The Power of Grandparents
Lately I’ve been thinking about my paternal grandparents (pictured above) and the gift they were to me. Unfortunately, I never knew my maternal grandparents as they both died fairly young.
Growing up, my sister and I sometimes spent weekends at their house. They lived in a huge public housing project in Queens where my grandfather worked first as a janitor and then as superintendent. He had fought in France in World War II but, like most Black veterans at the time, he was denied the benefits of the GI bill and could only secure menial work when he returned home. By the 1960’s, he was finally promoted to building superintendent, and that gave my grandparents the ability to take annual pilgrimages to Atlantic City and treat us girls to some things my parents couldn’t afford. They also both loved clothes. My grandfather grew up too poor to own shoes, but by the time he died he had over a hundred pair. They were carefully chosen to go with the dozens of suits he wore with pride.
When my sister and I arrived, the first thing my grandmother did was wash our sneakers and dry them on the windowsill; they had to be clean. Then, she’d tackle our hair. We’d sit down between her knees, and she’d comb, pull, grease and braid for hours. It was a painstaking process, but we emerged freshly coiffed with tiny braids and pink, green, and yellow barrettes. Then we’d try on the latest things she had sown for us: new outfits, perfectly pressed and matching. Only then could we go downstairs to the playground attached to the building. My grandmother didn’t want to give anyone an excuse to treat us poorly, so she insisted that we looked our best when we went outside. She was kind, generous and proud.
I remember her hands: strong from years of working as a maid. I remember the large pots of delicious food, the Jet magazines on the coffee table, the plastic covered couches, and hours of Dominoes. I’d pepper both of them with questions, curious about their childhood; I only wish I’d written it all down. I feel intense gratitude for all the large and small, intangible things they instilled in my life, and I’m glad that my boys have the imprint of most of their grandparents on their lives, too. (I only wish they could've known my dad!)
Grandparents help to ground us in who we are. My husband's parents delight my sons with stories of the Maroons; these were enslaved Africans who refused to remain in bondage in Jamaica and escaped to the Blue Mountains where they lived for generations. They were strong, fierce and indomitable. My boys feel intense pride knowing that they sprang from such roots. My mom talks about life in blue-collar, small town Pennsylvania and what it was like growing up in the Depression and war-time era. What was rationing like? What did she think about the atomic bomb which ended the war? My dad would have passed down anecdotes of life in Harlem in the 1940's: the Apollo Theater, Abyssinian Baptist Church, watching Dr. King on the television, and the changes he experienced in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement. In his absence, I try to fill in the gaps with what I know about these things.
Grandparents let us know that we are not alone in the world; that we have roots which go deep and wide. They help us to know what we're made of and make our lives richer. In some ways I wish we could go back to the days when extended family lived in the same location; there is something anemic about only having nuclear family around . Perhaps one day, as a culture, we'll circle back and live in community with our kin again.