May 16th is a date that I reflect on annually. It is both your birthday and Grandma’s. I remember our first Mothers’ Day after Grandma passed. It was close to your birthday that year. The loss of Grandma was still so fresh for you, but you still took the time to give me a bouquet of roses to mark my first Mothers Day and took me to visit her grave with you.
I don’t think you realize that you were one of my earliest role models. Next to Mom and Grandma you are the woman who has made the deepest impact on my life. In my teens we bumped heads often, and I was at the receiving end of many lectures from you. What you didn’t know is that you didn’t have to utter a single word to guide me. Just watching you was enough.
The year is 1985. Mama has been assigned to a naval carrier for year, so I complete kindergarten up in Seattle under the care of Grandma. You and your son are a constant fixture at Grandma’s house. I can still envision you at the tiny round kitchen table, your textbooks spread out in front of you. On many times you collapsed from exhaustion while studying. I would walk in and see you, stuck on the contrast of your thick dark hair with the stark white pages of your books and alert Grandma.
“Grandma aunty is sleep at the table!”
And with that Grandma would rise gently from the living room, taking a break from her program to walk you to the bed so you could sleep comfortably.
Back then I knew you were studying to be a nurse. There was much I would not come to know until many years had passed. Later I would learn of the painful burden you were forced to carry as a teen mother. Later you would tell me of all the doubters and haters. The church folks who looked down their nose at you. Your own blood relatives, who called you a disgrace and told you that you would never rise out of the projects and constraints of single, poor Black motherhood. But there was one person who didn’t doubt you and loved you through it all: Grandma. Through the combination of your ambition and Grandma’s relentless support you did the damn thing.
You didn’t have to utter a single word to guide me. But as soon as I crossed over into puberty you had plenty of them. I often wondered where my funny, carefree aunty disappeared to. We had to talk about the sex and boys all the time, and it aggravated the hell out of me! When I learned of your experience I understood. Your lectures and interrogations were not based in a need to be nosy. They were borne out of a desire to protect me. You simply wanted to spare me-and all of your nieces-from having to walk the path you did. You wanted me to have a smoother road. When I was a teenager I couldn’t see it. Now I understand how deeply you loved me, and your words were a manifestation of that love.
Thirty years have passed since I watched you sleep at Grandma’s table. You started from the bottom but now you’re here. The son you had at seventeen and raised with the help of your husband is an exemplary young man. Your oldest daughter completed her Bachelors in 2013 and now inspires my daughter just as you inspired me. Your middle daughter has her sights set on law school and recently finished her freshman year at a HBCU. The twins, now fifteen years old, are both stellar students.
There have been multiple occasions in life where I’ve been tempted to get stuck in a pity pool. But when I think of you and all you fought your way out of, I straighten up and gird my loins. Through your life you showed me the value of having determination and faith in yourself. I admire you deeply and was blessed to have you in my life to help raise me.