My grandmother recently passed on to that big jazz fest in the sky, as I like to think of it. In the words of poet Louise Gluck, she had survived her life. The life she was given she took command of, head astute, pupils locked on the next destination drifting in the horizon. I imagine magnets found comfort in her unwavering focus on getting through, and arriving, and pulling still. To call her a survivor would be accurate, but akin to calling Shakespeare a mere writer. She was not just a survivor, she was so much more. A -“to hell with this”- rebel, a - “my way or the highway”- trailblazer, a vinegar-and-salt kind of innovator, a -“slap the piss outta you”- fighter, the omnipotent, grandmother of all grandmothers.
How this Black woman without a high school education, from the Englewood section of Chicago, raised by a single mother and a loving village of elders, accomplished what she did is astonishing, and you had to have known her to fully understand. But odds are, your grandmother was probably just as badass as mine. And why is that? Who bestowed these women with powers of the crimson gem? To thrive despite the hardships our society places upon them? For our grandmas, what are the motivations and forces behind their seemingly superhuman abilities?
My grandma certainly seemed superhuman to me, at least. This was a woman who, through her wit and charm, convinced a white banker to give his first home loan to a black family when all the other banks in town wouldn’t. She protested and marched for civil rights in a town that was so small such acts put one’s livelihood at risk. She had an open house, with dozens of children and relatives seeking refuge in her home for months, at one time or another over the years. Hiding from police? Come on in. House burned down? Come on in. Wife kicked you out? Come on in. Nowhere else to go? Wipe your feet, and come on in. Just plain hungry? I hope you like ham and beans, baby! This lasted up until the year before she passed, having taken in her sister and sister in law, both suffering from dementia, caring for them, cooking, cleaning, serving their meds, sifting through their mail, making sure their bills were still getting paid.
She was director of the local community center. She was beloved as a sales clerk at Sears, selling appliances, electronics, and tools to amateur decorators, mechanics, teens and do-it-yourselfers from all over town. She sold lady’ shoes at a department store with a coke and a smile. She assembled lawn mower parts in a factory for over a decade. She prepared delectable dinners, planted a beautiful garden, manhandled slot machines, managed the family finances, hemmed suit pants, and always, always succeeded in getting her money back at the return desk, no matter how unforgiving the refund policy, or how outlandish the request. And she did it all with such style and grace.
As special as my grandmother is to me, I know her story is not unique. Her life is analogous to the lives of millions of women across the continent, who we call our mothers, aunties, grandmothers, wives, partners and more. But did my grandmother, and the women like her, make such sacrifices out of choice, or due to a lack of choice? To meet the expectations set for them by society, to be a strong, eat-last-type-of matriarch? Were they the result of wonderful character traits, or the oppressive demands of a patriarchal white supremacist society, or both?
As a grandson, I am giving tribute to my grandmother and exploring these questions further through a series entitled GRANDMA’S ROSES. Through this process, I hope to learn more about the experiences of women elders, particularly in communities of color, and spark conversations with audiences that can deepen appreciation for the leadership of women and challenge the root expectations we have for women in our lives.
Jordan Thierry, Director
GRANDMA’S ROSES is a series exploring how women exert love and labor and why. Told primarily through the stories of dynamic, sharp and courageous grandmothers who've lived boldly in the face of sexism and racism, GRANDMA’S ROSES expands upon the familiar notions of grandmothers as centerpieces and culture-keepers of domestic life by also detailing their contributions outside the home as thought leaders, workers, and community activists.