The Boy Virginia Made Remembers (Part 1)

I entered into 2009 without any slogans or little mantras (where the last word rhymed with the number nine). Instead, I was asking the question, how dare any of us think our problems are more important than anyone else’s? I skimmed the many statuses written by my facebooking peers upon crossing the threshold into the new year and realized that everyone was trying to forget the “bad things” that happened to them. In a world full of homeless people, children born into unfortunate situations, and a dwindling economy, no one’s problems, including my own, seem that bad.

At different points in our lives, things will go wrong, and the best thing to do is accept that they’re happening. The solution: lift yourself out of the pit, and find some lighted area, even if there’s only a sliver of sunshine twinkling through a sky of clouds. You see, while many people are choosing to forget their past, I choose to remember as much of it as I can because everything that influenced who I am right now, came from my experiences pre-January 1, 2009. So I will share one of my recent remembrances with you now.

            For some years now, I have been wondering what my response would be to the “bad” news that was sure to come. Would I drop my phone and stare blankly into space, while clutching my chest as if the oxygen had left my lungs? Would my tears begin immediately, prompting my classmates (who I often tell never to touch me) to try and come comfort me? Would I be so dramatic as to fall to my knees and start wailing uncontrollably? Or… would I be as calm as I had been when my mother called me on New Year’s Eve to say, “Tom, you’re grandmother is dying. The doctors told gave us the news on Monday.”

“Well,” I told my mom, “that explains the reason I was unable to sleep on Monday and Tuesday of last week.” I guess even over here, my spirit is still connected to my family. “I figured something was wrong. (I sighed.) So I guess I’d better get started on the assignment Grandmamma gave me so many years ago.”

My mother was curious. “And what project was that, baby?”

I told her how so many years ago, my grandmother told me that she loved the way I write, and requested that before she died I’d pen a literary piece about her. Having been to a lot of funerals in her lifetime, my grandmother told me “I’d rather hear the good things people have to say about me now as opposed to when I’m dead, because when I’m dead I won’t be able to appreciate it.” Though it’s been years since she said that to me, I finally think I’m ready to begin the task she gave me. Besides, according to the doctors, her time is limited, so I must start now. She just went home two days ago after having congestive heart failure on Christmas Day. “If she has another one, the doctors have been told not to resuscitate her.”

Shit! Information like that should’ve been enough to make me crumple to the floor in ruins, but for the first time, I understand why she wants it that way. Having been on dialysis for a number of years and having been recently diagnosed with bone cancer (which has only succeeded in making her lose her beauty, her health, and her ability to be independent), she is choosing to stop the suffering. I get it. Finally! At least I don’t have to worry about feeling as if I never told her how much I love her. Growing up, I was probably her only grandson to hug and kiss her, without fail, every time I saw her. To this day I still do. The only difference is I’m not little anymore; she is. And she continues to waste away as the cancer consumes her body. But my philosophy is that she won’t be forgotten if I remember her now, flaws and all. If you would like to, I want you all to meet the woman I have known as my grandmother, Nellie Jones…as I remember her:

The story I remember (in it’s fragmented pieces) goes like this: My grandmother was born Nellie Mae Gilliam on October 16 1943. I remembered that year because it was after World War II was ended. She was instantly interesting to me because she lived through the things I studied in school. But the most intriguing part of her story begins at 14, when she ran away from home, thus catapulting her into a tough world where being a black woman was neither easy nor desirable.

            “My father was a mean man, and he was an alcoholic. But he was a good father.” I’ll always remember my grandmother saying that to me. I’d known my great grandfather for 5 years before he died in 1990 and I could understand the alcoholic part (as he slurred his speech constantly), but mean? That was new information to me. Apparently, he used to physically abuse my great grandmother (the bullshit women put up with back in the day was appalling) and when she wasn’t enough of a punching bag, he started on the children, 5 in all.

            At 14, my grandmother and her older sister, my Aunt Martha, left home to start a life for themselves, leaving their youngest sister behind. I don’t know much about her 3 brothers and where they were at the time, but it’s quite clear that these women were clearly the more ambitious of the Gilliam bunch. Not too long after, my grandmother met my grandfather and had her first child (my uncle), then her second (my mother-the next year) and then her third (my uncle-the year after that). I’m unsure as to how long she stayed with my grandfather, as well as the reason they decided to divorce, but I’m sure it had something to do with being too young.

            Alone, my grandmother had to find ways to survive, if not for herself, for her three children. I recall a story she told me about being in Chicago.

            “Baby, it was cold. The snow seemed like it wasn’t gonna stop no time soon. And the first time I ever saw a rat was in Chicago. Those things were so big, they looked like cats. But Chicago was the first time I ever caught the subway. I remember one time I was on the subway and I had my babies with me and all I wanted was enough money to get my babies some milk. So I’m on the subway, cold and shivering and this man across from me sees me sitting there trying to keep my babies warm and he gave me a dollar and some change (a big deal back in the 50s) and I just had to say ‘Thank You, sir.’ I must’ve looked pitiful sitting there like that, but my babies were gonna eat that night, at least.”

            Knowing that my grandmother lived through my favorite time period, the Civil Rights years, I’d asked her multiple times if she ever marched or did sit-ins or if anyone in our family was a Black Panther. She told me that she never marched and that back then the people were kinda scared of the Black Panthers because they carried guns. I was disspointed. This would mean that no one in my family was bold enough to try and make a difference. Were they complacent? Did they not want change? What the hell? Then I discovered that not all forms of change are broadcast in black and white.

One day, when my mother was cleaning my grandmother’s kitchen floor on her hands and knees, my grandmother needed to know: “Why don’t you use the mop? Even I don’t get on my hands and knees to scrub my floor.” I giggled and she went on to tell me one of the best stories I’ve ever heard from her lips.

            “When I was younger, I used to go in and clean people’s houses. I was basically a maid. Well one of the white lady’s houses I cleaned was big. So I started cleaning it and when I got to the kitchen, I found her mop and I used it to clean the floor. When she got home, she was hot with me. Talking about ‘why is my mop wet?’ I told her I used it to mop the floor. Then she said ‘In my house, you get down on your hands and knees and scrub my floors.’ I looked at her and the wet mop she was holding, and said ‘well then I suggest you do it yourself or find someone else that will get on their hands and knees, because I don’t even do that in my own house. And I went home. And I never worked for her again.”

            Sometimes, smaller, unrecorded moments of rebellion like that mean a lot more to me than marches on Washington or Freedom Rides. And that’s only a snippet of the fire my grandmother had inside of her….


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