Memorable things I remember about my grandmother. I wish that as I appreciate her now.
| A WOMAN OF HONOR
Memories: sweet and gentle, passionate
Memories: of a woman proud, beautiful and sure.
Memories: of clean white sheets rinsed
in water blue.
Dried bright, blowin’ light, high in
the Kansas heat.
A memory of kitchen smells lingering in the air;
Suspense, anticipation fillin’ every child’s head;
Fried chicken, collard greens, macaroni an’
Hot, buttered cornbread, and cold, sweet tea.
And no one sits to eat without a thanks to God.
Then later on the porch, Homemade ‘nila ice
cream, and fresh baked lemon pie.
They say, no one is ever perfect our humanness shows through. But as I look back on the years I see moving murals -
Memories, of a woman who never gave up on me.
Memories that have a name; stored in the depth of my mind,
Memories that show up in the tender smile of her eyes. My grandma, mama, my friend.
She was sitting at the piano, tears gently falling down Cinnamon colored cheeks, hair always in place. This beautiful lady coordinated hat, tailored suit, purse, gloves and shoes - the lady was sharp. She sat there playing and singing, back straight, eyes closed, and head lifted toward heaven; singing ‘I Trust in God, I know He cares for Me.’ I thought to myself, this surely must be what angels sound like.
It was 1955, and she was my grandmother. Secretly I wanted to be just like her. Of course I couldn’t say that out loud. She was so old, forty-three, and I was ten. This lady was tall, Black and proud, even before it was fashionable. If Black power had a name back then, it would have been my grandma. She came from the city life of street cars, cabs and busy streets, and the semblance of equality of Des Moines, Iowa - to a small town in Kansas; dirt streets, ditches with an occasional water moccasin hiding in ditches, dank and dark, or swinging from a tall walnut tree. The heat was extreme, and segregation was still openly practiced. But, mama took second for no one.
My grandma didn’t march, wasn’t at the rally’s to give the Negro their rights. Mama lived. She wasn’t scared, wasn’t uppity, just secure. She knew who she was, and what she had to do to get me where I needed to go, and where the Lord wanted her to be. Mama didn’t look down her nose at anyone, but her very presence demanded respect. God gave her a gift of love, and a talent to bring His love to all His people through music and song. She sang her way into the segregated white churches and some of the segregated white homes in this part of Kansas. Wherever she went she made a difference in the opinion that people might have had about her individually, and about us as a race. She even opened up room for thought in some of our minds, that everyone white wasn’t a special demon sent to destroy the Negro. Mama taught people young and old to look at the person, not the race. She said, “You can’t forget wrongs that have been done, but not everyone did it.” She would always say, “Trust God to guide your mind and heart to see the good and the bad of the individual. While you don’t ever stop thanking Him for where He’s brought us, don’t lose sight of how far you still have to go. Just be honest, and be the best.“ No, this small Kansas town in 1955 wasn’t ready for the likes of mama.
In so many ways I thought her life so mundane. She was always fixin’ breakfast, cleaning house. There were days for washing and days for ironing, days for picking vegetable, days for canning - over and over again, nothing really seemed to change – but the people. They sought her out, not for gossip, they knew she didn’t, but because they hurt. She was the preacher’s wife. She was a teacher, comforter, friend, and a lady who made the most wonderful music I ever heard.
We lived not far from the railroad tracks, and the men who road the rail would come looking for work to get food. I think our house had a reputation for good food, cause different ones would come often. Anyway, I remember one day I came into the yard after school, and a man was sitting by the door. He was minding his business, but crying. Mama was practicing songs for the choir. He asked real gentle, “Please let her finish?” We sat there together, him in tears. Mama could always find something for them to do, even when we didn’t have much. We were never completely without.
My grandma dried my tears, held me close when I was sick, sad or angry. She would even do the same for the teenage girl in church that found herself in unexpected trouble, or unsure about school, grades and family. In this small town in, if a girl came up pregnant, she carried a reputation and so did her family. One more log to fuel the fire, as the old folks would say. With head held high, in 1961 mama brought me back from another school, another state to Kansas to finish school. My family, through much sacrifice of love and time and more love, made it possible for me to raise my own baby. She also gave me a bit of her wisdom and a stern warning, more like a ever-present promise. Mama told me, “Everybody makes a mistake every now and then. But, if you want this baby, you will finish school, you will take care of your baby after your homework, and you will not have another one until you’re married and on you’re on your own. Once is a mistake twice is a habit.” She spoke and this granddaughter listened. I knew full well I couldn’t make it without my family.
My grandma never turned her back on hurting people. People, especially women realized she was genuine. Mama didn’t just speak about her caring. She showed it. Mama would pick kids up for church, and go out of her way to make sure they had milk and donuts, something in their stomachs before they came to spend all morning at Sunday school and church. For the girls she would sometimes comb their hair, and always seemed to find an extra ribbon or two for the final touch. Mama welcomed people into her home and the church no matter who they were or what they did. She took special time with mothers who were trying to do right by their children; keeping them in church and active in clean activities so they wouldn’t be so prone to repeat grown folks mistakes. She was a sounding board to many women in our community judged as questionable.
Mama even took care of a few women who got down on their sickbed, women, filled with open hate and jealousy for her. Women who refused to let the stupidity of jealousy pass until they were about ready too die themselves. Why is kindness so hard to understand or accept for some people? She could’ve talked real bad about them or turned her back in their time of need. But, mama believed in loving people into the truth of God’s kingdom.
One day, I was feeling like I was the lowest thing in God’s earth, and just the way she cupped my face and told me I was just as good as anyone alive, made me believe I could do anything. There were many times after I left home that I depended on her strength and her prayers. To this day I can feel the strength, authority and love in her hands while they encircled my face.
In our segregated town, my grandma refused to allow me to go to any backdoors for service. If businesses wouldn’t serve me because of the color of my skin, but would take my money, I couldn’t go to the backdoor, side-door or any window. Definitely I couldn’t spend her money inside stores where I couldn’t try on clothes or hats before I bought them; just because my skin was Black. Mama said my money spent like everyone’s, and it didn’t have to be spent in this town. Shopping trips to Kansas City, Missouri and Kansas City, Kansas were so much fun. We shopped and ate in some of the biggest stores and restaurants I’d ever seen. Most of the things we bought, the local stores in our small town didn’t have them anyway.
No one looked or dressed like me, between our trips and my mama in Minnesota (Different story, same strength). I remember my grandma going to the best clothes store in town (with me in tow) asking to see the manager or owner. Early when we came to Kansas, she clarified in person if they had a policy of not serving Negro’s. Wow, did that leave him and his sales staff a little red and stumbling for words. He explained none of the Negro’s ever came into the store. From then on, he sort of became a personal buyer for mama, usually finding something very tailored, very special for a special lady.
The whole town wasn’t segregated, but enough of it was. Grown folk would try to keep conversation from the kids. But the violence, the hate, the looks, the whispers or the outright, “Negra, git’ out my way,” was enough to keep hate and distrust alive in our increasing minds. Memories ugly, just like memories good refuse to die.
My grandma, my teacher taught me priceless lessons in experiencing people as they are. There were few times I saw mama angry. But this day, I shall never forget coming home from school with my left hand almost double its size. I’m left-handed, and was in fourth grade. The teacher didn’t think this was the right hand to use, so she hit my hand, many times that day to teach me to use my right hand. When mama, Sis.Simmons, as she was known in the Negro community, (Mrs. Simmons in the white), came back to the school, this teacher was very surprised. My teacher started to tell Frieda what she believed, and was instantly corrected as to what my grandmother’s name was. Then she started to tell mama how and why she hit my hand so many times. Mama sent me out of the room to wait in the hall. Over the protest of my teacher mama shut the door. I could vaguely hear mama’s voice, and this time, it sure didn’t sound like angels singing, but like a roaring lion protecting her cub. I never got hit again, nothing ever happened to mama for being uppity or out of place, so I know God was watching over her REAL good.
Music being a major part of mama’s life, our choir was always well received. She went on to establish a Men’ Chorus. Men came to practice once every other week from as far away as eighty miles. These men, under mama’s direction shined, and were known all over Kansas - The New Hope Baptist Church Men’s Choir.
Today, at ninety-three this young lady lives in Minnesota. She’s still praying, still teaching, and singing the praises and truths of Jesus Christ. Mama is one who has followed the dictates of Christ to go into the highways and byways, and preach the gospel. The songs she sang then and now; she still lives. If there are people who have never read the Bible, but want to see in the flesh a living example of Christian love, they’d be blessed to meet her. In her living, she continues to allow the love of Jesus Christ to flow through her. Mama still teaches Missionary, plays piano during Sunday school, visits the sick, and wherever she’s called to go.
My Grandmother, now a great, a great-great grandma is the very example of this song –
“My Living Shall Not Be in Vain”.