As I scroll through my usual feed of baby announcements, grad school graduations and the inevitable hometown rants, I see an out-of-place old face: My grandmother’s. The post is my cousin Baby’s. We were close once, but now our exchanges are limited to a wall post once a year, “Happy Birthday! Love you. Miss you!” Baby’s post is a picture of our grandmother. Hands on hips, draped in a brown shawl, hair pinned up in a loose grey bun, her pose candid as if someone yelled her name and she turned quickly. The caption is some novel-length explanation of her beauty, punctuated with a bold #RestInParadise. I am frozen. My eyes go hot. I bite my bottom lip hard trying to hold back the frown. I look up from my computer, make eye contact with my partner Laura sitting across from me, my eyes watering. Laura asks, “What’s going on? Why are you crying?” I will the well of tears away from the edge of my eyelids and respond, “ I just found out my grandmother died.” She gasps, and says “Oh no, I’m sorry.” I spend the rest of the workday in my head, trying to understand why Baby didn’t call to tell me before sharing it with her world of acquaintances. Trying to make sense of how detached we had become.
That night, alone in my portion of a four bedroom in Bed-Stuy, my mother calls.
It’s nearly 11 o’clock. She must have just finished her desk job at the Atlanta airport. She probably just got home, sat her bag down, and took a seat in our floral covered living room. She has no idea I already know the news. I listen as she struggles to find the words.
I tell her, “I know, I saw it on Facebook.” My voice is muffled, low and nasally. She says pained, “I don’t know how all that stuff works.” She says, “When you can’t stop crying, you pray.” Before our ‘Goodbyes’ and “I love you’s” My mother tells me, “We were all so lucky to have known Grandma Lona, all so fortunate.”
It was true, my father’s mother was magic. Mother of 12, a woman with 9 names: Lona Mae Idabelle Elizabeth Frances Polly Anne Randolph Joiner, Jr., was no typical woman. She carried with her a family tradition of naming, not only sons after fathers, but daughters after mothers. I knew her as soft. She aged head first, with every stress and death and worry and sleepless night hanging from her head like a lazy crown of diamond, crystal and quartz. She had laugh lines etched by tears and a subtle hunch to her back, worn from all the love she had to pick up and carry along the way. The sag in her arms, she’d say, was just her angel wings forming. That night I dreamt of her.
The next morning, the weight of my white down blanket and yesterday’s event is too heavy for me to push off and start my daily routine.
My cat paces back and forth at the edge of my bed, meowing in his usual ‘Feed Me’ high-pitch. I can’t be bothered. I’ve only just graduated college and entered the workforce. And now, two months into my job as a copywriter in Manhattan, I have to pen a succinct and appropriate email to my boss, a nice man, but still a stranger to me.
Hi Michael, Unfortunately my grandmother passed away and I will need to take some time off.
He replies within the hour: Sept 4th, 9:43 AM.
Jessica, I’m so sorry to hear that. Take all the time you need. I’ve arranged for HR to handle your bereavement.
He doesn’t know that “all the time I need” is another summer in Ohio.
It had been at least 10 years since I spent a summer there.
In my childhood Julys, when I was out of school and it got sticky hot in Georgia, me, mom, dad, and my two older brothers, Aaron and Larry, piled into our purple minivan, appropriately named Barney. We listened to Motown and played the license plate game before I was eventually lulled to sleep by the familiar rock of the road.
Eight hours later we arrived at 5854 Wyatt Avenue in Cincinnati, Ohio. Greeted by the night hum of crickets and cicadas, I sleepily gathered myself from the far back seat and made my way into the house. Wood panel lined the walls and the tiling was three shades of brown. It was dim, just a small warm lamp in the far corner of the living room or the simmering glow of the TV. I knew my grandfather would be in his chair, wrapped in a blanket up to his neck that my grandmother had snuggly tucked around his body. I hugged him first. My grandmother close behind leaned in, asked if he knew who I was and he replied, “That’s Stevie’s girl.”
I knew my father’s father as hard, but time had worn him down. I’d only heard stories and seen videos of the days before his sickness settled in. Days when he said whole sentences. Days when he still sat in his chair in the corner of the living room with his flyswatter, fanning away summer flies and swatting any kid that got too out of hand or ran by too quickly.
My grandmother was all the energy he didn’t have anymore.
She sat down right in his lap and asked if she was hurting him, like she’d been doing since she was 16 and they met in the little grocery store my grandfather’s father owned. She kissed his cheek and rubbed the little hair left on his head before helping him up and to their room. She walked him through the living room, past the narrow kitchen and the oak kitchen table with the mismatched chairs. Past the double paned glass door that stayed open for every afternoon barbecue and didn’t have any blinds. Past the basement door I was too scared to open. Through the long narrow hallway past the bathroom, the spare room and the backroom that housed the old upright piano. She counterbalanced his steps all the way to the end of the house in the same way she’d done for the 30 years they lived at the place on Wyatt.
We all found our sleeping spots. My brothers and I slept in the living room. Two of us on the couch and one on the floor wrapped in handmade blankets. My mom and dad were in the small backroom across the hall from my grandmother and grandfather. Sleep was easy in the window wrapped living room. Blinds closed. One window cracked. The house fell silent, but outside the night hummed.
My grandmother ushered in the sun with 4 a.m. prayers. And with the rise of light, the procession began. My Aunt Val arrived first with her daughter, Valerie and son, Tracy. Big Val was loud. She rooted for the Steelers in a family full of Bengals and Browns fans. She was small — 5’1’’— but she didn’t let that stop her from getting into yelling matches in defense of her team. We called little Valerie, Baby. At 10, she was closest to my age, just 8 months older. She was a dangerous little girl, tomboy tough and more outspoken than me by a mile. She fought with her older brother Tracy constantly, getting into full blown cursing matches. The only time they were friends is when they were plotting and scheming together. She was lighter-skinned than me, had boobs already, and could sing. She was my summer sister.
Baby and I spent our days together outside. We left our parents to greet the procession and ran out the screen door into the warm afternoon sun. We jumped rope with Cici, Blanche and Vivian from down the street. Baby tried to teach me double-dutch, but I never quite got it. We rode borrowed bikes down the steep hill at the far side of the neighborhood where the houses got bigger. We sat on Ms. Monica’s porch talking and eating popsicles she passed us through the window. We ran by the house with the Rottweiler. We laughed as he barked at the braids bouncing on our shoulders. We snuck through the neighbor’s backyard, stole handfuls of dill from the garden and ate little bits at the bottom of our driveway. We ran inside only when the sun got old, deep orange and hung low in the sky.
Before I swung the screen door open I heard my family laughing in a chorus. Voices half-harmonized speaking over each other in swirling sentences. The three short steps from the front door to the living room felt like walking center stage. I slowed before I popped my head around the corner. I readied my eyes to save picture memories of the room wrapped in windows, lazy daylight slipping in creating glowing silhouettes of my family.
My Aunt Lona, 35 and the youngest of the 12, was first to jump up when I appeared, sweat-dried and smelling of outside. She exclaimed in her high pitch, “Is that my Jessie!?” I smiled big and she ran over singing my name, “Jessie, Jessie girl.” The conversations swirled around me as I did my round of hugs.
My Uncle Tony, in his fluffy baritone, “Hey girl, you are just too pretty.”
My Aunt Cynt, cigarette in hand, E&J and Pepsi in a blue plastic cup, “You gettin’ tall.”
She looked over at my mother, “Rhonda, How do you do all that hair?”
My Uncle Phillip gave me a tight squeeze. His son, Phillip Jr., otherwise known as Boo, was a round boy a year younger than me. He gave me an even tighter squeeze. I asked about the aunts and uncles and cousins not present. They were accounted for — visits with their other side of the family, day trips to King’s Island, or otherwise wandering.
I found my place, somewhere on the floor, tucked near where my mother sat. They passed new stories back and forth, gave updates on babies and deaths, and settled into reminiscing on when they were all young under the same roof. I marveled at the way they had five conversations at once. How they spanned a brown rainbow from near white to deep chocolate, but still looked related. How the room boomed. How they managed to figure out what was important and where they needed to jump in to defend themselves. How one of them could say one word and the whole room would burst into a belly laugh. Uncle Tony broke out into Whitney Houston’s “I’m Every Woman” and Aunt Lona joined in. We all hopped up and danced around the living room. My grandma shook her hips in the middle of the circle. And someone yelled out “Gon’ Mama!”
With 12 kids of her own and countless grandkids, my grandma could still take a moment and make you feel like the only person in the room.
She saw me: Observant, quiet and curious, so she became my summer school. She taught me to make mandalas. How to surround myself with colorful people. She taught me to crochet. How to tie heart strings together. She taught me hand bone. How to clap and praise without shame.
For two months, I drank these days like desert water. I learned about my family and love and the things they never taught me in school. I took my lessons home at the end of every summer until I was 13. That was the year my grandfather died. One night my grandma walked him through the living room all the way to the end of the house and he found rest. In the morning, Aunt Val found him too asleep to wake up. I never saw my grandmother cry. She prayed and taught my 2-year-old cousin, Rikki, that our grandpa was in heaven.
That same year, a month after burying my grandfather, 5854 Wyatt Avenue burnt to the ground. The fire started in the basement. It set memories and dance floor and summer Mecca all ablaze. It was a brightness so big it took out all the light and left ash. My Aunt Lenny was there when it happened. She helped my grandmother from the far back room out the double-paned glass door. My grandmother didn’t cry for the house. She thanked God that he had taken my grandfather before the fire. Aunt Cynt asked my grandma to come live with her, but my grandma found a smaller place of her own where she could make a home. It was a duplex in a quiet neighborhood, not too far from the old place. She stood alone as the last pillar we all tied ourselves to.
The summers were never the same after that. No one roof could house us all. I had to hop from house to house each visit. Baby and Val and Tracy moved around a lot, and didn’t have the room for me to spend long days or whole summers living with them. I stayed with my mother’s side of the family. My two summer months became a summer week, then a weekend, then whatever time my mother or father could get off work. I grew up, went to college in New York and made myself a satellite of my own family. Built by them but pushed off to create my own orbit. I spent my summers interning in the city. We didn’t pile into the purple minivan anymore. We went full years without a visit. I called my grandmother every-so-often. I called less when she started forgetting and moved in with Aunt Cynt. It was too hard to know that she had forgotten all the things she taught me.
It was too hard to know she didn’t know me.
But really none of my family knew me anymore. Everything they knew of me was from my dad’s bragging. And everything I knew of them was from choppy Skype calls every other weekend. We had become headlines to one another: ‘Baby Has Two Babies of Her Own’ ‘Jessica Gets a New Gig’. It’s no wonder, ‘Grandma Passes: #RestInParadise’ came so easily.
Now at 22, the trip to Ohio is no summer celebration. I board my Friday afternoon flight from LaGuardia to Dayton. I sleep most of the way and touchdown at dusk. My mother, father and brothers drive the eight hours from Georgia and wait for me near the small baggage claim. We drive to my mother’s sister’s house. I sleep alone there. The bed is comfortable but the room is cold.
In the morning, my family is first to arrive at the church. We are there even before the casket. A woman who works for the church asks how we are related to the deceased. I wince. My mother explains our relation, we’re handed funeral programs and we find seats. My mother and father sit in the first row, me, Aaron and Larry in the third. Family slowly trickles in, filling the deep blue pews. The casket arrives. They place it at the bottom of the pulpit in between overflowing mounds of white flowers. I think of how my grandmother used to say, “Don’t bring me flowers when I’m gone. I’ll have no use for them.” I look through the program and I’m listed as a flower-bearer, meant to carry a bouquet behind the casket as the pallbearers carry my grandmother out of the church.
When they open the casket, Aaron is silent. Larry takes a long, deep breath. My mother comforts my father as he sobs the words, “That’s my momma.” I stare at what couldn’t be my grandmother. I don’t remember her as dull grey, she was never this skinny and that isn’t her nose. My mother asks if we want to go up. Larry says, “Mm mm,” and at 34 years old sounds like a scared child. I stand up and walk over to the casket. Baby comes up behind me, wraps her arm around my waist and we stand there in silence. We are still sisters, blood bound forever. The family my grandmother made is all around. The church is nearly full of people with the blood of Lona Mae Idabelle Elizabeth Francis Polly Anne Randolph Joiner, Jr. We cry and manage to laugh through the memorial speeches. We hug and cry more through the priest’s prayers. As the sunlight pours into the chapel through dust-covered colored glass, we are all painted with light. Just like the sun that shone through 5854 Wyatt. My Uncle Tony sings “Never Would Have Made It.” I grab Larry’s hand, then Aaron’s.
I look up at each of them. As we sing, “I’m stronger, I’m wiser, I’m better, much better,” I know it is in my blood to create closeness, to love my family and to make it known as often as possible. Just like my grandmother taught me.