The Birthday Girl

Today would’ve been my grandmother’s 85th birthday. If you’ve been following this blog, you may remember that she passed away in 2010. Rather than write about how I felt then, I’ll tell you something that made me feel better.

I’d been to back to my grandmother’s house only once since she passed away. Even then, I didn’t go in. Before that, I had no reason to because she lived in a nursing home for two years. My aunt, my granny’s oldest child, now lives in the house. A few weeks ago, I needed to pass some time before I went to church. My granny’s house is 10 minutes away. Mama suggested I stop by. I was hesitant not because I didn’t want to visit my aunt, but because I didn’t know how I’d feel walking into house whose original owner no longer existed.

I put on my Big Girl Undies and headed to South Memphis. My aunt lived there now, not Granny, and I’d been there once before. Then, I pulled up and sat in the car and cried. Almost a year later, how hard could it be?

The closer I got to the house with every corner I turned, every street I slowly drove down, small tears dropped on my shirt. I wasn’t sad, but I remembered picking her up every Sunday morning to take her to church. She would tell me to turn on specific streets, instead of the ones I was used to taking. I wasn’t sure if it was because she knew ways to miss traffic or the people who aimlessly wandered around the hood on early Sunday mornings or if she was just being bossy. I remembered helping her find her house keys, which she often misplaced because she put them in a different compartment in her purse every time. Together, we found one special spot for her keys so she could get into the house safely. I remembered stopping there before choir rehearsal on Thursday nights. I would take a nap or talk to her while she sat in her chair, eating candy and junk food.

I’d spent so much time remembering how we used to laugh and spend time when she was in the nursing home that I’d forgotten her life before that when things were normal. I miss her.

I walked into the house to find it totally different. Auntie had really fixed it up. Hardwood floors that had always been covered by emerald-green carpet shined and sparkled and all of her things were, instead of Granny’s. It was a completely new home.

It was yet another reminder that she, atleast her body, is really gone. That’s okay though.

When I left the house, walked down those few steps from the porch to the driveway, as I have so many, many times, I  told my aunt goodbye, and she said, “Bye, baby.” She sounded JUST like Granny. I had to look back.

And that made my day because that was a sign that she’ll never really be gone as long as we have her in our hearts.

Happy birthday, girl! I celebrate your life through who you were, the family you created, instead of material things that represented you. I love you.

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The Enigma of Vanessa Huxtable

So, in just a few minutes, this post now has such a stronger meaning than before. Lately, there’s been talk about good black television sitcoms of old that represent middle-class or affluent African-Americans. Without a doubt, The Cosby Show, possibly the standard for black sitcoms, comes up every time. Since it’s syndication on Centric, I’ve fallen back in love with the show I watched faithfully every Thursday night in the 80s and early 90s. With every episode, I find even more funny, thought-provoking and side-eye worthy material that I didn’t catch almost 20 years ago.

A friend and I were talking about which child gave Cliff and Claire the most trouble. Though Denise (Lisa Bonet) was a wild child, always trying to find herself, flunking out of college and taking on a ready-made family in secret, we both decided the problem child was Vanessa, played by Tempest Bledsoe. She wasn’t the middle child, who’s usually categorized with having the most difficulties, but she was….something. For such a long time, she was just there. She tried out for drum major, got into fights at school at over being labeled a “rich girl” and she had a cute little boyfriend named Robert. BORING. What was it about her that left so much to be desired? I guess in a family of five, she got lost in the shuffle.

In researching some “deeper” meaning to Vanessa’s character, I stumbled upon this Facebook fan page: Vanessa Huxtable Doesn’t Add Anything to the Cosby Show, I Hate Her. Really, people? The fact that someone took their time to make this page speaks volumes. I disagree whoever made this page. She wasn’t that bad. In fact, once she hit her teens, she got a little more interesting. There have definitely been some memorable moments though. Here are some of her best:

Truth or Consequences

How to Get to Carnegie Hall

I’m With the In Crowd

Off to the See the Wretched

With This Ring

Say it with me: You wanted to have BIG fun with the WRETCHED!!! Go Claire!

As you can see, Vanessa gave her parents a run for their money unexpectedly. She wasn’t as boring as we thought, huh? I figure there are real people out there like Vanessa. By the book. Not too much going on, but able to shake things up at random without trying. Maybe she was just a regular teenager, boy-crazy and eager to grow up. Either way, the family wouldn’t be the same without her.

Memories of Her

She was a pretty lady. Fair skin, black hair, a big smile and a switch no one could match. When she wasn’t press and curling my hair in her own beauty shop, she was doing work in the church. On any given Sunday (or night of the week), you could find her patrolling the Sunday School department upstairs in our church as superintendent, making sure classes were running smoothly–and checking to see if my friends and I were in sitting in our classes, instead of playing out in the hall. You could find her greeting visitors and members alike during “passing of the peace.” She loved people, and to her, no one was a stranger. They all loved her back.

She would make announcements about special things going on in the church. She was the only I knew that didn’t need, nor request a microphone to speak. Her posture, her voice, her confidence and her charisma made everyone listen to what she had to say. In a scrapbook made for her 80th birthday, I described it as the “It Factor.” She just had this thing about her, and I always hoped just a piece of “It” would trickle down to me.

She was very intentional. An authority figure to some. A mother to all. Though I  never heard her say it, she definitely lived by the motto, “To be early is to be on time. To be on time is to be late. And to be late is unacceptable.” If I had to speak at church, she would throw me a smile and slowly nod her head up and down until I finished. I wasn’t sure if it was a nod of encouragement or approval, but I wanted both. I was proud to be her granddaughter, and I wanted her proud in return. 

As a child, I didn’t stay with her for extended periods too often, but when I did, two things were for certain: (1) I would have to climb to get into her sky-high bed for my 8:30 bedtime and (2) She would be up at the crack of dawn. At 5 a.m., she already had breakfast ready. Uusally rice, egg and salmon or slightly burned bacon.

Once she retired from cosmetology,  she moved one shampoo bowl and one hair dryer to her living room. Still, a few faithful customers would patronize, but when they weren’t there, I always wondered what she would do alone in that house for days on end. She wrote a lot—all kinds of things. Plays, speeches, letters to her children and even her own obituary. I suppose that’s who I get this writing thing from. She kept a written record of everything–family history, her sisters and brothers’ birth dates,  telephone numbers, addresses, milestones, etc. She was the first one to tell me to keep an address book. When my cell phone shut down, I wished I’d listened to her.

When I moved back home, I would visit her often. As I lay on her sofa after work, she would tell me stories about sharecropping in “the country.” She, like so many others, was originally from Mississippi. It wasn’t until she met my grandfather, a quartet singer, while singing at a local concert, that she moved to Memphis. She would tell me about the Civil Rights Movement and even how her father, a biracial man, would pass for white when he went “up yonder to Chicago.” Then, when we thought she had Alzheimer’s Disease, I was always amazed at her longterm memory. My favorite story was about her first time using indoor plumbing toilet, instead of going into the outhouse. She’d seen times change so much.

A few years later, she went into a nursing home after a stroke. By the grace of God, she bounced back, maneuvering her wheelchair or walker. My mom would get her dolled up every Sunday for church and she would eat dinner with the family afterwards. She was always there for family gatherings just as she’d always been. That was a hard, but sweet time.

Visiting her almost daily wasn’t an obligation, but something I wanted to do. Eventually I learned that she only wanted two packages of the “pink stuff” (sweetner) in her iced tea, she wanted her dentures taken out, clothes laid out and a trip to the bathroom after dinner (in that order). She wanted her shoes directly in front of the night table and her television had to be on Channel 5 or TV One. We would even watch Martin, my favorite show, together. Above all, she needed a jacket with every outfit, because “this ol’ lady gets cold.” Though her independence had dwindled, she was still in control.

She began a love affair with Werther’s Original candies. So much so, that all of her children would keep bags of them on hand, just in case her stash was low. There were many other things she did and said that made her so very special. Her wit, her attitude, her strong will made her the woman she was.

On September 19, 2010, as I was holding her hand, Viva Adell Farr Wooten took her last breath. Only a week later, I’m wondering why I was there to feel her burning hot hands, see her eyes close for the final time. It’s something I’ll likely never forget, but I know I saw her spirit ascend into Heaven to be with God. That’s what gives me peace.

The funeral is over. Family and friends have gone, and I’m still crying. I would give anything to hear her refer to me as, “My chile,” call any of her sons, biological or not, “Boy” or any woman, child or adult, “Lil girl”. I would comb her hair one last time because she believed in looking her best or see her eyes to light up when I pulled a few pieces of candy out for her. I would sit with her in silence when it just wasn’t anything else to talk about.

I can’t do any of those things anymore, but I will hear that pretty lady in my heart for always. I loved her, and she loved me even more, just like she did all of her children, so there are no regrets. So as I try to figure out how to move on, yet keep her memory alive, I continue to be thankful to God for giving her to me–to us, the people she touched in so many different ways.

She is missed. She will be loved forever. She is “simply beautiful.”

Behind The Eyes

I’ve never been an emotional person. If someone does something to hurt me, I don’t break down or cry. Conversely, I will cry over St. Jude infomercials or while singing my favorite Mary Mary song in the car on the way to work. I cry when small children sing their first solos or recite their Easter speeches at church. Or at the end of Imitation of Life and Malcolm X. Even then, I try to catch my tears before they fall.

Outside of tears of joy, I can count on one hand the number of people who have seen me cry. That includes crying while intoxicated. (I’m an emotional drinker, hence why I don’t drink much). There’s something psychologically engrained in my head that makes me refuse to show physical signs of sadness, hurt or anger to anyone. Think of it as that stigma that says “Real men don’t cry.” I think that’s a handful of malarkey, but I do understand. Tears equal weakness. Sometimes. Depending on the situation.

So I don’t cry in front of people.

On Black Friday 2008, I sat at the table with four of my closest friends I’ve had since high school for lunch to “catch up.” “Catch up,” meaning a mini-interrogration about who’s dating who, why one of us isn’t dating and random stuff about work and how we wish we could go back to high school days. Atleast college days.

As an annual tradition, I was supposed to be with my family in New Orleans, enjoying daiquiris on Bourbon Street, preparing myself for the thrill of Bayou Classic. But I was there, sitting with three other women chattering away about love, life and 50 percent off sales.

On the other side of town, my daddy was in the hospital after suffering a massive stroke, a complication of a triple bypass after having a second heart attack. For three days, he was half-out of his mind, and so were we. He could barely talk and he didn’t seem to be making any progress. His neurologists said his condition was permanent.

I’d walked up and down the halls of that hospital a million and one times, praying for a recovery, yet still not believing that any of it had happened. I sat with him, as family who’d travelled near and far, talked to him, hoping to get a coherent response from him–a hand wave, atleast. I waited for physician updates, tried to console my mother and ate in the hospital cafeteria with my sister day in and day out, only going home to shower and change clothes.

I was physically, mentally and emotionally exhausted.

Yet, I was sitting at that table trying to be a part of the conversation, and I didn’t even want to be there.

When I left the hospital, Daddy was doing better.  He could understand us, sign his name and walk at a slow pace. I knew that things would never be the same though. As my friends laughed and griped about Black Friday traffic, I played along, but I was thinking, too. I thought about the pain I saw in my Mama’s eyes when the doctors said he’d be “like that forever.” The gut feeling I had that something was terribly wrong after Daddy didn’t laugh at the musical Mahogany card I brought him for his bypass recovery. Or the possibility that I would never hear his voice, calling me “Wook”, his favorite nickname for me again.

I became nauseated. My eyes started to fill with tears. I wanted to scream out and ask God why this was happening to my Daddy and to my family right there in the restaurant. Instead, I looked down at my hands under the table, reached in my bag for my cell phone and pretended I had to take a phone call. I kept my head down as I walked out so they wouldn’t see the tears rolling down my face. I ran in the bathroom, locked myself in a stall and cried uncontrollably. Even then, I still muffled my sobs and covered my eyes with a ton of tissue, hoping no one would come in and hear me. I didn’t leave out of the bathroom until I had completely dried my eyes and they were visible signs of my tears.

What’s crazy is even though I hid my tears, I wanted someone, even if it was just the server outside the stall washing her hands, to ask me if I was okay. She didn’t. When I returned to the table, business went on as usual. No one said a word about anything but the leftovers from Thanksgiving meals.

Almost two years later, I ask myself why I even agreed to meet them knowing how I was feeling. Somehow I thought it would serve as a distraction (and my mom made me go). Instead, it brought everything to the forefront. I remember one of my girls telling me I could sit this one out because I had so much going on.  I said, “No, it’s cool. I want to see ya’ll.” And I did. But I shouldn’t have.

Almost two years later, Daddy’s well and life is about as normal as it will be. Days pass and I no longer think about being trapped in that hospital for weeks, but I still think about that stall and the tears behind my eyes.

(The Fact Is) We Need You

Last week, as I was getting into bed. I grabbed the remote, ready to turn the TV off without even looking. I was officially in music video overload, but when I heard the music, I had no choice but to drop the remote and pay attention to the video. It was “The Fact Is (I Need You)” by Jill Scott from her live performance in Paris. I LOVE this song. I bought Beautifully Human: Words and Sounds, Vol. 1 the day it came out, but didn’t really get into it until about four months later. EVERY morning, I skipped to track 5. I loved the background vocals (doo doo doo doo doo) and Jill’s voice, of course. It wasn’t until I went to her show a year later (my second time seeing her) that I really, really understood the words.

I could be congresswoman
Or a garbage woman or
Police officer, or a carpenter
I could be a doctor and a lawyer and a mother and a good girl
God what you’ve done to me
Kind of lover I could be
I could be a computer analyst, the Queen with the nappy hair raising her fist
Or I could be much more and a myriad of this
Hot as the summer, sweet as the first kiss
And even though I can do all these things
I need you

I can’t even lie. Sitting Indian-style in my bed, I was moved to tears. The words are so true and honest. I am, in no way, shunning the whole I.N.D.E.P.E.N.D.E.N.T. movement (shout out to Webbie!). In fact, I’m the woman he’s talking about–um, atleast in the chorus. I have my own house, car, work two jobs, yadda yadda. I’m proud of my accomplishments and grateful for my blessings, but that doesn’t mean that I have to shit on men. Independence does not equate to the nonexistence of a man in our lives. We, as women, need men. There, I said it. We need them just like they need us. There are some things the opposite sex provide that only they can. A man can provide security that a pistol with a pink pearl handle can’t. He can provide emotional support and companionship that a best friend or loved one cannot provide. There are times when I get tired of talking to my girls. Sometimes I just want to talk to a man. What’s wrong with that? He can provide physical stimulation (the best when you’re actually compatible) that sex toys and masturbation can’t provide.

The list goes on.

On a broader scale, another reason we need men is to build a stronger foundation in the home. I have two examples.

Example #1: 

I’m calling you daddy, daddy
Can you be my daddy, daddy?
I need a daddy, daddy
Won’t you be my daddy, daddy?
Come and make it rain down onnnn meeeeeee

You’ve heard it. This is the chorus to Twista’s single, “Wetter (I Need a Daddy).” First, who knew it was really titled, “Wetter”? Anyway, whenever I hear this song, I’m disgusted. Yeah, the chick singing the hook means “Daddy” in a bedroom, sexual way. I say the very reason for this effed up chorus is the lack of Daddy’s presence in the home. This is why young (and old) girls are jumping into bed with men, giving themselves away whole and settling for blatant disrespect–because Daddy is absent. He isn’t there to tell her she’s beautiful and how valuable she is. He isn’t there to teach her about what men really think about promiscuity (my 10-year-old cousin started her period and my uncle told her the story of the 24-yr-old grandmother he went to high school with!) or told her that men are supposed to open doors for you, not let them slam in your face.

Example #2:

Currently, there’s some syndicated hip-hop radio show playing here. Don’t know who or what it is yet. There’s a topic every night for callers to chime in on. Last week, the question was this (posed by a man): Why can’t women handle being treated well? Is chivalry dead and if so, who killed it?

Surprisingly, the call-ins were dominated by men. One guy made a great point. I’ll paraphrase. Some women don’t know how to handle being treated well because they weren’t taught to know the difference between what’s acceptable and what’s not. Men and young boys don’t have fathers to tell them how to properly treat a woman. They are mostly being raised by single women who don’t have standards themselves. It’s a neverending cycle. Oh, an yeah, WOMEN killed chivalry, not men. A man will do what a woman requires if he is really interested.

Amen to that!

So men, if no one else wants to tell you, I will. I need you. This is coming from a woman who is “independent” and can make it without you. But, I’d rather make it with you.