To Grandma

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Words || Rhys Smith

To Grandma,

All that’s left are memories of you. They aren’t even mine. 

You died before I was born, and I never got to ask what you wanted to be called – maybe Grandmother, Nan, Gran, Granny, but I guess I’ve always known you as Grandma. I didn’t really know who else I could talk to, besides I’ve always believed that the dead are the best listeners. It feels weird writing a letter to you, because I wonder who you were, outside the stories I’ve been told. You, smoking on the front porch, harsh words, liquor, cigarettes – anything to ease, to dull the world. Honey to help the medicine go down – I guess honey comes in many forms.

Before we fell out, Dad took me to your grave.

To the cemetery, to the gardens and that closely mowed lawn. It was so maintained and proper – but it’s what you asked for so it’s what you got. We stood by the Ibis gardens in the close-knit tree’s shade. They scattered your ashes amongst the ibis statues.

Most people have their family dinners, a story, a name.

I do have those, or whatever we could find – the morsels and the breadcrumbs that we’ve followed. It’s funny though. I thought that finding these small truths would alleviate some of the burden, some of the confusion, bring clarity to who I was and where I was from. But every breadcrumb we find only makes me realise how hungry I am, how starved I’ve been. 

One side of my family, mum’s (I don’t think you really met them), know where they came from and what they are – their tree has roots and flowers with the strong line of women and men that I see every Christmas and at special occasions. I’m lucky to see our family once a year (and that’s me being kind). I do see Vicky and her children sometimes. They escaped the cycle, maybe we all did. I guess we have that in common – surviving the Smith anger.

You’d be surprised how little has changed. 

The same cycles, just painted in different colours. 

Our family still struggles to communicate and the scars that coloured us have not disappeared. I guess it was passed down, the weight, the burden, the shame. I’ve been told stories of your childhood, how you had to stay inside in the summertime because your skin went too dark, how you refused to talk about where we came from, about our ancestry. 

All of that congregated into my father. People say Grandfather hated my dad. Maybe hate’s a strong word, more of a thorough dislike, a disdain for his existence. When you line the children up you can see why. His skin was too dark and his hair too black. My Father didn’t really care to talk about our Indigenous heritage – he preferred the pub and the thrill of gambling. I suppose I’ve picked up your harsh tongue and steadfast will. 

We carry these burdens together.

The shame finally trickled down onto me, sinking into the skin and pervading my thoughts. When I was child my mother was accused of suntanning me because my skin had gone so dark in the summer sun. It doesn’t matter how much sunscreen I use, my skin darkens and my roots flower for all to see. I didn’t know my heritage and mum decided that we should find it – so we searched and searched until the papers ran out and the breadcrumbs were gone. When school came around I decided to tick a little box, the Indigenous box, and suddenly I was the kid that read out the Welcome To Country at every assembly. I got the ridicule in so many forms. I was told that I was too white, that my percentage was too small, that my hair was too blond. Here was that shame you felt again and it was so perverse, so encompassing, so demanding. There was so little I felt I could do.

I stopped talking about it, I stopped reading the Welcome To Country, I laughed when people mocked me and my family. I made a joke with myself that if I concentrated hard enough that I could get all the Indigenous blood into my big toe. 

Needless to say it wasn’t really a joke.

It’s the reason I struggle with feeling like I’m part of the Indigenous community, I wasn’t enough for them and I wasn’t enough for me. I didn’t speak to anyone about what happened when we left my Father – I didn’t speak of the things that tormented me. 

I felt like we were playing out a stereotype, the destroyed Indigenous family, the broken record that should just fix itself. I wouldn’t give them more ammunition to throw at me. I was so tired of percentages, tired of skin pigment, tired of petrol jokes. I was saturated in shame, and what had once painted me so brilliantly was suddenly stripped and burnt for all to see. I played into my light-skin and wouldn’t raise my voice to argue, to defend my people, my family, myself. I could just be some white kid with tanned skin from too many days at the beach. I hid the pieces of my history that had built me, that made me who I was because the shame was so heavy.

I’m sorry. I know I shouldn’t be, but I am.

I guess this letter is an apology. I’m sorry that I can’t survive with the little that I have – I want to know more and I’m going to ask questions, I’m going to fight for us and our family, I’m gonna bear our scars freely and not feel ashamed. I don’t want what’s happened to us to happen to anyone else. Never again.

It’s time we let it go don’t you think, let go of all that shame. I hope you won’t be angry with me, it must be hard because I’m so far away from you and I wasn’t raised the same way. We’re so similar yet so different – painted with the same colours but seeing a different scene, a different world, a different future. Even if you need to be angry, sad or tired that’s okay. Let me take this burden and maybe we can move forward, just a step forward begins the march. Just know that through it all I love you.

One day it will be my turn to take my children to the Ibises.

Until then Grandma.

Sunshine and Warmth,

Rhys Smith

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