Grandma tilted as she walked down the hall singing “O Danny Boy.” English words set to an Irish tune; she was Welsh. It didn’t matter. She said the
Welsh could sing in any language. She said it was her language that made it that way. Welsh is natural music, she said. And she sang “O Danny Boy.”
Say it again, I pleaded. So she said: “Yrhwch goch a’i chwech moch goch bach.” Only a little something about a big red mama pig and her six little red pigs, but it sounded like music to me. “Yrhwch goch a’i chwech moch goch bach.” She said it over and over just to coach me. I never got it right; my ear was off. She said it was my Italian half.
Great Grandma Phillips paid Mrs. Thomas back for beating Grandma up. And then Gram Phillips said to Grandma, Bec, if you can’t fight your own battles, I will give you a licking.
The Ton and the Gelli were separated only by a bridge. Maggie Ann Thomas liked the bridge. It was good fighting ground. Maggie Ann and another bully held Cassie’s hands behind her back and beat her up. Grandma said she fought mostly for Cassie’s sake, but I think mostly she just fought. She and Maggie Pierce got even with Maggie Ann. It was then Mrs. Thomas gave Grandma the licking.
Grandma was getting pneumonia when Cassie got beat up the next time. Grandma got angry. She pulled the big girl off by her hair—right out of the line waiting at the tent to see The Life of Christ.
Grandma sang English and Welsh in the choir that took first prize back to the Rhondda Valley. A girl from another choir, angered at losing, up and kicked grandma. Grandma said, of course that was the wrong thing to do, and there was a fight for all.
She promised Gram Phillips she wouldn’t fight again. She said she’d be a lady. So Gram bought her new clothes. It wasn’t any use. Evan Morris kept kicking the can. Grandma warned him. He didn’t listen. She knocked him flat; he broke her nose; she beat his face to a pulp. Evan told it that he’d fallen down with his face between two rocks.
Great Auntie Catherine’s son Lewis got hurt in the mines when he was fourteen. They laid him on top of a board table, and then they took his leg off just below the knee when he was fifteen. Grandma sang to him and played her mouth harp. She said the leg hurt Lewis until Uncle had laid it to rest in the cemetery.
Shortly after, Grandma saw the ghost in the second-story window. Maggie saw it, too. Later, when Gram Phillips opened the door into that room, she said she felt something go out. She found Jim hanging between the bed and the chair. Grandma said he was oh such a fine man. She said that about Tommy Hopkins, too, and he had no nose.
Ivor was kidnapped one afternoon. Grandma heard him running the streets at four the next morning. Whatever happened to Ivor, Grandma didn’t know. He was never the same. She said she didn’t know until later—when Johnny Allred lost his mind and killed his wife and her brother and a young boy—that when a person loses his mind, his eyes look dull.
The American missionaries came from Aberdare over the hill to the Rhondda Valley. They came in twos to Glastryn Street. Grandma was loading coal when they came. They laughed at her because she was so black. She said, What? You Americans don’t work for a living? Grandma was Welsh Baptist until the missionaries came. Then she and Gladys were baptized Mormons in Tonypandy in May, 1910.
She came to America on the Canada. She was seventeen.
She met Hugh in Knightville. She said he was an artist and highly educated—an engineer at the mine. They went everywhere together. He’d draw and then they’d sing on their way home at night on the trail high above Iron Blossom No. 3. He wrote his mother about Grandma, but Grandma didn’t marry him. She married Grandpa. I never heard her sing for him. Maybe that’s why Grandpa’s death, a half century later, didn’t seem to affect Grandma in the traditional way.
She threw out the pitcher of yeast (east, she said). Annie the Cook gave her a good bawling out. She said, how was a body to know? By the smell of it anybody in his right mind would think it was rotten.
Eureka and Knightville were full of criminals, she said. They called themselves IWW’s or Reds, but she called them criminals. They were gamblers, she said. And they would kill at the bat of an eye. One followed Grandma and Grandpa home one night. He wore a black hat, wore it down low. Grandpa couldn’t hit him; don’t you see? she said, the man hadn’t done anything yet. She turned around enough to see who it was because she knew everyone, but she didn’t know that man.
Grandma had a vision in Knightville. She called it that, even though she said it was just the voice of Mary Ann back in Wales. It called her—twice. She knew Mary Ann was gravely ill. And then another voice, she said, told her it would be all right.
In Roosevelt, Grandma lived next to some poor farmers. When the poor farmers left, she said it was a regular parade. Here comes this big wagon going along, she said, and up on top of it was the pig with four legs sticking straight up in the air. A dead pig that they had cleaned the night before bit by bit by scraping it. And they’d have it on their lap instead of scalding it, she said. They asked her if she wanted some of it. Of course not me, she said. She didn’t want that kind of pig.
I like Aunt Cassie’s feather bed the most. That and listening to the sisters argue in four-part disharmony. There was none of this solo business; each had a lot to say and said it all together. Gladys and Cassie and Ellen and Bec. Ellen and Grandma are dead now and Cassie can’t argue anymore.
When I came back, I told Grandma how the Zambezi danced over the edge at Victoria Falls. I told her that the British never knew it like the natives did: Musi-O-Tunya, the Smoke that Thunders—great bass sounds singing up from the cataract. I think she understood.
The snakes eventually got her. Three days they got her. For years the medicine had her and she tilted; but now that the doctors had taken the medicine away, the snakes got her. They slithered on her belly and coiled themselves up in her hair and sang evil in her ear. The room was sterile. Her imagination and the medicine were not. It took three days before her tilt slithered out of that room with the snakes. Then, standing straight up, she walked the halls singing “O Danny Boy.”
I don’t know that I was affected by Grandma’s death, at least in the traditional way. In the hospital, I saw her eat soft-boiled eggs without salt. I didn’t see fight in her eyes. I knew why she didn’t sing.
At her funeral they sang “0 Home Beloved, Where’er I Wander.” What I heard was Grandma singing—basso profundo out of the deep—”the pipes, the pipes are calling.”