One of Thirty-Two

As of 6:28 AM, the Alabama Department of Public Health reported 32 coronavirus-related deaths in the state.

One of them is—well, was—my great aunt.

She was my late grandmother’s younger sister. One of four girls in a family of eight. The grandmother of one of my favorite cousins. My heart breaks in anticipation of the call I’ll make later this morning to extend my sympathies.

My family will not do what we did eight years ago for the youngest of my great-aunts: descend on the city of Birmingham with love and food and laughs and drinks to hold hands and shed our tears together. We will mourn quietly; scattered across Alabama, Tennessee, Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Minnesota, and Ohio. Over phone calls and text messages and video chats.

My grandmother and her sisters were grand dames; the brightest stars in our family’s far-flung galaxy. Fallen stars deserve to be sent off in chariots. Not silence.

But as I so often remind myself: “deserve’s got nothin’ to do with it.”

R.I.P. Aunt B (middle left)

Election Day

If my southern black grandmother was alive, she’d disapprove of the following:

  • My stubborn arrogance
  • My four tattoos
  • My refusal to grow and straighten “all that good pretty hair”
  • My writing and releasing a book that discussed my sex life
  • My sex life existing in the first place
  • My blog where I “tell everybody all my damn business
  • My Instagram feed (especially the bikini and sports bra / yoga pics)
  • My indifference toward the Browns and Cavs
  • My ban on slips and shape wear in my wardrobe
  • My predilection for tall, boyishly handsome, emotionally unavailable men
  • My preference for dining out over cooking
  • My continued disdain for household chores — especially dish washing (not even her switches from the trees in our backyard could whip that out of me)

I like to think I make her proud on Election Day.

I never heeded her warnings about people seeing through my dresses or found value in four hours over a hot stove, but she is my model for citizenship. Her grandchildren were the first generation of our family born with a government-protected right to vote. Since I was the grandchild who lived under her roof (and the brightest — don’t tell my cousins), she prioritized my political education; starting with the Cleveland Mayoral Race of 1989. Six-year-old me didn’t absorb much beyond the mutual hatred between the candidates and their devotees. In the end, it didn’t matter how many “Forbes for Mayor” stickers I collected after my grandmother and I left the polling location — “our guy” lost.

Then came the 1992 Presidential election. This time, I was a sophisticated eight-year-old third grader. Who needed the weekly Scholastic News when Grandma made me watch grown up news? “Four more years” and “No new taxes” were a “No.” Universal health care and a First Lady who was too smart to waste her time in a kitchen or a garden? Hell yes. Al Gore nailing Dan “Couldn’t Spell Potato” Quayle on supporting a woman’s right to choose? More hell yes (I didn’t know what we were choosing at the time, but as a little girl with big dreams, I appreciated the sentiment).

My grandmother and I never voted together. In December 2000, she suffered a massive stroke. She lived until 2010, but only pieces of her strong mind remained. (Even with a scrambled brain, she was furious about the Supreme Court “giving the Presidency to that damn Bush”). When I cast my vote for the first Black President in 2008, I bawled in the voting booth. I wished she could’ve voted. I wished she could revert to her pre-stroke self to discuss the magnitude of the moment with me.

Twenty-four years after being impressed by the lady too smart for baking and gardening, I voted for her. My grandmother would’ve done the same. While I doubt we’d have the same sensibilities (she’d have all the respectability politics and no interest in my feminism), I think she’d be happy she helped raise an informed, engaged, opinionated black woman. She’d be happy I live in a world with a female Presidential candidate from a major party.

She might not have enthusiastically been #WithHer. But she’d be damned proud her grandbaby is.

Grandma and I. 1984. She was probably about to educate me on Reagan vs. Mondale.

The Women on the Wall

Grandmother (far left), Aunt B (middle left), Aunt M (middle right), Aunt D (far right)

I walk by this picture every morning.

This morning — out of bed before my 5:50 AM alarm due to a three-hour bout of insomnia — I stop and stare at the photo of my grandmother and her three sisters. My grandmother passed in 2010, but I lost her to a massive stroke in 2000. Cancer claimed her baby sister, Aunt D, in 2012. Aunt B and Aunt M live in Birmingham, Alabama 79 miles north of my family’s hometown, Selma. Aunt B is still standing and living independently. Aunt M is addled with dementia and lost her legs to diabetes sometime in the mid-2000s.

Stumbling to the shower with red, puffy eyes and a dull thumping above my left temple, I remember these women as they were. My grandmother, the rock. Oldest of nine children. The first to leave 1940s Selma for the Brave New World in Cleveland, Ohio. Who never let me end a sentence with a preposition, lectured me on the dangers of “mannish ass boys,” and made me watch every Democratic National Convention from 1992 until 2000. Aunt B, the soft-spoken soul who raised her grand babies while their mother wrestled with addiction. Aunt M, the firecracker who showed up at our house every Sunday after church with a veiled hat on her head and a Crown Royal bag in her hand. Aunt D, the belle, who hosted family gatherings at her sprawling Birmingham home and peppered her sentences with the phrase “I do declare…”

Resigned to start my day after a sleepless night of racing thoughts and pointed accusations, I think of what these women survived. Church bombs and neighborhood riots. Failed marriages and troubled children. Carving lives out of the scraps allowed women — black women, to boot; summoning and tempering their spirited natures in a world that didn’t want them to stand upright. What words would they have for their prissy, precocious baby; all grown up, learning the hard lessons of love and womanhood?

Steaming water hits my back and shoulders. I lean into the spray. Hot water massages my scalp. I hear their voices. That’s right, baby. Get everything you’re worth.