“Where is your jacket?”
It was the first thing she said to me. It’s fairly often her go-to question. She needs me to be warm and protected. That’s what grandmas care about, and we love them for it. She may finally be accepting the fact that her dozens of grandchildren and great-grandchildren no longer wear “under-shirts” every day, but how dare I go to Grandma’s without a coat of some sort! It was also February, so she honestly had a point.
I sat down at her dining room table which I realized was a privilege I had not experienced often. Grandma Mary’s house is usually full of people when I’m there, and the family “elders” rightfully claim use of the dining room table. To sit with Grandma Mary one-on-one at that table was a priceless treat, especially considering that I’m only married into this amazing family.
After settling in with my pen and paper, ready to capture as much as I could, Grandma Mary walked me through her childhood and showed me what it looked like to live the sharecropper’s life. There was barely anything on their meal table that wasn’t produced from their own labor. Fresh-churned butter, milk from their cows, wheat and vegetables all grown by her family. I watched her flashback to the days of kerosene lamps and outhouses almost as though it was last week. Her dad was the superintendent of Sunday School for 40-something years at the country church Grandma Mary still visited recently. Church and God were always non-negotiables. And maybe that was crucial for the person Grandma Mary became.
As she unfolded the most elaborate stories about her long walks to school and how she once lived in a house with her 8 cousins and 5 siblings, she never once mentioned anything about racial controversy. Here I am, inching closer to the edge of my seat, waiting for a radical story of how she stood up to racist landowners or white restaurant owners who refused to serve her. But not once did she mention anything about race. She just kept smiling and reminiscing like her past was nearly perfect. So I unintelligently assumed that it was too painful for her to bring up and she needed me to push a little.
“What about the white people?” I blurted out in the middle of her stories. What I really wanted to say was “tell me about the heartache and the painful memories you try to forget.” To my almost disappointed surprise, she simply shook her head and said: “I have never had a problem with white people.” A million questions raced to my lips, but I couldn’t get any of them out. In hindsight, I realized I wanted her to express pain to me because I wanted to tell her how sorry I was on behalf of my race, and I wanted her to know how much I care about racial reconciliation. It was somehow about me—the white girl. Go figure!
Grandma Mary continued on through her journey of becoming a military wife and the long train rides up and down the East Coast while bouncing from base to base with her husband and then children. She once traveled from North Carolina to California eight months pregnant. She stayed home to raise her children and continued to go to church no matter where she was. “I can go to church with anyone,” Grandma Mary stated very matter of factly, “Because I know God doesn’t have a separate Heaven for Baptists, Pentecostals, or any other denomination.” I was in awe of her loving perspective even at a young age.
She diverted from the race topic every time I brought it up, not because it didn’t matter, but it just wasn’t the most important thing about her story. However, I did finally get a few stories out of her, even though the outcomes weren’t what I expected. While living in Maine, a little white boy yelled a racial slur at her toddler son. “Here we go,” I thought to myself, “surely this angered her deeply.” But of course, Grandma Mary just kept walking down the street, minding her own business. When I asked her why she didn’t say anything, she gave me this unforgettable nugget of truth, “I knew I wanted to live a long life, and I knew that meant I couldn’t worry about things that people could only change for themselves. I’m not going to change someone; I’m going to change me. And that’s enough to worry about.”
Grandma Mary has always known her value. She has never questioned her worth. At the age of 19, she got on a bus and sat near the front without giving it a second thought. She said a friend reminded her later that it infuriated white people when a black person sat at the front of the bus. This friend couldn’t believe young Mary hadn’t been verbally attacked. But Grandma Mary was left alone completely. She remembered that she hadn’t even thought about where she was going to sit. She naively but confidently lived her life how she pleased and seemed to block out anyone or anything that didn’t oblige to that. “I know God didn’t make anyone better than me,” she assured me (only grandmas can get away with saying things like this out loud).
A plaque with The Serenity Prayer is hung by the door of her house. She motioned toward it during my visit, claiming to live by it daily. “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” I don’t know that I’ve ever met someone who has so efficiently walked out the meaning of that prayer the way Grandma Mary has.
If I’m honest, my goal that day was to uncover dark racial tension so I could write about how she overcame it. What I gained instead was wisdom to live by and the inspiration to love others and myself well. I can’t help but celebrate Grandma Mary, 81 years young this month as well as 44 years cancer-free, for finding true serenity in her life. She’s a woman of great strength and the best grandma we could ever have.
Featured Image by Erick Lee Hodge