By Sylvie Kandé
PROMPT—No one noticed ...
Her cheeks redden. With a trembling hand she removes her fogged-up glasses. This granite woman, whom we love for and despite her austerity, her exactitude and her proverbs, totters.
My father sits her down, pushes aside the photos strewn on the table to allow her to lean on it.
“How did you know it, Louise?”
“It’s your mother, there, I’m telling you. I know her, that’s all!”
See, my grandmother, the one who watches my brother and me two days a week, with whom we spent the school breaks, was born in a village in Finistère, Brittany. She liked the school she abandoned out of pride, dreading failure at the end of middle school. After working on farms, she “went up” to Paris, where she spent her whole life.
My other grandmother has no nickname because we’ve never met her. She lived in the capital of Casamance, in southern Senegal. There, when my grandfather hosted the governor, she would take out the Limoges porcelain, and withdraw, not knowing French. She herself had numerous visitors who called her « Soukho » and knelt down, for she bore one of the greatest names of Mali.
Grandma Louisette is now describing Josephine’s drooping eyelid, her face topped with a headscarf, the sound of the pressed cloth of her dress, that of her bracelets with each movement she made, and even the filigreed pearls of her gold necklace.
She pulls out a checkered handkerchief from her apron, mops up big tears.
“I saw her in a dream. She spoke to me, but I can’t share everything. I swore to her I wouldn’t, you understand?”
With each detail of her description, my father becomes more restless. He presses her a little—to be so close to the truth of his dear departed and to lose her, one more time!—but better than anyone, he knows how much a secret is worth.
Against my mother’s better judgment, Louise feverishly tells her tale several times in a row.
There would be no lunch that day.
And the portraits my father had longed to receive year after year would remain on the tablecloth till evening.
Nobody knows in what otherworldly language my two grandmothers managed to converse, but it’s that language I yearn for when I undertake to write.
Sylvie Kandé is the author of three collections of poetry published by Gallimard. Lagon, lagunes: Tableau de Mémoire (2000) was post-faced by Edouard Glissant, while La quête infinie de l’autre rive: épopée en trois chants (2011) received the 2017 Prix Lucienne Gracia-Vincent and is now published in German by Matthes & Seitz and in English by Wesleyan U. Press. Gestuaire (2016) received the 2017 Prix Louise Labé. As an historian, she specializes in the complex conversations between Africa and Europe and Africa and its Diasporas, notably the issue of métissage/hybridity. Sylvie teaches at SUNY Old Westbury in the History & Philosophy Department. She writes from NYC.