The Gift of the Battle Axe
I didn't know my maternal grandmother very well, but her name was Nana. She was not a warm and fuzzy grandma. She was tough. She didn't complement or coddle. My Dad (whom she made no bones about not liking) nick named her Axie, short for Battle Axe. They say, “It's always better at grandma's.” Not at mine.
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I was a very picky eater and for the most part my mother accommodated me. Not Nana. If she cooked it, you betta eat it. Yes, I said betta not better. The former should indicate the seriousness of the situation. One day at Nana’s she made me an egg sandwich for lunch. I didn’t ask for an egg sandwich, nor did Nana ask me what I wanted. In her world, grown folks didn’t answer to or ask questions of little folks.
Now, if my Mother had made me said sandwich there would have been pouting, whining, and ultimately she would have given me something more to my liking. But the instinct for self preservation is strong, even in the young, because somehow I knew better than to fix my mouth to say, “But Nana, I don’t like egg sandwiches.” That conversation would not have ended well.
I remember when Nana put the plate down in front of me I knew not to let it sit there too long because that would have been dangerous. “Oh you don’t wanna eat…” And so, I steeled myself, grimaced — on the inside — picked up the sandwich and began to eat. A funny thing happened: the more I chewed, the tastier it got. It was actually good. Looking back it was probably the lard Nana cooked the eggs in, but I — the notoriously picky eater — liked it.
When my Mom came to pick me up, Nana filled her in on our day. I heard My Mom say, “What? But she doesn’t like egg sandwiches. She ate two of them?” My Mother looked at me and she was livid. She probably felt like I’d run some Bernie Madoff-level scam on her. I wanted to say, “Ma, I didn’t want to eat the egg sandwich, well not at first, but it’s Nana. Nobody says no to Nana.” And although unsaid, I think my Mom understood because before Nana was Nana, she was Momma: the original She Who Must Be Obeyed.
When children are born they are not blank slates neither is their personality written in stone but some character traits reveal themselves early. Like, whenever I tried to color in my coloring books there was no joy in it, only frustration. It made me angry that I wasn’t able to stay inside the lines. My Mom handled her crayon with ease. Her hand moved quickly, her strokes where measured, even, and smooth. I watched and tried to do what she did but I couldn’t. Even when I concentrated my crayon seemed hell bent on straying outside the lines. This happens, I suppose, to every little kid but I took it personally. I didn’t understand that hand-eye coordination and crayon wielding skill only comes with practice. I just wanted to “do it right.” See, sometimes we are who we are from early on and I was a little perfectionist in the making.
One day, Nana came over and said she had something just for me. She reached into her enormous handbag and took out a brand new coloring book and a box of crayons. Did this woman’s cruelty know no bounds? She took one page of the book and I took the other and then she did something amazing. She began coloring outside the lines, on purpose!
This was mind-blowing, radical stuff for a four-year old.
I didn’t understand. Nana was doing it wrong. She was breaking the rules. She was gonna get in trouble … wasn’t she? I was fascinated. She colored outside the lines equally well with both hands. (I learned later that Nana was ambidextrous. Born a lefty and forced to become a righty; a very cruel process back in the day.)
She gestured to my page indicating that I could and should do it too. I did and it was wonderful. It wasn’t right. It wasn’t wrong. It was just another way of doing it. But now I had a new problem, staying outside the lines. This was a good problem to have though because now it felt like I had options.
I’ll never know what possessed my Grandmother to do this. Did she see something in my personality and this was her way of trying to help? We are who we are from very young, right?
What I do know is that at times my perfectionism runs me ragged. The internal pressure to “do it right” can be relentless. Thankfully, at its worst I remember a rough, tough, battle axe of a woman showing me how to look at things differently. Nana’s gift was that sometimes the most right thing to do is to go outside the lines and “do it wrong.” Maybe the world isn’t all that different from a children’s coloring book.