We celebrated Grandma’s birthday yesterday. It was a big deal. Lot of people. Five generations.
It was good to see family again. You all know how it goes. Families tend to be dispersed and busy with their lives so funerals and weddings tend to draw them from afar. So we were able to celebrate Grandma’s life and shower her with our appreciation and love. Family from her side and my late grandfather’s side, neighbors, Turner Station families, pastors, nieces, nephews, cousins, children, grandchildren, great grandchildren, great great grandchildren. She’s the cornerstone of our family. Still.
If I start writing in earnest, I could literally write a book of memories and lessons. Grandma was born in 1918. Can you imagine all the things that were invented and became available to the public since that time? Radio was just becoming a thing in terms of mass media, TV and TV shows, commercial air travel, automobiles, interstate highways, refrigerators and freezers, washers and dryers, telephones, computers. Some areas in the US didn’t have indoor plumbing and running water until the 1920’s or so. Space travel, landing on the moon, World War I, the Great Depression, World War II, Korean War, Vietnam War, the Cold War, MLK, John F. Kennedy, the Civil Rights movement, the first black president, a crazy world with 7.6 billion people.
She lived in and made her way through America during the lynching era, Jim Crow segregation, green books, and the banal evils of American Apartheid. She legally wasn’t able to vote until 1965 when she was 47 years old.
She and my grandfather had seven children — five boys and two girls — and raised them through all of that. She worked as a maid or housekeeper for white families. When she was in her 50’s, I think, she went to school to get a nursing degree.
She lived through so much history. She’s seen so much change.
When it became legal for black people to vote, there were still laws intended to provide barriers. She and my grandfather had to pay a poll tax of $2. She said that by the time they got home, someone would leave $2 under their doormat. She didn’t know how they managed to do it so fast.
I spent a lot of time at my grandmother’s. I lived there in high school. My family lived two doors down, one house in between. My grandfather passed away in 1984. She kept on keeping on. Years later she’d say, “I had one good husband. I don’t need another one.”
One time at my grandmother’s house a bunch of ants found a mother lode of sugar on a kitchen counter. There was a line of ants marching from the counter out through the back door and into the yard. I got a can of bug spray and sprayed the ones in the house. I opened the back door and she asked me where I was going with that can of bug spray. She said no. “Outside is their house. They were here before we were.”
I remember her walking down the alley to my great aunt’s house carrying a stick to ward off the mean dogs.
During the pre-school and kindergarten years, afterwards I would stay at her house. She was usually in the kitchen watching her shows and preparing lunch and dinner for the family. At 3:00pm she would call up the stairs to remind me that “All in the Family” was on (which was one of my favorites, for some reason).
I was in her house home sick from school when the space shuttle Challenger happened. I was upstairs in her room home sick from school when Reagan was shot. These crazy historic challenges tragedies I was in a safe zone. A lot of my childhood was spent watching PBS at Grandma’s, and it’s where I annoyed my family learning how to play music and learning the keyboard and guitar parts to 80’s music.
I used to collect (cheap) knives. I was in the backyard once cutting branches with a cheap machete. I swung, missed a branch, the machete slipped out of my hand and hit my foot (yes, I was wearing Chinese slippers, what) tip first and bounced off. It hurt a little bit for a second. Then didn’t. Then my shoe and sock bloomed red with blood. I went upstairs and sat on the bathtub rim with my feet inside. I could not stop the bleeding and it was looking dramatic. I called Grandma and she came in, surprised by the amount of blood. She put direct pressure on it and stopped the bleeding within a minute.
After I graduated high school, I started to buy clothes that were actually somewhat in fashion. She said, “I’m glad you’re finally taking an interest in your appearance.” [me: looks off-screen into camera]
In college I would come home and she would do my laundry. I remember my mother saying, “Mama said it was the first time that you thanked her.”
She and my mom came out to California to visit me, around 1995 or ’96. They drove up to Mt. Hamilton and for years she would tell how coming down she was white knuckle gripping the armrest and door handle on the twisty, steep road back down.
When I moved back to the East Coast, Leika, my dog, would always run over to Grandma’s front gate. She loved it over there. I’m sure food was part of the reason. One day Grandma had gone into the back room restroom, and she was in there for a long time. Longer than usual. She said that Leika came in, looked, and then went upstairs and pestered my aunt and led her back down to Grandma, who needed help.
I missed the days when Grandma was mobile and independent. She was always cooking. She would go to the community center and make pottery and flower arrangements. She’d do those bus tour trips. When there were family parties, she’d walk into the house bopping to the music. Taking her grocery shopping was an event because she took forever and she’d leave loaded for bear.
It’s sad to see her slow down. There have been health scares, for sure. She’s still sharp but some days she just seems tired. A little out of it. She says that getting old isn’t for cowards.
But she hangs in there and she keeps going. She’s outlived one of her children, some of her grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. She keeps on keeping on and her kids and grandkids, well one in particular who lives with her, take care of her with the devotion that she deserves.
Hey, that’s one reason to have a big family, if you’re into that sort of thing. Not many of us will reach our 80’s, 90’s, or a hundred and have dozens of people there celebrating with them.
What a life. That’s a life well lived.