My grandmother passed away last year. In the immediate aftermath, I found it difficult to make sense of how our lives intertwined. How do you begin to process nearly 32 years of shared history with a single person? I grew up constantly called an old soul by all the adults around me. My grandmother was the one figure in my life who infused my old soul with wisdom. I thought her absence would mean a loss of this security. However, my reflection showed how much I internalized her quirks and advice.
In spite of my baby face, I’ve always felt comfortable engaging with strangers in conversations even when I was a toddler. Grandma built her career on first educating adults and then persuading others of the value of engaging with strangers so they could learn. She would tell me of her travels all over the United States advocating for adult education, especially for non-native English speakers and securing millions of dollars in grant funding. I had the best souvenir T shirt collection in school. I would like to think her stories inspired my early love of “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego” and current love of world travel.
Grandma lived in Miami but she would “winter” in Texas when she visited every Christmas. She was a first generation American with parents from the Bahamas and Turks and Caicos. She would often remark that Texas was too cold for her Southern blood. When I was older, I would tell her that Miami was not the South culturally and she quickly corrected me by showing me a map.
A true West Indian grandma through and through, one year she made conch salad for me so I would know my Caribbean roots. She gave me a piece and I liked the flavorings but couldn’t figure out the texture of the food as it rolled around in my mouth. When she laughed as she told me it was a sea snail, I quickly swallowed it and grimaced. She knew that I needed someone to show me culture, specifically my culture outside the confines of largely white suburban Texas. Although my Grandma never moved from Miami until very late in her life when she got sick, she always supported my curiosity outside of the world I experienced.
Texas is a large state and I grew up bullied by some small-minded people as the overweight, black girl who was precocious and outspoken. I came by it honest as the old folks say. My grandmother was quick-witted with a sharp biting tongue. When I told her of the taunts I received from other kids about my weight and intelligence, she suggested I write their names on paper, place them in prescription bottles filled with water, and freeze them to reduce their power over me. Next she told me some choice comebacks the next time one of them confronted me. She’s an excellent educator because I left Katie in tears in the middle of my fourth grade lunchroom in Catholic school she decided to call me fat and I told her what she could do with that.
Don’t think that Grandma was mean intentionally. She was very religious. As a deaconess in her church, my grandmother possessed a renowned hat collection. She prided herself on wearing an OOTD on Sundays before it became a hashtag. Church leadership involved showing up and making your presence felt. The more color and baubles, the better. She didn’t want her granddaughter out in these streets looking like rough around the edges. In her absence she sent regular packages filled with department store purchases punctuated by crinoline slips, patent leather Mary Janes and massive rayon bows. As a young tomboy who would regularly destroy her pink clothing and tights, I hated these care packages. So naturally, as an adult, I stopped wearing pants, wearing almost dresses and skirts exclusively. We share the same love of bold colors and prints.
You can’t cherry pick heritage. I adopted her love of travel, skill at throwing shade, and flair for bold fashion choices. I also inherited her anxiety and internalized fear and shame for not being outwardly together. In her case, it literally destroyed her from the inside out as inflammation ran rampant causes serious medical problems at the end of her life. As I get older and feel her legacy, I become conscious of the choice I carry in carrying the positive parts of her legacy and placing the more negative aspects down to rest.
I’m writing an unedited personal essay everyday of November for #NaNonFicWriMo, the non-fiction spin on #NaNoWriMo. You can find daily prompts on my Instagram. Want to join in? The only rules are at least 750 words about the daily prompt and tag #NaNonFicWriMo to share.