As a child, I grew up in my grandparent’s home. A beautician by trade, my grandmother worked out of the house. During the day, she and my grandfather cared for myself and my cousins whenever they’d visit. Their old-school backgrounds meant stricter grand-parenting, but one full of love and life lessons instilled in their grandchildren that I credit to keeping me able to thrive in this often less than equitable society to this day.
Never sure if describing my Youngma, name of endearment, as spiritual or deeply religious does her justice so, I’ll say her love of God was very evident. She loved being the matriarch of the family almost as much as gossiping, giving advice, and “frying, dying, and laying to the side” (slang: process for arranging a woman of color’s hair) her customer’s hair. She was something else, a force of nature if ever there were one.
If there were two things the grandchildren could depend on at their house, were granddaddy’s cooking and Youngma filling work hours with her favorite gospel music. From mid-morning to late afternoon, the gospel artist greats played over the radio while the smell of hair spray permeated the air. To the best of my recollection, Youngma loved all of the artists, but her favorites were Mahalia Jackson, The Mighty Clouds of Joy, and Shirley Caesar.
From my perspective, gospel music seemed to lift my grandmother’s spirits or kept her steady when the world crumbled around her. When you’re a child the, “goings-on” of the adults in your world both mystify and can frighten you. To me, gospel music seemed a cathartic release for my grandmother.
One day while visiting my grandparent’s house, a song played, and the events that surround it make me reflect upon it ever still. The unmistakable voice of powerhouse Dr. Shirley Caesar began to narrate a story about a man called Shouting John. Mind you, I was in my teens, gospel music didn’t have the same daily importance it once did, but it was my grandmother’s stillness I won’t forget. As if the radio were a time machine, recapturing a deep wound. Tears of deep emotion falling from her round face. Her body rocked to the narration together with the rejoicing of the recorded crowd. I asked if she were okay? No response. I quieted to hear.
An eighty-six-year-old man was confronted on his land by church members that didn’t want him to praise God the way he did. They threatened to put him out of the church if he continued. John let them know in no uncertain terms would he be swayed by anyone to do differently. He was too blessed and able because of God.
I shed tears watching my grandmother off in another world, unsure where or why. When she got up from the kitchen table, wiping her face dry, she said this to me, “just keep living.”
“Living for what? ” I asked. She didn’t answer, merely sent me on my way.
Life is a series of unpredictable arrays of pit stops, curves, straightaways, and dead ends before arriving at your final destination. Each time I’ve found myself in one of those pauses, not so much that day but the song comes back to me, and with each life event, I’m more exposed to rawer emotions that both shield and wound me. I cannot stress my life’s importance without remarking ugly truths or blunt facts outside of my control, forming the archives of my legacy for generations to come.
Presently my continuing bloodline occupies two phenomenal people, my children, that inspire me. No, I’m not biased because they are my children, more appreciative witnesses to the manifestation of limitless possibilities in human form. I don’t skip through life wearing cherry-colored glasses, nor been a victim to struggles many of my counterparts endure. Being the mother of a brilliant and impactful young woman and a young man who can and are stereotyped and judged without the benefit of the doubt brings me back to that day with my grandmother.
It’s me now that replace my mother, grandmother, and her mother before her experiencing life for not just its beauty but its ugliness. It’s me striving to leave a prosperous legacy for future generations different than what I received in a society turning the corners of change still holding a white-knuckled grip to an ever past stubbornly refusing to move. It’s me, a part of history demanding what those before me only dreamed. It’s me overthinking if my children can or will successfully make me a grandmother imparting wisdom in a song accompanied by tears.
Finally, I understand. I comprehend the worries of parents, the wisdom from the elders, what Youngma meant so long ago. For some of us, life won’t be a joyride. While no person escapes losses, it’s those life-changing events those “should’ve, would’ve” moments that never leave us, often haunt us until we come into our wisdom to know it was all necessary even if it damn near killed us so, we can share it with others. Shouting John and my Youngma knew what I know now, “just keep living.”
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