DW McKinney

An Elegy for the Land

I.

A month after my grandfather dies from pancreatic cancer, my grandmother chops down his cactus in their front yard. The prickly pear loomed over everyone in my family; its sprawling arms reached out to me as a child running from shadows and haints I believed lived under my grandparents’ house. The cactus drank up the laughter and the tears I poured at its base. It took my blows, too. The one time my big sister and I karate-chopped the cactus, my grandfather came after us with a piercing disappointment I never saw before and I never saw again. His disappointment, like the cactus spines, pricked me deep and left a lasting mark.

The cactus was my grandfather’s, but it was mine too. It was a reminder of my connection to the land, and it was a reminder of my grandfather’s nurturing presence. But my grandmother paid a man to hack this reminder down, then dig out its roots. A pit was left in its place.

It is my sister who tells me the cactus is gone. Her gas and brake pedals thump in the background as she speeds down the freeway. Traffic roars around her, but her anger rises above the noise. “Gran’pa’s not even cold in the ground and she already took his shit!” she shouts.

On the phone with my grandmother later, I begin with pleasantries. How are you? How are the greens? Growing big? How’s your sewing group? When she coughs, I interject, “Gran’ma, why did you cut down the cactus?”

“What now? The cactus?” My grandmother pauses for a moment, then laughs. “I could never see around that ole thing. I only left it there ‘cause Gus wanted it, but now he’s gone and I want to make sure no one’s creepin up on me. I cut it down so I could see down to the road there.”

The truth hums between her words. There was no malice to her actions. That old cactus was a monstrosity that guarded my grandparents’ driveway. It was a centurion that examined you, found you lacking or true of heart before allowing you to pass onto their property. But its removal still felt like a slight. Part of a hallowed history had been uprooted and tossed into a pile of litter for burning so that my grandmother could see further into the horizon.

 

II.

Driving to my grandparents’ house—I still think of it as theirs even though there’s only one of them living in the house now—I have to stick to the middle of a two lane road. The hillside of their property overshadows the road, narrowing it. Cars also park along the road’s inner edge, swallowing up available driving space. Navigating down this curve of road means passing between a wall of rock and trees to the left and an unbroken line of cars to the right. Driving becomes a matter of wits and will. Most drivers play chicken with each other, refusing to swerve aside and risking some injury to their car, so they can happily go on their way.

Jutting up from the road’s curve is a long, tarred driveway that leads to my grandparents’ front door. Cruising along the driveway, I rise higher and higher above the narrow street. The rooftops below look like they are staring up in awe. My grandparents’ house sits high on a hill like a castle. Stalwart pepper trees guard the property from the watchful eyes my grandmother worries about. Ice plants form a veritable moat that swallows up the grounds underneath the trees and the acres behind the house. More ice plants drape down the terraced garden beds like thick curtains. Across from the front door, on the other side of the driveway, is a cinderblock wall that shields another garden.

The gardens have traditionally provided filigree and audience. There were violets and white daisies, the spiked orange heads of birds-of-paradise, and sunflowers that bowed in adulation. The flowers that bloomed around the ice plants heralded new arrivals as they pulled up to the front of the house. In the absence of my grandfather, however, there are fewer flowers than there were in the days of yore. The pepper trees still shadow everything, though they creak and groan more often. Without my grandfather’s guidance, ice plants crawl across the walking paths. Daisies live and die tangled in the weeds. Drought maintains its stranglehold on the greenery. Most color has faded from the gardens. The lone bright spot of purple comes from the planter of angel heart that my grandmother tends near the entrance to my grandfather’s now unused workshop.

There are still trees in the backyard: fig, orange, pear, tangerine, and lemon. But these guardians of old bear fruit with less frequency. When they grow any fruit, we marvel at their beauty. They still give to us even though it is out of obligation, a sad routine. The grass once thick has turned yellow and brown. The wind blows away the dead blades, exposing dirt patches and gaping holes that I never knew existed underneath the grass. It’s like the earth is giving up on itself too.

Beyond the fence that demarcates the immediate backyard from the acres below is a vast sea of death. The plants have died. The lower gardens have wilted and turned. Even the pepper trees have thinned. The electrical power station on the road behind my grandparents’ house dominates the view now. I don’t wander beyond the fence anymore because I can see too much of the skeletons of my memory. And I cannot become awash in my longing and in the sadness for a dying land and legacy.

 

III.

My grandparents bought their land in 1969. My grandmother had spied a realty advertisement in the local newspaper for a hilltop house with an enviable view. She says it was more like a shack than a house, but they purchased it anyway and many of the surrounding plots of land as well. In her retelling, my grandmother mentions that they did not experience any racism or discrimination in the process of acquiring their property. I believe this is a miracle in the same vein as them simply buying a house and then land, let alone them doing this as working class Black folks in the late 60s.

That miracle gave birth to others. My grandfather remodeled their shack into a sizable ranch-style home with a brick foundation. He planted emerald-green ice plants and dotted the empty yard with cactus paddles. He tilled the garden beds and planted seeds for sunflowers, pansies, violets, and a variety of daisies. The wind carried a welcoming breeze off the Pacific Ocean, which shimmered in the distance like a welcome banner. At the top of their rock-pocked driveway were fence posts that defined the property line. A sky-blue water tower stood sentry just beyond the posts at the hill’s apex. It was the beginning of the world.

 

IV.

My grandfather—then my grandmother—wills their property to my mother and me. I imagine that it will become a haven for my family, a place where they can sit and stare at the open sky crowned on all sides by a majestic canopy. Or, perhaps it can become a retreat where people wander in between the trees, ripe figs bleeding in the grass while June bugs buzz overhead. This house that had been a sanctuary for me would be a sanctuary for others as well. My heart leaps at the thought that I will one day receive a unique rite: a generational inheritance of land.

Real estate investors and personal buyers would call my grandparents’ house monthly with offers to buy their two-and-a-half acres. These calls amused my grandparents, who would chuckle and politely decline. “Chile, we ain’t selling this land,” my grandmother would huff once the calls ended.

After my grandfather dies, my grandmother accepts one of these buyout offers. My mother reveals the news to me over the phone. Her words gut me completely. My body quivers and I try not to vomit from the news. Then anger surges inside me. I want to pull my hair and break the lamp beside me, but I instead stare out the window and focus, push my emotions down. Part of me has been lost. Whatever rite that would have been mine was snatched and sold away. I will never get it back. I will never get its anticipation back. My sanctuary would be demolished and uprooted. Its remains would be turned to ash like the cactus.

 

V.

“I’ve already started selling the property,” my grandmother says one day. She is selling it in plots, which means she has less land to water and tend. It’s easier for her back that way.

“Just the land behind the fence?” I ask. I’ve come to terms with her decision. My grandmother is eager to start a new life in a senior community across town.

“No! I’ve sold it all the way up to the garage there. They own all that and all down the hill now.”

“What’s it going to be?”

“An apartment complex. At least that’s what that man told me,” my grandmother replies.

The coronavirus pandemic halts the sale of the land and its development, so I deliver drawn out good-byes from afar. I ask my grandmother about the flowers and her collards and how often she waters the small patches of grass that are still green. In the meantime, she donates her piano and sends me quilts, aprons, and baking equipment by way of my mother. She is loosening her grasp from the land finger by finger. The only place that is my grandmother’s is the land underneath her feet, the house that was once a shack.

As she waits to resume selling the property piece by piece, a small crop of cotton pops up from a tract of earth near my grandfather’s workshop. My grandmother sneers at the cotton waving to her from across the yard as she washes dishes at the kitchen sink.

“Gus had no business planting cotton. What’s an old Black man doing planting cotton?”

But she lets the stalks grow as tall as the cactus once was. And soon, she laughs when she looks at them. We all do. It is one last joke from beyond the grave—either from my grandfather or the land. Regardless of the sender, we are encouraged to live.





DW McKinney

DW McKinney is an associate editor at Shenandoah Literary and editor with Writers' Resist. Her writing is featured in Full Bleed, Los Angeles Review of Books, JMWW Journal, The New Southern Fugitives, and elsewhere. Say hello at dwmckinney.com.