Becoming Big Mama-Part I

Next month will mark the tenth anniversary of the passing of my maternal Grandma. Longtime readers of my blog and my friends and family know that my Grandma was one of my major influences. I still miss her deeply, and her life lessons still shape my own. One aspect of her life that has weighed heavily on my mind over the past year was her role as Big Mama. In reflecting on Grandma’s life as the matriarch, as well as my own Mama’s role in our family, I’ve reached a conclusion: the role of Big Mama is one that I am loath to take on.

Like many Black women of her class, Grandma’s life was marked by sacrifice. The year that she turned eight, 1932, would set the course of the rest of her life. In that year her Mama died(to this day I still have no idea what her cause of death was; my Grandma refused to discuss it). That was also the year Grandma dropped out of elementary school and went to the cotton fields. The oldest of three siblings, she assisted her own Grandma in the upbringing of her brother and sister. Grandma would marry by the time she was sixteen years old. She gave birth to her first child at sixteen; her last at forty-two. Grandma’s heart had no limit; she helped any and everyone who asked for her assistance. Three generations of my family were rocked in her arms, and she pretty much raised me and one of my cousins.

Grandma was our warmth, the very glue that held us all together. When she first took sick with cancer in 2002 my heart dropped. But the chemotherapy regimen she started worked and the cancer went into remission. Within nine months she seemed to be fully recovered, and our lives went back to their normal pattern. It was just a scare a close call for sure I thought, but not the end. I was wrong. Grandma’s cancer would return in the fall of 2003. My family would not learn of this until January 2004. At the time I was seven months pregnant with my daughter. When I came home from work one day my Mama came into my room and said we needed to talk. Tearful, she said that the cancer had returned and Grandma was dying. I was bewildered. I visited my Grandma often, and she hadn’t uttered a word of the return of her sickness, or her impending death.

“But…HOW? I don’t get it! She was fine!” My Mama sighed then spoke again.

“They gave her the prognosis in August. They told her the cancer was back and gave her a choice of going through chemo again or letting the cancer run its’ course. If she chose chemo it would only extend her life by up to a year. Mama didn’t want to go through chemo again…”she said, her voice breaking off.

The gravity of it sunk in. My Grandma is going to die. “How much time does she have Mama?”
“They told her six months or less back in August-”

“WHAT?” I shouted! How could this be? The clock was already ticking? I couldn’t comprehend it, and I couldn’t hold in my tears. This was so unfair. My Mom hugged me.

“She didn’t want anyone to know. Said she didn’t want the family worrying about her and fussing over her. Just wants to go peacefully when it’s time.”

My mind raced back to November 2003. My Grandma, eager to feed me and nurture the great-grandchild growing inside me, had prepared a tasty pot full of my favorite dish: Chicken and Dumplings. I stopped at the local butcher to get the stewing chicken that she needed to prepare it. When I arrived after work that evening she hurried me in out of the cold, then commanded me to lay down on the sofa while she cooked. Now faced with the news of her impending death I looked back at that evening in amazement. How could she do that? Where did she get such strength to stand in her kitchen, cooking and singing to herself while tumors ravaged her body? How could she carry on her regular activities, knowing that the sand in her hourglass was just about up? And again, she hadn’t said a word to me. Every time I saw her she was all smiles-a little tired, yes, but at almost eighty that was to be expected. My Mom spoke again, snapping me back to the present.

“So we’re going to have a family meeting this Sunday after church. Everyone will be there. We have to start making plans for her funeral and burial.” Out of words I simply nodded my agreement. Days later we would come together as planned. My aunts and uncles laid out the situation plain and simple: Grandma was dying, she had no life insurance as the policy she had been paying into was a scam and we would have to come up with cash to bury her properly. My Aunt Ann had already contacted a funeral home to find out what the costs would be and shared the figure with everyone. Given the number of working adults and teens in our family it was actually an easy, reasonable goal to meet. Everyone in attendance pledged to give the requested amount.  Mom and I left the meeting, sad at the prospect of my Grandma’s death but reassured that when the time came there would at least be no issues sending her off properly. However a month later Grandma would die, and I would find out how wrong we were.

Grandma would pass away quietly in her sleep on a Tuesday morning. Traditionally we hold funerals on Saturdays, so there was no time to waste. My aunt began the process of calling everyone to collect their pledge amounts, as the funeral home needed payment in full by Friday. It should have been a smooth process. After all, we had already discussed it. But suddenly people were unable to keep the word they had given just weeks before. By Thursday my Mom would come to me and tell me that we still had a huge gap. A number of relatives had not given the pledged amount and had contributed nothing at all to the burial costs. I would need to give more on top of my pledged amount. Though I was expecting my baby in three weeks I had my Mom drive me to the bank, where I withdrew $500 and handed it over to my aunt without complaint. Could I have used the money? Sure! But this was my GRANDMA. My reasoning was simple: I could always make more money but I would never have another opportunity to bury my Grandma! With all that she had done for me in life this was nothing. It was my duty.

Through extra contributions from certain people my family was able to pay the funeral home and have a decent funeral for Grandma. While relieved that crisis was averted, I was very tight over the fact that it even became an issue in the first place. I thought of all that my Grandma had done for her loved ones. I thought of the thousands of dollars that she saved people in childcare costs over the years by watching their children for them. I thought of how she let them use her address. I thought of how she never told anyone no, and was always there even when asked to do something last-minute. Yet this was the reward that she received? This was the thanks for all her love and sacrifice? Grandma was so selfless she didn’t even want us to know of her impending death. I strongly felt that she deserved better than this, and vented my anger in discussions with my Mom. She shared my feelings and, as usual, listened to what I had to say.

Less than eighteen months later my Mom would be dead as well. If anyone had told me on the day of my Grandma’s funeral that my Mama would follow soon after I would have stared at them in disbelief. To say that my Mom’s death at forty-six years of age shocked me would be a gross understatement. I felt so hollow. Isn’t there some cosmic rule against this, I asked God in my head. It just wasn’t fair to take family members that close to each other. But as my Mom had told me plenty of times before, life wasn’t fair. Now that she had died prematurely-and without insurance too-I was about to discover exactly how unfair it could get.

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A native Seattleite and East Coast transplant, I have been interested in politics, religion, and race from the day I saw “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” on the bookshelf belonging to my BFF’s mom back in 1991. While my zealotry has thankfully diminished with maturity, I remain the deep thinking, passionate, and humble woman I have always been.

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