Family Ties

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It was one of those really hot days in the summer when they said you should keep an eye out for the young and the elderly so I went to visit my grandmother. She was at my aunt’s house alone and my schedule was flexible, so I’d likely had a random day off during the week.

She was dressed in one of those nightgowns synonymous with aging, a mumu I think they’re called, watching TV and she seemed content. It wasn’t until we got back into the car to leave that my boyfriend, who was with me at the time, realized that she was inside without any type of air or fan. If you know anything about Black grandmothers they’re often not too keen on air conditioning.

So, we stopped into one of those bargain stores not too far from my aunt’s house, purchased an old school box fan and went to set it up for her back at the house. She talked about that day like she was happy that we’d thought about her in that way. Happy that we came back, happy we even stopped in, in the first place.

Later that summer, my brother appeared in the lobby of the Suburban Italian restaurant where I was waitressing at the time and I knew he wasn’t there for the delicious hot rolls, but for something that would likely change the course of my life forever. It was a weekend night in July of 2009 and the busy dinner shift was underway. I’d only just gotten into the rhythm needed to balance the needs of four or five tables at once when he showed up with sadness in his eyes.

I thought my dad was dead. At the time, my father was a narcotics officer and it was my only assumption as to why my brother would make the trek to my job in person. My dad was okay, but my grandmother was not. She had passed away at 86-years-old. I felt the blood rushing to my head and I couldn’t untie my apron and get to the manager’s office fast enough it seemed. I gave a frantic explanation that it was my grandmother, I had to go, and I threw the money that I’d made so far on the desk and left.

My most prominent memories of my grandmother are always accompanied by a laugh. She would totally mix up people’s names infamously calling one of my cousin’s boyfriends “Kingdom” instead of Kenya. She didn’t really curse well but would try if she got really mad. She would give up the tapes on other family members without realizing it. Or maybe she did.

I hoped she would live forever. Irene Isabella wasn’t your typical grandmother. See, up until she started falling a few years prior because of heart trouble, she would still catch the bus downtown, get her hair dyed, run errands, and do whatever else she needed on her own. She wasn’t really the “Big Mama” type at all and worked well into her seventies. I didn’t even realize that her hair was gray, although I should have known because she was well, old. She had this quiet strength that you didn’t fear but respected.

Sure, things changed when the decision was made that she should live with my aunt, but she got a pacemaker and she seemed strong, vibrant, and still sharp as a tack in the mind. I didn’t realize that buying a box fan that summer would be one of the memories I would be desperately clinging to. Or that I would be trying to remember the sound of her voice, the frequency of her laugh and the scent of her favorite perfume.

My mother and my aunt were with her the morning of the day she passed away. Laughing, joking, catching up on the family gossip and by the time my mother got back in later that afternoon, she found out that her mother was gone. They all recounted the morning, wondering if there were signs that they missed if there was more that could have been done, but the reality was, there wasn’t. Sadly, death at 86 is often dismissed as “old age” and so even this many years later, I’m unsure of exactly what happened, but she was gone.

Our matriarch was gone and the normal push and pull that seems to happen when families lay someone so important to rest ensued. We didn’t all see eye to eye. Feelings were hurt, things were left to be figured out. But what I didn’t expect was how much our family dynamic would change. There were no particular blowouts or arguments, just a vague passing of time and the silent retreat that often lingers with grief.  

In Black families, and maybe in all families but I can only speak from my experience, the matriarchs are really the glue that holds everyone together. There is something about that common person, the grandmother, that brings everyone to a central place. Everyone visits grandma’s house and in some cases, many are raised there. Everyone comes together for birthdays and holidays and all the important things to make sure grandma is appeased.

When they’re gone, you look up and it’s been years since you’ve seen your little cousins. They’re so big now and you don’t know them as people only the kid versions of themselves. Your aunts and uncles don’t know you as the adult you’ve become. Somehow the family slowly drifts apart and you’re so much more in tune with friends and your immediate family than the other people who share your lineage.

Sadly, when my friend’s grandmother fell ill, I knew what was coming. I tried not to project too much, but the signs were all there. The tension, the trouble with making decisions that everyone can agree on, the distance. It felt like clockwork as she confided in me about the course of events taking place and it left me wondering why this happens when we lose our matriarchs? What is it about the magic that they possess that helps everyone put aside their differences and come together?

Both of my grandfathers died well before I was born so, it has always been the women at the helm of the family. They’ve exhibited power, grace, and the ability to remain a neutral force even with managing various personalities. Black grandmothers, specifically, have stepped in as primary caretakers for their grandchildren. They’ve lived through harsh times of poverty, Jim Crow, and segregation. They’ve worked quietly without complaint in an infrastructure that has not been kind or fair to women, especially Black women.

They are the originators of Black Girl Magic and so it is no wonder the family dynamic shifts. But seeing it also happen to my friend’s family felt like I couldn’t just stand by and let it continue to happen to mine. This idea of falling out of touch and practically becoming a stranger to people I used to know. A stranger to people with whom I grew up with, shared laughs, barbeques, proms, and overpacked car rides to the mall.

On that hot summer day, it wasn’t about doing so much or even the box fan that we bought. It was mostly about showing up. That’s all we were doing in the first place to create community and synergy. We were showing up for our grandmother because we deemed her valuable enough to do so and by happenstance, we formed bonds with one another. Now, we had to decide to show up for each other.

I’d resolved in my mind that family is what you make it which I do still believe. Some of the bonds I’ve created with those that don’t share bloodlines are stronger than anything. But I was fooling myself to believe that family doesn’t matter. Especially if there’s not specific toxicity that you’re escaping.

My uncle passing away last year was the final straw. None of us knew he was as sick as he was. None of us knew how long he had been passed away before his daughter found him in his apartment and it was the uncomfortable, heartbreaking wakeup call we all needed to come back around.

You lose so much when you lose your grandparents and great-aunts and uncles. It’s almost as if you lose part of your connection to the past. There were bread roll recipes that I meant to write down. Stories of my grandmother migrating to Philadelphia that I’ll never get to hear. Family trees that may remain incomplete if I don’t hop on getting more information from my last surviving great aunt.

So, we’re trying. You know you don’t always get to choose your family. Sometimes your way of seeing the world couldn’t be more different. But I’ve resolved in my own life, that’s okay. That I won’t just allow my grandmother’s legacy to be disjointed and broken. We didn’t get to choose when she would go, but we get to decide that we’re still a family. And we’re all trying to do that the best way we know how now because nobody wins when the family feuds or when we allow our family ties to die with our elders.