From the beginning of my life, my grandmother celebrated me. When I was born, she made a banner out of paper bags with my name, height, weight, and date and time I was born. She hung it in her office, where she worked as a clerk for the State of Connecticut. My mom still has the picture, and today, I often wonder if she ever imagined how badly things would end.
I was born to my grandparents’ only child, my father. My mother had three brothers, so I think she never experienced the attention and care that is lavished on an only child.
My grandmother had anxiously been awaiting grandchildren since my parents married in 1970. In 1973, when my mother became pregnant, she told my grandmother, who sat in a chair and cried with joy.
My life is a study in contrasts. I remember the little things as a child, such as getting my hair combed and my grandmother complaining my hair was “bad enough to carry a pistol”. In African American culture, at that time, “good hair” was considered curly or wavy, and “bad hair” was considered kinky and nappy. Thank God we’ve come a long way from those days, and have embraced our natural hair no matter what the texture.
But I’m off subject. My grandmother’s love and care was short lived. My mother and father had differences that caused a rift in their relationship. My mother’s affair with my future stepdad was in full swing, and my father was a truck driver who had other women as well. In 1977, they split, and they each moved to Charlotte, North Carolina, a progressive city of the New South.
I would still see my grandmother on occasion, when my father’s travels took me to her city. I was always with my father from age 3 to 5. My mother was living her new life with her new man, and my father had the tough job of raising a little girl on the road. He always loves to remember taking my potty chair with him in the truck. When I did see my grandmother, she was all smiles.
As I grew through childhood, I always remember my grandmother fixing hot breakfasts of french toast as The Price Is Right blared in the background, and hot combing my hair while an old metal fan whirred that once sliced a nice gash in my finger.
But one day, everything changed. My grandfather developed a blood clot in his brain stem, which resulted in a stroke that left him completely incapacitated. He could no longer walk or talk. His body became gnarled and frail. My grandmother continued to work her job, and had a nurse stay in her house during the day to care of him. I never truly got used to looking at him like that. He ate sloppily, and got food all over his face and bib.
My grandmother actually had cable, and TV was a big part of my time with her. I still remember standing in front of the TV dancing to the video “Lucky Star” by Madonna. I tried so hard to imitate her moves.
By 1986, my grandmother became overwhelmed by the needs of my grandfather. My dad convinced her to move to Charlotte, where we were, and she did in 1986. I was turning twelve that year, and was excited to have her love every day and to spend time with her, and so was she. By this age, I had two step-parents, neither of which I had a good relationship with. I often felt lonely, and had something vital missing in my heart, and my grandmother saw that. I clearly remember her being on the couch one day and me coming up and laying in her arms, crying about how bad my life would be if something were to happen to her.
It was at that point I think that my grandmother saw my dire need to be taken care of by her. She knew I had problems, and she picked up my parents’ slack. I remember going with her to the 7 dollar store, where you could get cute outfits for 7 dollars, and buying me plenty of clothes. She also believed that food equaled love, so I always had cookies, and sweets, and plenty of rich, fat laden meals. By 7th grade, I had become pudgy and often picked on for my size. I felt unloved and unwanted by my stepparents. My mother had just had another baby and my stepdad made it clear that I didn’t fit into their happy home.
My grandfather’s health deteriorated, and he had to go to a nursing home. My grandmother faithfully went to visit him daily, until his death in 1988.
By then I was turning 14, and my height went from 5’4″ to 5″9. The pudginess was gone, and replaced by a figure that belonged on a grown woman. I had the typical teenage life, with the exception of being promiscuous throughout high school. My grandmother began to teach me how to cook, fold clothes, shop for meals, cut out coupons, and manage a checkbook. I think she knew I was going to have children early. It was a given that I spent weekends and summers at her house, because I hated being at home. I never felt loved by my stepmom, who was known to hurl insults at me on a whim.
Looking back, I now see how beautiful I was, and no one ever bothered to tell me. I had no idea about it. My dad would say kind things about the way I looked, but that was always swallowed by my stepmom’s malice. By this time my mother was on the run from her husband, and only called once every blue moon. I felt abandoned and unwanted by her.
So my grandmother was my lifeline to unconditional love. I always remember her house feeling like a sanctuary, a safe place with no malice or pretense. She was always doing or saying something encouraging, and I loved her for that.
After graduating high school, I left for college in 1992. My freshman year gave me a freedom that I never had. I could be my own person, and not have to worry about being hurt or stifled. But by 1993, I was pregnant with my first child, and barely made it through my sophomore year. I still remember waddling around the campus of UNC-Charlotte, and using part of my student loan money to buy a word processor to begin my dream of being a writer. I set the word processor on my grandmother’s dining room table, and began my first real story.
It was 1994, my son had been born and we were living at my grandmother’s house. She taught me how to bathe and dress him, and how to get him to sleep all night on his own. But by 1995, I began hanging out at night partying with friends, and my grandmother’s resentment grew. “You want me to be a built in babysitter”, she told me. I didn’t care. I took her for granted by now, and I did whatever I pleased. I would wait for her to go to sleep and bring guys into my room, I took over her phone and I worked and never offered to give her a dime. My grandmother was not very confrontational anymore. So many things had happened to her, with our family constantly overstepping boundaries, and having their hand out for money, that I think that all the fight was gone from her.
In 1996, I made a plan to return to college. I would put my son in daycare, work one day and go to class the other, and use student loans to pay for my apartment. Although she never said it, my grandmother was proud of me. She bought me a 88 Volkswagen Golf, and I left for college that January. By the fall of that year, I was being mentored by a teacher who saw my writing potential, and who encouraged me to enter contests. I still remember being in my room and jumping up and down when I got the phone call from Cosmopolitan Magazine telling me I placed in their Non-Fiction contest. But a marijuana habit and a bad boyfriend became my downfall. My time at college ended with me becoming symptomatic with bipolar disorder, a condition that no one cared enough to get me treatment for. I had a psychological withdrawal from school, and was once again at home with my grandmother.
Things began to spiral out of control then. I would change jobs every couple of months, and smoke pot all over the house. I had a constant stream of guys I fooled around with in my room. I had become cold and unfeeling, and prone to erratic ad unexplained behavior that caused my family embarrassment. But no one took into consideration the idea of treatment for me.
My grandmother had retreated into her own world. She would always have some kind of noise in the house, whether radio or TV, from sunup to when she went to sleep. She didn’t bathe regularly, and she would reach to turn the morning radio programs off and at the same time turn the TV on. She had a complete lineup for the entire day of television, and didn’t do anything else.
I came and went as I pleased, and my grandmother silently took over the care of my son. At this point I didn’t care about much besides being high (which only aggravated my illness), hanging out, and hooking up with the sexiest dudes I could find. I lost all of my friends due to my erratic behavior. I often ask myself if I had known that that year, 1998, would be the last full year my grandmother lived, if I would have treated her differently. I truly did love her, and tried to show it in little ways. I bought her a cheap jewelry box that played a song when she opened it. I kissed her, and often would lay in her bed on nights where I was so paranoid that only she would be able to relieve my fears.
In 1999 I became pregnant with my second child. My family was upset, and I was making plans to bring another child into our house. By then I had been put in a rehab for women, and my grandmother made me go into their residential program. The whole family knew I had a serious problem, but the decision was my grandmother’s to make. She wanted me to go. By October I had decided to give my child, another son, away. The program wouldn’t let me drive my car, or go where I pleased, which I hated.
My last memory of my grandmother was her returning me to rehab after going to church. I begged my grandmother to come home, and she said no. I slammed the car door and said nothing, not even goodbye. A few days later, I had been calling my grandmother over and over to apologize, and no one answered until a police officer answered the phone and informed me she was dead. And I felt like my world had ended.
There are many parts of this story left unsaid, many injustices my grandmother endured that I don’t speak of out of respect for my family. But I am sure that my grandmother’s last years in this world brought her little peace, outside of her relationship with Christ. She clung to Him for dear life, and I believe that one of the reasons he took her home was so I would finally grow up, not to mention the fact that she had had enough of her life.
The police said they found her on her couch, with cold coffee on the coffee table, a crossword puzzle (which she loved) in her hand, and a peaceful smile on her face. I always imagine Jesus showing up in her living room and personally escorting her to heaven. But that’s my theory.
Fourteen years later, I look back and remember her love. Life got a lot colder after she left, and I am still paying for mistakes I made then. But believe it or not, I’ve had manifestations that make it clear that she still follows me closely, that she’s happy now and that she never forgets to watch over me and my children.
My son, who was devastated by her death, is 20 now, and happy and fairly sane, despite my erratic parenting of him. After she died I was forced to grow up and care for him and finally in 2001 I was diagnosed and treated for bipolar disorder. My third child was born in 2002 and I began a journey of abstinence that i’m still traveling (despite two bad encounters and a lot of loneliness). I try to remember her love, and how it sustained me even when I didn’t love myself. I remember the care she put into showing me, somehow or someway how much I meant to her, even though she was miserable from my actions. Sometimes I see a face, or feel a touch, and remember her. Today, I don’t have much materially, but I have taken back my dignity. I have forgiven people and I have learned to love myself. I became a caring and attentive mother to my daughter, and as I write this on my bed, the wall behind it holds a sign she made that says “#1 Mom”.
I like to think that her role in my life is the model of the reason my daughter sees me this way. I know that my grandmother sees me, and that everything she prayed over me is coming to pass.