My grandmother passed away a little over a month ago at the time of me writing this. Today as in the release date of this post would have been her 102nd birthday. For the month of June I was planning on writing about some people in my life, as it relates to the Poem If, by Rudyard Kipling, and this is only different in that the title does not reflect a line in that poem. However, much like the lessons I gained from the poem echo in my mind, the lessons I learned from her life echo as well. I consider myself very fortunate to have had a few truly remarkable people around me to inspire, and guide on this journey, Sis, as my grandmother is affectionately called, is certainly one of the biggest.
One of my earliest memories of my grandmother, my dad picked me up and took me somewhere that she was staying on one of her visits to Chicago. I was really young and not quite sure why they were playing this joke on me, but I didn’t know she was my grandmother. I sincerely thought she was my aunt because grandmas didn’t look or sound like her that I knew of. My dad told me she was my grandmother, but that made me call into question exactly how young she was when she had him if this was true. To me, she looked no more than mid to late 30’s so, when she said that was wrong, I topped out at 40. I’ve never been one for flattery, so that was what I honestly thought, not knowing my dad was closer to 40 and she was closer to 70 years old at that time.
For my early and most of my adult years, she lived in Brooklyn, and I remember her asking “when are you going to come see me in New York” when I was 8 or 9. I was cool with going whenever she would be willing to have me, so that summer I went. This was my first time on an Airplane, and my uncle Cleve was somehow tasked to be my escort to NY. Cleve’s personality was magnetic, we got on the plane, he’s speaking to everyone, making everyone laugh and I was church mouse quiet observing all of this. He asked if I wanted to see the cockpit, which I shyly said “yes” to, so he asked the flight attendant if it would be ok for me to go in when we made it to cruising altitude. She said “of course” probably because I was shy and super quiet. Until then though, I sat there examining the ashtray built into my seat, the folding table, the aircraft instructions, and all. I wanted to know what I needed to know in case this damn thing started falling out the sky, so I tuned Cleve out while the flight attendant explained our aircraft. Once she concluded, he handed me a piece of gum, “chew on that when we take off, so your ears don’t bother you too much”. I thought he was crazy until we started going.
When we arrived in NYC Cleve handed me off to Sis and Bob (my grandmother’s second husband), they chit chatted for a minute, and he went back to board another flight. I didn’t do a whole lot of talking, we walked to the car, and they said we were going to get something to eat. We stopped at a dimly lit soul food restaurant, and they remarked how I eat like a bird, because I didn’t come close to finishing my meal. When we left, they explained what I was seeing as we were driving. I kind of tuned them out because I was shocked that New York looked the way it did. Once we arrived to their home in Brooklyn, it was still light out, but the evening was coming fast. There was a park right across the street but very few kids in it at that point in the day. Sis showed me around and asked me some more normal questions of course and then we watched TV for the rest of the evening. I sat under the dining room table for some reason, and she let me get comfy in my surroundings.
The funny thing is that, outside of all the cool stuff we did, and cool places Sis took me, what stood out most was her insistence that I do a better job washing my knees and elbows. As weird as this may sound, from that point forward I always give my knees and elbows an extra scrub in the shower. She asked if I wanted to go to the Statue of Liberty or Ellis Island and I said Ellis Island. When we went, I was looking for our last names, she said “our ancestors never went through Ellis Island” It didn’t really sink in to me at that point. She cooked a few times as well, that was my first-time having chicken breasts at home. I thought she was rich to be able to afford chicken breasts. She also had several grapevines in her backyard, and she made her own wine. As a kid, I didn’t care because those concord grapes were like bags of sweet snot, but I realized I enjoyed bonding with her that summer. When it was time to return, I promised I’d be back next summer as if I were going to be buying the ticket.
I returned to NY the next summer, no idea who paid for my ticket though. We went to the same soul food spot and saw different sights that time. The eye opener was that she took me to Harlem. I haven’t been to Harlem since she took me, but it was wild. The smells, the people, the trash, the crowd. It was a lot to take in. She took me and some other kids to Coney Island a couple times for that visit. All in all, I felt like that was going to be my go-to spot for the summers. I enjoyed the sightseeing, but I preferred being in Brooklyn, because although it’s very different, something about it reminded me of, or felt like home. Little did I know, that would be my last visit to NY until Bob passed away several years later.
A while after I moved in with my dad, I was kind of new to getting bad grades here and there. Sis came to town and somehow the topic of my grades came up. I was embarrassed of course, but she asked me if I believed I could do better, I told her I believed so, and she said “there it is, if you believe you can, you can and you will”. In that moment, I would have co-signed just about anything she said…my grades improved slightly for a while before returning to underachieving levels. I never wanted to show her my grades again until college because I knew I was coming up short of her expectations, but she never made me feel bad or reminded me of missing the mark I technically set for myself.
Over the years, I always saw her at events and gatherings in Chicago. Sis was 59 when I was born and there was a whole lot of life lived in those 59 years that I didn’t learn about until she passed away. One of the few things that I discovered while she was still alive was that she spent a considerable amount of time in Europe shortly before my dad was born. Although I didn’t know the details when I discovered this, and I’m still a bit fuzzy right now, that information partially inspired me to jot down some details and events in my life. Not to mention, share my perspective without the need to interpret my feelings or intentions behind them. I always knew Sis to be pragmatic, I like to think I inherited a bit of that as well, so I think it’s cool that things she said still echo with me.
When I joined the Air Force, she wasn’t thrilled about that at all. She waited a while to let me know this, but she let me know. Granted, she didn’t have all of the information regarding what made me join, she believed I had several options at my disposal before taking that one. We were talking on the phone one day, she asked “when are you going to get out of there” as if I were locked up in prison. I told her my plan was to get my degree and everything I can out of the military to ensure I’m good when I get out. She asked “that’s a good plan, what have you done to start it so far”. At that point I hadn’t done much to start other than come up with the plan, so she kindly stated “it’s time for you to get out of there then”. That was in 2007, in 2008 I got deployed which put my plans on hold, but I registered for school when I returned and never looked back. I spoke to her again shortly before I graduated and luckily I was able to tell her I was about to graduate, made the dean’s list a few times and I was going to get out a couple months later.
In 2013 I started a business and she congratulated me on that. She never gave me advice, but she always inquired how it was going when I’d see her. For a while I had very few accolades to share, but as time went on, the success increased. I took my daughter to visit her one day and it hadn’t dawned on me that Sis was 94 years old. At the time my daughter was just a quiet, shy kid like me when I first met Sis (and knew who she was). She didn’t say much, she just smiled and showed enough interest in the piano for Sis to sit down and tap some keys with her. It was interesting to me because the entire time that I had known Sis, she was not your typical grandmother by any stretch of the imagination. This was my first time seeing her looking like a grandma. I can only imagine the feeling of meeting your great grandchildren, and in some cases great-great grandchildren.
As I sat in the pew during her eulogy, I thought “this is a true legacy” to be remembered fondly as a good person by all that know you. Granted, people will lie on you when you die to make you seem better than you were if you were on the fence, that wasn’t the case this time. At 101 years old, most of your peers have likely passed on already. She paid her respects to more friends and family members than I would ever want to. She accomplished far more than I will ever know, in a time where it wasn’t easy for Black people in America. No, it’s still not easy, but the struggle is significantly different now than it was in the 1940’s and 50’s. She was an entrepreneur, mentor, activist, leader, and she should be remembered as such. In addition to that, and significantly more important, she was a mom, grandma, wife, sister, friend, adviser, and so on to a whole lot of people too.
The gentleman giving the eulogy grew up around my grandmother and one of his main take aways was her insistence that he could do better. The belief that it is in all of us to not only believe we can, but to also make a sincere effort to do and be better than what we are. Not in relation to other people, not for personal gain, but because we owe it to the world and ourselves to improve. I appreciate the relationship I had with her, though there are so many things we never discussed. My wife asked me repeatedly to interview her when she was older and in poor health and I never did, and I don’t regret this. I realize that it would take a lifetime to get me caught up anyway, so instead of me focusing on all of the things that predate me, I focused on the lessons I learned directly. So, while self-improvement and being a better human being will forever echo in my mind, I will also continue scrubbing these knees and elbows to ensure they are clean as can be. Happy birthday Sis!