Writing My Way Out of the Past

When I was a child, I signed my granddaddy’s Social Security checks for him. He never learned to read or write, and he never attended any type of school. As the grandson of slaves from Georgia and South Carolina, all my granddaddy knew of the world was the tiny corner of northeast Georgia where we lived.

Granddaddy was a man of habit. Whenever I visited his house, he would always sit in the same corner of his living room in the exact same chair. Every day, even in summer when everyone else was loafing off toward the swimming holes, he wore denim bib overalls with a long-sleeved flannel shirt underneath them and a pair of tan-colored boots. My granddaddy had a head of completely white hair (just as my mother does today and just as I imagine I will also have some day). His brown eyes had a grayish film to them, and in certain lighting they had a glowing luminosity. Granddaddy had terrible eyesight and wore glasses.

“Lee, Monic,” he would say to my momma and me, “I’m blind in one eye and can’t see out of the other one.” It was his idea of a joke, but no one ever laughed.

Momma used to drive Granddaddy and me to the Community Bank and Trust in Commerce, Georgia. The bank was inside a grocery store, the least expensive market in town. The grocery shared a shopping plaza with a Family Dollar and a rickety furniture store. At the bank’s counter, Granddaddy would write a gnarled letter ‘X’ next to the endorsement line, and I would write ‘Edgar Johnson’ for him in my big, round handwriting. On those days, Granddaddy would stand very straight, but his eyes would always be cast down, or else he would look at some spot behind the teller’s head. I never understood why he did that until I grew older.

As an adult, I have a hard time conceiving the idea of not knowing how to read or write.

As an adult, I have a hard time conceiving the idea of not knowing how to read or write. Sometimes, even now, whenever I’m reading or writing something interesting, I think about Granddaddy. Books are such a big part of my life that I don’t know what I would do without them. I studied English in college. I had big dreams of becoming a writer, but after graduation I focused on getting a practical job.  Because I was a Social Work minor, I was able to get a position as a case manager in state government, processing Medicaid and Food Stamp cases.

Most of the customers in my caseload had a lot of the same problems—low wages, absent parents, children to feed. Most of the cases run together as one in my mind, but there is one woman I will always remember: Nilda Sanchez. She reminded me of my granddaddy.

Nilda was a young Hispanic woman. She did not speak English well enough for me to interview her alone, and so we spoke through an interpreter. She came into the office with two dark-haired little girls. One was an infant child asleep in a car seat with a pink blanket draped over her. The older girl wore her hair in two ponytails, and her cheeks were so red that they seemed to have been colored in by a heavy-handed child.

I began to feel cramped with the five of us in my tiny office, and so I scooted my chair closer to the wall to allow more space between my body and Abraham, the interpreter. As Abraham introduced me to her, I noticed that Nilda kept looking around my office. There was a small vase of artificial flowers on the desk. She placed a fingertip on a petal, rubbed it as though it was something special.

She spoke softly in Spanish. “You are young for this job, right?” Abraham translated.

“About your age,” I replied. It was strange that she wanted to make small talk. Most customers just wanted their stamps.

Nilda had a bright pink mouth that was so chafed it looked as if the skin would crack open if she smiled any wider. She looked at everything—a radio on the shelf, a flower print on the wall, my imitation silk blouse—with full attention. Please, God, don’t let her be impressed by a job like this. I wanted to tell her that I was just like her—poor and living in a tiny apartment I could barely afford. But from the way Nilda kept looking at my clothes and the pictures on my desk, she probably would not have believed me.

I gave Nilda the standard Food Stamp review forms and then slid a pen across the table to her. Silently, she slid the pen and the forms back to me. I looked up at her, but she averted her eyes. Nilda began to speak again, and Abraham leaned forward and cocked his head to the side as though he was having trouble hearing her. I recognized the Spanish words formas and ayuda. Finally, Abraham turned and looked at me as he said, “I don’t know how to fill out the forms. Can you help me?”

“It’s okay,” I said. “They’re in Spanish.” I pointed to the first line, which indicated NOMBRE in big, bold letters.

Nilda dropped her eyes back to the carpet. “No. I didn’t go to school,” Abraham translated. “I don’t read Spanish at all. Can you help me?”

I cut my eyes from Abraham to Nilda. They both looked expectantly at me.

I had never met anyone my own age who couldn’t read. Up until that moment, I had thought of illiteracy as a problem that plagued my granddaddy’s generation.

I wasn’t sure what the protocol was. Should I fill out the forms for her, or would she need an authorized representative? I had never met anyone my own age who couldn’t read. Up until that moment, I had thought of illiteracy as a problem that plagued my granddaddy’s generation. Looking at her across the desk from me was like being transported back to childhood. For a moment, I felt as if I were still standing beside my granddaddy writing his name for him at the bank’s counter.

I excused myself and went down the hall to my co-worker’s office.

“Lisa?” I said as I stuck my head in the door.

She sighed and banged her phone so loudly against the desk that I jumped. I looked at it, expecting to see a broken receiver. I stood there for an awkward moment, unsure what to say next. Finally, I launched into my explanation of Nilda’s situation. She stopped me mid-sentence and said, “We have a lobby full of people out there. Just give her the damned Food Stamps.”

And so I asked Nilda the questions aloud, and she answered through the interpreter. As I was writing, I remembered how disgusted a co-worker had been several weeks ago when she talked about undocumented immigrants stealing jobs from Americans, and it made me even more upset. How could a girl like this—a girl who couldn’t even speak, read or write English—steal a job from someone, especially when she was illiterate in her own language as well?

I stumbled through the interview, and after the last question I handed the clipboard to her.

“Are you able to sign?” I asked, almost certain of what her answer would be. Nilda seemed to know what I meant even before Abraham gave her my words. She shook her head and then wordlessly handed the pen and clipboard to her daughter. The child could have been no more than seven or eight years old. She carefully printed her mother’s name in big, round letters.

The child met my eyes for a moment as she handed the paperwork back to me. I wanted to tell her that girls like her were the ones who would grow up to tell our stories. I wanted to tell her to keep her head up, but I didn’t.

*     *     *

Last year, I wrote a fiction story about a 12-year-old boy who teaches his grandfather to read. It was the tale of a man who was somehow made better by writing elementary words from a primer. It was about a boy who took pride in knowing that his grandfather would die literate. My own granddaddy died when I was twelve, an age when I was still too young to understand the importance of literacy. Today, I realize I wrote that story to make myself feel better about never teaching my granddaddy to read. I thought a fictional story could help me forget the truth or somehow put it behind me. It didn’t. Today, I know that the truths about my family will never be told in feel-good stories. Our history is a sad one, and I cannot invent another.

As a child, reading and writing were nothing more than leisure activities, things to occupy my mind and entertain me. Reading was the thing that allowed me to crawl into the juvenile fiction I devoured every day and night. It took me years to learn that illiteracy was the most immediate cause of my granddaddy’s poverty. It would take still longer for me to learn that a limited education was the thing that kept him sharecropping someone else’s land for so many years. When I finally learned all of these things, it seemed that my entire childhood could be divided between a period of not knowing them and an era of accepting harsh realities about my family. Not knowing made me ignorant, but knowing made me sad. To me, sad was better.

Monic DuctanMonic Ductan has an undergrad degree in English from Georgia State University, and is currently study poetry in the MFA program at Georgia College. Her work has recently appeared in Bartleby Snopes, DOGZPLOT, Subtle Fiction, Crab Creek Review and numerous other journals. She’s been nominated for two Pushcart Prizes this year, and is currently a fiction finalist in the Agnes Scott College Writers’ Festival Contest.