Friday, October 11, 2013


We spent 14 years carving Greta. A great woman, a wise woman. She has a nose of stone, bejeweled eyes, cheeks that catch the setting sun in rosy tones; lips pursed in kind silence. She carries a perpetual look of quiet understanding, of firm compassion bought with hard years, broken hearts and blistered fingers. But her soul is still intact, a sapphire so blue the ocean would jealous.

I spent months just on her hair, getting the thinning wisps just so. The other sculptors thought I was mad. 

“What are you doing?” they said. “You know how this ends.”

I took a long breath, stared at my work, and replied firmly: “This has to be right.”

I was Maestro on this project, so they shook their heads and left me to my folly. They drifted back to giving her shoulders just the right hunch; they tapered the tips of her gnarled fingers, carved the asymmetrical signs of her limp into her hips and lower back. The Authority had decided she was to be in a bike accident as a child: shattered her right femur. She was bed-ridden for a whole summer, a hot summer, a season of thin soup and dust storms. Kansas, 1932. Greta ate a lot of thin soup and watched the family farm slip beneath an ocean of destitution and dirt. The farm died, but the girl lived. She moved to California and picked oranges alongside the Okies and Arkies. She learned to read with week-old newspapers by campfire-light. She kept her hair short and her teeth clean.

Big moves, a pair of wars and a pair of kids later later, she visited Atlanta for the first time with her husband, Gene. They flew from Buffalo: such an extravagance! But Gene’s work was paying; there was a grand opening for new plant in Macon. Greta had fried chicken and waffles for the first time. The waitress was Black and Greta stared. As she kept staring, the waitress’s wide, Southern smile thinned; she would scurry from the table after she topped off the water glasses; her voice became a thin squeak, when she talked at all.

Eventually, Gene elbowed his wife. “You’re being rude, honey.” His voice was Sinatra-smooth. The first time they met, the Authority had him crooning behind a CBS microphone at a hop in Hollywood. The next day, bombs fell and the Arizona kissed the bottom of Pearl Harbor. Greta kissed her man and give him a nod and a smile.

When the waitress returned, Greta pulled gently at the lace cuff of her uniform, using her forefinger and middle finger. She leaned in close: “I’m sorry to stare, dear. But you have the brightest smile. Your teeth are so bright! My daddy used to tell me: ‘Your smile is the best tool you’ve got, girl. And every tool is a weapon if you hold it right.’” That waitress became my god-mother. Camille Parks wrote Greta long letters of trials and tribulations: sit-ins and marches, speeches and fire hoses. Greta bailed her out of jail twice, and finally convinced her to move up north to the white snow banks of the Finger Lakes. I remember having coffee and cheesecake on Camille’s back porch and watching a warm wind blow the trees, late one July afternoon. 

That was the July before the Authority had Greta lose all of her hair, and one half of her chest and most of her soul to the rapaciousness of her own body. The July before she went into the dark, a knowing smile the last thing to contort her lips rather than the grimaces of pain that reached through the hydrocodone.

So, yes, the other sculptors took long weeks to discover the wrinkles around Greta’s eyes in the stone we used. Master clothiers draped her in the simple white sweater and pink slacks she favored. And I took many months to bring my grandmother’s hair back: thin, wispy and white, curled absently close, the last vestiges of goodness and hope.

We spent 14 years carving Greta, and now I visit her in the White Garden every day. She stands with perfect hair and among the million billion souls lost to the dark, the memories we carve in order to conjure to a shade of their brilliance. Sometimes, Camille comes. We have coffee and cheesecake and don’t say a word.

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