I am sitting across from my cousin Leecee on a balmy Thursday evening, sipping on rum punch. Her luminous, almond-shaped brown eyes glow as she animatedly fills me in on her new position and regales me with tales of working on The Hill. It is hard to believe that this is the little girl who used to stumble around our Grandma’s apartment in my stilettos back in the day. Leecee is now a grown woman, laser-focused on her career with her future clearly mapped out. I continue listening to her, only looking away to get the attention of our server.
“Another rum and punch, please,” I ask. He scurries away to fulfill the request. He returns quickly, our next round in his hands, and I am relieved. Maybe this rum will help me because the wave of emotion I feel watching my baby cousin has me feeling like I will collapse into tears at any second.
Physically, I am with my cousin in 2021. But my spirit was in 1985, more than a decade before the girl sitting across from me came into the world.
I was a little girl at the time, five years old, when Mom received her orders for deployment and flew me from Guam to Seattle to be cared for by her mom. Though I cried and threw a full tantrum when I realized it was happening, I soon adapted to the rhythm of temporary life in Seattle with my maternal family. And out of all the relatives flowing in and out of Grandma’s place that year, there was one I saw the most: my Aunt Deb, the youngest child. She came through our front door at least five times a week, with her two-year-old son, Billy, sitting on her hip. I would light up they came over, chiefly because Billy’s presence meant I had another child to play with.
“Mama, what you cooking today” Deb would ask as she stood at the stove, removing lids from Grandma’s pots.
“NONE OF YOUR BUSINESS, NOSY ROSEY!” Grandma would yell out. Grandma’s irritation was an act, though, because she would go in the kitchen and smile as she made her daughter a plate. Grandma wanted to make sure that she ate and relaxed a bit before she started her homework.
I couldn’t tell you how many times my aunt faceplanted in her textbooks that year. I watched my aunt sleep often, stealing glances of her in between commercials when GI Joe and Jem were on. When Grandma noticed, she’d rise from the sofa and walk to the kitchen. Gently, she shook my aunts’ shoulders to rouse her from her sleep.
“Girl, just go on ahead and go lay down in the bed for a spell,” Grandma intoned in her Mississippi lilt,” you gon get a crook in yo neck trying to sleep at this table!”
Aunt Deb would raise a feeble protest. “No, mama, I need to get up and get back to studying-”
“Hmmph, looks to me like you need to sleep more than study right now!”
Despite my aunt’s objections, this scene always ended with aunty napping in the back bedroom. Grandma returned to the living room, keeping an eye on the clock. Once she felt her daughter had gotten sufficient rest, she woke her up. Aunty returned to the kitchen table, renewed and better equipped to complete her homework. Poor thing, I thought to myself, Aunt Deb seems so tired most of the time.
At that time, I only knew and understood what I could see. I knew my aunt had a child when she was young, that she was studying and that she was perpetually sleepy. But over the years, I learned more. I learned of the treatment my aunt received as a teen mother. I learned of the people who told her she could not and would not rise above her current station in life. She would forever be another grim urban statistic-just another young, unwed Black mother living in the projects.
However, one crucial individual did not write my aunty off and speak negativity into her future: her mother, my maternal Grandma. Grandma told aunty that she still loved her. Guided by motherly love, Grandma girded her loins, focusing on the future of her child and grandchild. Aunty’s dreams would not be deferred on Grandma’s watch. There was no question or debate as far as Grandma was concerned. My baby’s still gonna graduate high school, and she will graduate on time. She’s still gonna get her nursing degree. And I am gonna help her do it.
So, in 1985, when Grandma watched over my cousin while aunty slept, she was keeping her word. Unyielding in her love for Aunt Deb, Grandma would continue to provide the emotional and practical support that her youngest child needed to level up. And while Grandma was my aunts’ primary source of support, she was not the only one. I remember the kindness shown to her by church mothers and first ladies, the kind of women who will pray for you AND discreetly press a Ben Franklin into your palm after service. I remember them asking my aunt how school was going and offering to babysit her son to give her a break and extra time to prepare for finals. But most of all, I remember Grandma’s unabashed joy when aunty started her career as a nurse. The program from aunty’s graduation became one of Grandma’s treasured possessions, and she kept it in pristine condition until she died in 2004.
But it is 2021 now. I am not in Grandma’s tiny, one-bedroom apartment on MLK & Dawson back in Seattle. I am at The Park at 14th in D.C., having my now third rum and punch, nibbling on jerk chicken while Leecee discusses her plans for grad school. And though Leecee is in front of me, it is my aunts’ face I keep seeing, faceplanted in her textbooks at the kitchen table. And I know that aunty’s first son, my dear cousin Billy, holds an A.A. and is a talented musician. I know that aunty’s second child, my sweet cousin Nela, is a Western Washington University graduate and talented actress pursuing her dreams in Atlanta. Aunty’s third child, Leecee, is a proud graduate of Southern University in Baton Rouge.
And aunty’s youngest children, the fraternal twins? My aunt and uncle just escorted the girl twin, Jurilyn, back to her dorm at Southern University last week. The boy twin, Jerald, is headed back to Morehouse this fall.
And to look back on it, all was almost enough to overwhelm me emotionally. My aunt was the stone that the builders rejected. She was judged, discouraged, discounted, and written off at times. But with the support of her mother, she overcame the obstacles in her way, pressing forward past the doubters.
At 24 years old, my Aunt Deb got married, beginning a partnership that endures. My Uncle Jerry, an ordained minister and mental health counselor is a principled man. In him, my aunt found a man whose devotion and support allowed them to raise children with radically different paths than many of our relatives. With Uncle Jerry by her side, picking up where Grandma left off, my aunt became the headstone of the next generation. I could not be prouder of her and what her children have become.