestly, I suspected most of those folks thought that was expected of them. They wanted to put on a good show of grief, and maybe the family would give them an extra plate of food or a few extra drinks before sending them home.
Not everyone hated my grandmother, of course. Aunt Donna said her brother Eddie and my cousin Ray-Ray couldn’t believe Grandma Unoma was dead. They kept checking her vital signs and making sure that she wasn’t breathing, but that mean old lady was gone. Still, they refused to leave her lifeless body until the hospital administrator came down to the morgue and threatened to call the police.
Two weeks after her death, Grandma Unoma returned. My grandfather spotted her first. He said: “I must have had too much to drink, cause I see Unoma.” For once, alcohol wasn’t clouding his vision. She was there. One night, she'd simply got up from her grave and with dirt and soil staining that navy knit suit, which puckered in spots where the thread had begun to unravel, sat down in our living room. She asked for a glass of scotch. She said for some reason she no longer desired brandy. Then she addressed her estranged husband. “You’re looking good, Stumpy,” she said and winked her eye at him. Everyone laughed and joked as if this dead woman sitting in the living room was the most normal thing in the world. She complained extensively about being dead, saying she missed her family. She said she was tired of watching the worms and bugs crawl around.
After she finished her drink, she wiped her mouth, got up and announced she was going back to her grave. It seemed her family wasn’t nearly as interesting as she had remembered, and she wanted to return to the solitude of death. She said she'd enjoyed the scotch, which she also said was cheap, better than the company of her family.
“Little Sis, you look fat. Why don’t you move away from the dinner table,” she snapped at my mother.
“Shut up Lizzie,” she shouted at her oldest daughter. “I’m sick of hearing your mouth.”
She looked at my father, and said, “Do you ever see your other family? I know you got a wife and ten kids tucked away in Louisiana. Nasty old thing.”
She glanced at me, and I just rolled my eyes at her. Then she said, “I got something real special for you. Oh, I got something real”
I muttered: “Whatever.”
Everyone else ignored her insults as well, and as she headed out the front door, everyone waved good-bye and thanked her for stopping by, as if every relative we’d buried returned for a glass of scotch and insulted the family. But I happen to glance out the window, and saw Grandma Unoma watching us from outside.
CONSTANCE JOHNSOn is a freelance journalist based in New York City, working primarily in television news.