It was Tuesday, February 24th, 2004. I’m seated in the conference room for our weekly team meeting. Suddenly, my cell phone begins to vibrate violently. I remain anchored to my seat, not excusing myself to answer it. It continues to shake for the next few minutes. But I sit through the meeting anyway. I know what those persistent calls mean. I’d like to avoid facing that reality for a little longer.
When we adjourn at 5 minutes to 9:00 AM, I open my flip phone and see the missed calls from Uncle Danny and Mom. I inhale deeply, then dial my mother back. I don’t remember what I said to her. I just remember Mom saying, “she’s gone,” the rest of her speech dissolving into unintelligible sobs. My grandmother is dead.
We knew this was coming, of course. When I was a little girl, I thought Grandma was invincible and would live forever. Her cancer diagnosis in 2002 showed me how little I understood that even beloved elders are mortal. Grandma was the one person who had consistently loved and been there for me.
And now it had happened. Grandma wasn’t here anymore.
Grandma suffered immensely as her Osteosarcoma metastasized during her last months. A selfish part of me wished she could stay forever. But an honest, wise voice knew that the release of death was what Grandma needed. God, it hurts to even write that. But it’s true.
I still remember sitting beside her on her sofa two weeks before she died. Grandma’s tiny apartment was constantly filled with visitors coming to say their final goodbyes that weekend. I sat close to her that Sunday as she smiled and greeted everyone. Discreetly, she motioned for me to come closer. “Here,” she whispered, passing a balled-up skirt into my hands, “take this, and don’t let anyone see,” she intoned.
I nodded, rising silently to walk to the bathroom. Unraveling Grandma’s skirt, I now understood why she’d given it to me. One of her wounds had burst, the blood and pus spilling onto her clothing. And she didn’t want to alarm her visitors. I burst into tears as I filled the sink with warm water and soap to hand wash Grandma’s skirt. I was eight months pregnant and knew I shouldn’t be crying…but I can’t help it. Grandma is going to die, and there’s not much time left.
So, when my phone started blowing up that Tuesday morning? I wanted to hold on to my illusion a bit longer. But when I stood in her living room an hour later and saw her empty hospice bed, I couldn’t lie to myself anymore. Grandma passed into eternal rest a few months shy of her eightieth birthday.
One image from Grandma’s funeral is emblazoned in my mind. It’s of Floyzell. She rocks side to side gently in the pew, quiet tears flooding her face. I’ve known Floyzell since I was five years old. An ebony brick house from northern Louisiana (and to this day, one of the best cooks I’ve ever met), she was Grandma’s best friend. Her sister, Eva, is my aunt Deb’s mother-in-law. Floyzell, Eva, and many of the salt and pepper, haired men and women present were my elders. Like Grandma, they were born in the Deep South before WWII. I adored them. I grew up at their knee. Foreign as their old world was to me, it was an integral part of my foundation and identity. Grandma and the elders ensured this by telling me stories of the world they came from.
“You ate the same thing…every day?”. Grandma, Floyzell, and Eva were telling me about the Great Depression and its aftermath. I was around 11, and I was incredulous at their words.
“Yes, chile, cornbread, and collard greens, with some pot liquor and salt pork. Sometimes for lunch, you might have a sugar sandwich.”
“But what about meat? I asked. “Chicken, fish, beef?”
Three women gave each other a knowing glance and laughed at my question.
“Baby,” Floyzell said gently, “we couldn’t afford to have meat every day. No one in our town could. That was a luxury.”
I would soak in their tales of poverty, deprivation, obstacles to education, and white supremacist terrorism, my soul looking back in wonder at their lives.
“But that was so terrible. How did you make it? How did our people survive that?”
“We survived it with Jesus… and each other”, Grandma concluded. Floyzell chimed in again.
“‘ Sho did. We might have had that same pot of greens every day, but everybody in our town ATE. No one went without!”
Grandma and my elders told me about their old world, but they also showed it to me. They demonstrated the sense of community they were raised with. Though they’d left the Rural South decades ago, they never abandoned the notion of mutual aid.
So when my Aunt Deb had her first child at 16 and was determined to be more than a tragic statistic, the older women helped. They took turns babysitting her young son when she needed to study. And they discreetly slipped Ben Franklins into her palm to help financially.
I grew up seeing deacons, pastors, and youth leaders investing their time and money in nurturing young Black men who needed it. They taught them to shave, dress, carry themselves as men, and respectfully approach women and date. When, for various reasons, boys didn’t have their fathers present to help them navigate manhood, the older men did it.
Due to the scourge of the crack epidemic, elders like Grandma and my Pastor, had to raise their grandchildren. Once again, that sense of community came into play. The tight-knit nature of my maternal family back then was a major factor in preventing my childhood from worsening, but it wasn’t the only factor. The steadfast, unmovable love and support of the community that surrounded me then were essential. My Grandma received abundant help in getting me to adulthood from people who were not obligated by blood or kinship ties to do so. But in their minds, they were. How do you survive terrible times? By having and supporting each other.
“WOW, that sounds awesome!!! So…WHAT HAPPENED?”
The interlocutor is my daughter. The child I was carrying in my womb at Grandma’s funeral is now an 18-year-old college student. Born three weeks after Grandma passed, her middle name is a derivative of Grandma’s first name. I did this to honor Grandma and ensure that her great-granddaughter carries that name with her wherever she goes.
My baby girl’s question is in response to hearing the story of her ancestors and my upbringing once again. I share it with her often-just as Grandma did with me and as her Grandma did in the 1930s. One day I won’t be here anymore, and my daughter must hold on to the stories of her heritage and identity so that she can pass them down when it is her turn. So, I want to make sure it sticks. But today, she has a question. Baby girl wants to know what happened, and I understand why. The tight-knit maternal clan and wider community I describe are alien to her. But it has also become a memory for me, fading in prominence.
Things have changed. Last year, I was both appalled and heartbroken to hear middle-aged Black American men callously say they would (hypothetically) NOT give food to the hungry half-siblings of their child. “Well, it’s not MY KID; why should I care? Let their dad or mama figure out how to feed them when hungry!” I read comment after comment along these lines, and all I could think of was what Grandma and Floyzell told me three decades ago:
‘EVERYBODY ATE. NO ONE WENT WITHOUT
Things have changed. Last year, I discussed Black boys and mentorship/father figures with an acquaintance. There is a vast cohort of young Black boys who are cast adrift to figure out manhood and place in society on their own. My 16-year-old nephew was one of them. I bemoaned this situation for my nephew and the millions of black boys in his position throughout the country. But the demand is far greater than the supply. There was no shortage of Black men online, and podcasting to complain, whine, and critique women for hours, but there’s a shortage of them engaging Black boys in our community. My acquaintance didn’t understand why this troubled me.
“Well, why should a Black man help mentor and raise a black boy who isn’t his son? It’s not his responsibility.” But all I could think of were all the Black men I grew up with who did just that, guiding and teaching young men they didn’t sire.
In my youth, I thought Grandma would live forever. I thought her culture, those norms rural Black Southerners set, would also endure. The idea that kinship and commitment extended beyond the nuclear family, upholding the value of community. We brought it over with us in the bowels of slave ships, further refining it on plantations. We looked out for each other because we were all we got. That’s how it was for:
My great-great Grandma in 1876;
My great-Grandma in 1906;
My Grandma in 1924;
My Mom in 1958;
And that’s how it was for me, born in 1980. I just knew it would be the same for my child. But the 21st century has shown me how naïve I was. Like my beloved Grandma, that old world, that extended definition of family and community, is gone, and I don’t know if Black Americans will ever get it back.