The Things My Grandmother Taught Me…

Grandmother, my sister, and I would sit, snapping peas, talking, laughing on our old but nicely painted front porch on Bellhaven Road, around 1989, I believe, in the neighbourhood where I now raise my own child. It was a good neighbourhood to come back home to. I wish they could have met. I wish I could snap peas with my grandmother again and that life could be simple, and maybe I could try again; start over; don’t we all. I miss my grandmother’s cornbread, and that crackling pork-skin she used to give us to chew on while she finished up dinner. It was so sweet and salty and tasty, perfect chew and crunch, all in one bite. Mine will never quite match up.

She was born in Tunica, Mississippi, a tall, slender, and beautiful Queen of a woman. She grew her hair long and cared well for it, secretly adoring every inch. She adored our hair too. Her voice had such a tone, a natural deep honeycomb vibrato and cadence as could strike fear, or reach deep down and sooth every worry your soul ever dreamed up in her Mississippi spoke, which wasn’t at all common to Toronto, Ontario, where she emigrated and we were born. We were the only black family in our neighbourhood and we already stood out quite a bit, so at home we spoke the way we were taught, but at school we emulated the Canadian vernacular so we wouldn’t be teased… anymore than we already were.

What I remember about my grandmother, is that even though we were the only black family in an all white neighbourhood, she carried herself with such regal pride and dignity. When I jokingly asked my Grandmother why she hated white folks she snapped at me, “I don’t hate them, I just don’t trust them!” From the stories she told me of the south, I don’t blame her for one second. I understand. Some of those stories made me feel sick, and I didn’t want to believe they could be the truth, but the truth was evident not only on the simple strength of her word and honour, but also in her deepest beliefs, fears, and personality. She settled among whites, but she didn’t mingle with them too much, making only a few acquaintances and one somewhat close token white friend in the neighbourhood but mostly, she was more comfortable, and more radiant and beautiful when there weren’t any white people around. We were encouraged to keep black friends and white people were not allowed in our house. They could come up to the porch or play with us in the yard. That was it. And we couldn’t tell them why, of course, we could only tell them no.

We went to an all black church, where my grandmother found the familiar company she sought, and was highly respected. I used to joke that we’d be the blackest ones at the school, and the whitest ones at the church, my sister and I, that is. We’ve taken it from both sides. We’ve been teased by white kids for being black, and teased by black kids for being white. One Sunday at church we looked around and realized we were literally the whitest people in the entire service. Not even one fully white person, clapping off-beat and getting all flustered as neighbouring parishioners offered reassuring glances, and my sis and I stifled our giggles. Whether you can clap to the beat or no, nothing gives you passion for the Lord like good old-fashioned church music; drew us close to God before we even understood it. So deep, strong, soft, and beautiful, it could break a powerful man down and make him cry like a child. Things got pretty wild in the church and, as a kid, it was all a show. It was a show that we’d watch with sleepy indifference, sometimes mocking or sharing little jokes and chuckles. It was a show that I never fully understood until I was seventeen years old and found the Lord for myself and then I understood that it’s a show (or a business) for some people, but for others there is a genuine and unbreakable personal bond.

We sang in the choir, of course. I used to joke that we were forced into the choir at belt-point… you know, instead of gun-point… get it? Hehehe, good times, yeah, we had no choice about the choir, and she never actually used a belt, but slipper-point didn’t really work for the joke. My dad used a belt. That man did not mess around. No jokes there.

My grandmother raised us by her own set of above average principles, derived from her own life’s learning. She never concerned herself much with what other’s thought of her. She concerned herself with always doing what she felt was right, regardless of what anyone else was doing. “If you’re minding your own business, then you ought to be too busy to be studying what somebody else is doing,” she used to tell us. Along with, “Enough trouble is going to find you in your life without you going looking for any extra.” That one really stuck with me. Her head was an encyclopedia of wise phrases and mantras which she prescribed like a doctor for anything ailing you.

My grandmother taught me that I don’t owe anybody an explanation for who I am, and that even if I don’t understand someone, they don’t owe me an explanation either. Every single person is a depth of facets, reasons, and experiences that are valid to them, and perhaps too personal to be any of my business, and too deep for any explanation to be fully sufficient. Right or wrong, black or white, everybody deserves humanity and respect, and her mistrust of whites was never disrespectful or hateful; it was mostly just too many decades of hurt, disappointment, and fear. She taught me to mind my own business, and don’t go following up after anybody who wasn’t following up after me. Whenever we would get excited about a celebrity, such as New Kids on the Block, she would always say the same thing, “I don’t know why you kids want to follow up after so-and-so. He ain’t following up after you! He’s living in his big mansion, having a good old time, without a single thought about you, and here you are, eyes all big, studying up after what he’s doing…. Ought to be studying Jesus!” Sometimes she’d tack on a “Praise God,” or a “Hallelujah” for emphasis. We used to tease and mock her behind her back, but she had a point about that too… “Why you worried about that broken leg with the bone sticking out, ought to be worried about some Jesus!” Haha, we had jokes, but seriously, she would totally take us to the hospital. She was religious, not insane.

Like anyone who takes their religion deeply to heart, my grandmother volunteered ceaselessly in the church. It was like our second home. Sometimes we’d help the missionaries, sometimes we’d wander around the church and find someplace to play or some other (usually mischievous if I had any say in it) way to occupy ourselves until it was time to go home.

My grandmother wrote poetry and gospel music. Her penmanship was flawless beauty, long sloping lines and elegant curves. She spent time as a school teacher in Louisiana so her spelling and punctuation was impeccable. In our front yard we jumped rope to the songs she made up to help us remember our multiplication tables. She was happy with her small honourable life of her own private noble pursuits. It’s only now that I’m realizing how very right she was. She always did the best she could with whatever she had. She never rolled over on her own personal set of principles in the pursuit of wealth and gain.

She was very strict and deeply disciplined. We weren’t allowed to play out in the streets (and this was long before the Internet), we weren’t allowed to watch most of the television our friends were allowed to watch. Not even The Simpsons, not with the way “that little Bartholomew” was “cursing and carrying on,” but what really shocked me is that we were not allowed to watch In Living Colour. It was a show with an all black cast, save for the one white Canadian, Jim Carey, and my grandmother pretty much exclusively supported black folks, and add to that there were almost NONE to choose from on Television. Our options were limited to either Oprah or The Cosby Show. That was it. Arsenio Hall was banished one night when he showed the audience a tattoo he’d received on his posterior. He showed his tattoo, and that was literally the last we ever saw of him. To her credit, she honestly tried. But In Living Color was snapped off within minutes and my grandmother was irritated. “Don’t pay a fool no mind.” She would tell us. “Whether he’s white, black, brown, purple, red, yellow, don’t matter, a fool is a fool in any colour.” We laughed this off as her usual ridiculously strict nature, and we snuck and watched our shows when we could, or got secondhand tales from our friends and cousins, but time and experience have taught me that she was right about that also, although maybe not quite to the degree that she took things. I really liked In Living Colour… and Eddie Murphy.

However, many years later when I realized that some of my friends who wound up with unpleasant outcomes, including Sam, might have done differently if we hadn’t had such a hopeless narrative preached into our culture and glorified so excessively through our music, I stopped listening to it. Some of us might have made different choices if we’d snapped off our headphones and put our minds to something else. Anything but being laid out bleeding in the streets, or locked up in a cage until you don’t even know how to function without the bars and being told what to do, when to do, and how to do… just like a slave. The nineties were rough, and I got transferred out of my school to one just down the street which… wasn’t great. That music was like a show for the white kids in my middle school, or even some of the Asian kids in my first high school; dancing around, smoking weed, pretending to be hard, rebelling in little ways against their parents who, with a wave of their wallet, would bail them out of any real shenanigans. But for a few of the kids in my new high school, and some of my new boyfriends friend’s who lived in the real ghetto, Regent Park, and didn’t go to our school, it wasn’t a show, it wasn’t pretend, and it wasn’t a game. It was a trap that was all too easy to fall into, or be born into.

Grandmother would say, “Act a fool a little while if you absolutely must, but you’ve got to know when to stop.” If it were entirely up to her, though, there would be no fooling at all, even though she was, at times, quite hilarious. When she was living back in Michigan with my aunt, towards the end of her life, I drove down to visit her with my new boyfriend, Sam. By now fully blind, she sat in a parked wheelchair in the family room. She reached out for my hand and grabbed Sam’s hand instead. I motioned for him to just go with it. I didn’t want to embarrass her, and I was standing right beside him and would be able to hear and answer. So she pulled him in close. The whole room, full of visiting relatives, fell silent and all were watching the scene unfold when my grandmother loudly whispered at him instead of me: “Is… he… black?”

We all rolled with laughter, and some of it was relief because it would have been hella awkward if Sam were white, although she wouldn’t have judged, she just literally couldn’t see him and was naturally curious. She knew my sister and I might have gone either way, and my sister’s husband is, in fact, a white man. His name is Chad.

The very last time I saw my grandmother alive she wasn’t doing so well. She was hurting and there was just nothing I could do about it. It obviously wasn’t going to get better this time, only worse, so I spent much of the trip just sitting beside her, holding her hand, and praying to God. Sometimes praying is the only thing left you can do. I prayed for her perhaps the very same way she prayed for me, many years earlier, when she found out I ran away from my father. I felt sad because I knew that she’d pass on before I could give her everything she deserved in life. But I also knew that if she wasn’t getting into heaven then none of us were. That woman made it, with all of her children in tow, from the swampy depths of disgusting and horrific racism and oppression in the deep south, to the freedom and promise of Canada, and it was only a mere stop on her journey to the Glory of God. Nothing could stand in her way. To this day, I’ve never known anyone like her and I never fully realized or appreciated how blessed I was to have her in my life. But out of the worst God provides the best, and it truly went from a messing to a blessing that my mother abandoned us, and my grandmother, and sometimes my father, raised us.

I drove us home from that final trip because my sister had to work in the morning and we’d stayed an extra day longer than we intended. I told her I’d drive all night and she could sleep in the car, and be somewhat fresh for work when we got home. The radio was off, and I was praying a bit more for my grandmother, contemplating life, and driving pretty fast because I wanted to see if I could buy my sister a few comfy hours in her own cozy bed before work, but then something told me to slow down. It was a ridiculous thought, contrary to my own logical and efficient plan, and I tried to brush it off but it just kept on pecking and nagging. I figured if I wanted my prayers answered then maybe I ought to try some obedience and just slow the damned car down. So I did. And we crawled along at the speed limit, in the middle of a completely deserted open American road in the middle of pitch darkness. I was itching to go faster, and the minutes slowly ticked by. I didn’t see any problems up ahead and I was being ridiculous listening to random nonsensical thoughts. Finally, I started to press the gas. Then a teeny bit more. I was around ten above the speed limit when we passed a cop car almost fully concealed in the darkness. I couldn’t believe it. I had questions. What’s going to happen? I asked. He’s going to pull you over, and then just let you go, was the thought and also exactly what happened. Less than a minute later, the cherries lit up and I got pulled to the side. He beamed his light at my sister, woke her up, asked a few questions. Where are we from? Where are we headed? Ran my license. That was it. Free to go. If I had been speeding it would have been a different story, I’m sure. Perhaps if I’d spent my time cutting up with family instead of trying to sooth and pray on my grandmother it would have been a different story too. When the cop was gone, I timidly asked the source of that original thought, “So, can I speed up now?” I got a soothed-like sensation like it was very safe to do so. That moment cemented God into my life, and I just knew from then on that nobody would ever be able to convince me that my God wasn’t real. I had absolutely no way of knowing about that police officer, miles down the road, cloaked in the darkness; an unforeseeable trap up ahead on the road. This wasn’t the first time things like this have happened, and it for sure wasn’t the last. It doesn’t happen all the time, or whenever I want, and I can’t ask for the lotto numbers, believe me, I keep trying and the answer keeps on being no. But I know my God is here to help me, and I still don’t listen as often or as carefully as I should. I know to some people that’s crazy, and they would call it something else, like telepathy, or what have you, but it will always be God to me. God sees what I can’t see. He knows what I can’t possibly know. He helps me navigate through the darkest roads of my life, warms my coldest and loneliest nights, and outshines my brightest days. I understand that God isn’t science, but I definitely love Him a whole lot better than having nothing. My grandmother taught me that.

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