{July 19, 2012}   Her Name Was Underwood

Many stories have circulated in the family about my Native-American great-grandmother. How she was disinherited as a teen by her father because she fell in love with an Irishman and ran away from home and married him. How she cultivated roses in her yard and loved beautiful things in her house. How she got her long, black hair stuck in an industrial fan while working in a factory owned by her brother and lost half of her scalp. How she put up with an abusive, alcoholic husband and, after raising nine children, she went insane. How she suffered shock treatments and died in a state mental institution.

I met my great-grandmother only once. I was around five years old when I joined my grandparents for a Sunday picnic at the Georgia State Mental Hospital in Milledgeville. It felt like a long drive from Atlanta, and I was hungry and tired by the time we arrived. We waited in a chapel with dark red carpet and white walls for the nurse to bring her in her wheel chair. It was the first time I saw her and she was bony and slumped over, her long, grey hair tied back in a bun. I was scared because I’d never seen anyone so old. We wheeled her outside to a picnic table in park next to the hospital. My grandmother spread the table cloth while my grandfather adjusted the transistor radio to a gospel roots music station. When my great-grandmother heard the music, she got out of her wheelchair and started to dance. She laughed and grabbed me by the arm and we swung each other in a square dance style, dancing to the music. My grandparents clapped and laughed and all the fear I had about this old woman disappeared. I didn’t think she was crazy at all.

My great-grandmother died two weeks after our picnic at the hospital. I was sad when I heard the news, I knew that I would carry the memory of my one and only dance with her for the rest of my life.


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