Joan Colby

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The Nanas 

I printed the commanded letter
To the distant grandmother I’d met
Once when I was two and didn’t
Remember, though I remember
Other things from that car trip. My father
Reading me Little Black Sambo or singing
Dixie and Old Black Joe as he headed back
South to his boyhood. My mother exhaling furiously,
Her cigarettes filling the Dodge with a miasma.
Later a cousin with blonde curls and a sand pail.
A lizard on a wall.

My mother referred to that grandmother
As Nana T. An imposter. My real Nana
Lived six blocks away in a house
Across from the slag pile.
She crocheted by the window and gave me
Peppermints. I liked to play
With her button jar and listen to her sing
The Wearin O the Green and Peg in a Low-backed Car.
My real Nana called me Joanie the way
People who liked me did.

That other grandmother, Nana T.
Didn’t like Catholics, my mother said.
I would be going to St. Felicitas though
My best friend Nancy would not.
Once on a Friday, I ate a baloney sandwich
At Nancy’s house. The first meat
Of my revolution.

Nana T. never called me anything. She wrote
Letters to my father that began Dear Son.
Her only surviving boy. Her five daughters
Each annoyed her in a separate fashion.
I learned that Nana T.’s husband
Was killed in a gunfight. How her own father
Rode with Morgan’s Raiders, then roved the west
Trailing wives and children like chum
In dark waters. Nana T. shook off the Mormon
Suitors, then went back south
The way we did when I was little.
When my father was 9 years old,
Nana T. gave him a gun. He shot a bird
And was sorry. She subscribed to New York
Papers, told him he’d be someone. Her family
Of generals and preachers.
Bible readers, whiskey drinkers, horse racing men.
She rode cowponies when she was young in Texas.

Nana T. died never knowing
She was Nana T. In my letters I wrote
Grandmother. She wrote my father
That I seemed to be an intelligent girl.
The real Nana never made such judgements.
She loved me as she loved the white dog Laddie
Or all her ladyfriends or the Sacred Heart
Of Jesus or poor Stella Dallas on the radio,.

Years later, sorting through the boxes
Of photographs, I pulled one out—
A woman on a porch looking serious.
It’s you! My husband says holding it up
Before me like a mirror. On the reverse, in pencil
Margaret Wise Taylor.  Nana T.
The Nana who never could forgive
My father for wedding that Yankee woman.
The Nana
Who never wrote back to me.


Joan Colby's 14th book of poetry, The Wingback Chair, was published by FutureCycle Press this fall. A chapbook, Bittersweet, is just out from Main Street Rag Press. One of her poems is a winner of the 2014 Atlanta Review International Poetry Contest. She is associate editor of both the Kentucky Review and FutureCycle Press.