Tuesday, February 27, 2007

February Is When I'm Forced to Feel the Most Grown Up

I know that Black History Month is very important and I should post some thoughts about such historical giants and heroes as Thurgood Marshall, Howard Thurman, and fellow native Arkansan Maya Angelou. And I know that February offers us Presidents Day when we can reflect on Washington and Lincoln. And, of course, there is a day for lovers - Feb. 14th, St. Valentine's Day. February, for the shortest month, is packed with meaning and remembrance.

However, as important as February is for other reasons, it means something else to me as well. My maternal grandmother was born on Feb. 17 and my paternal grandmother was born on Feb. 21. Both are now dead.

My paternal grandmother, "Mama D," (in the south grannies are often called "mama," "big mama," Mama [Name]," as well as "Mother," "Nana," "Granny," "Grandma," and other such terms of endearment and respect), influenced me in ways that I hardly recognized until she had died. She was a storyteller, a poet, a teacher, a bit of a traveler, and a fiercely independent soul. She tended toward plumpness and liked to cook. She was the first and one of the few in my family who took my aspirations as an artist seriously and was the first to let me know that higher education was in my future. I never doubted it. She was stern in some ways, not the nurturer that some nanas are, but she was a powerful figure and the truth is the two masters degrees that hang on my wall and the doctorate I am pursuing are probably in some measure the result of her influence. She would be very proud of my academic achievements.

My maternal grandmother, "Grandma," was the nurturer. She never traveled much and never had a career. But she gave me a home where I could feel safe and loved. I was in many ways an unhappy child, but after high school I moved in with her, attended community college, and left two years later for university only 80 miles away. Forever thereafter, when I would "go home," that meant going to Grandma's house. She didn't understand all my dreams and plans, but she did indulge them, even helped pay for some of them, including my two undergraduate degrees. She was the first to accept the news of my "coming out," and she would show great pride in any accomplishment of mine, great or small, whether she understood it or not or even agreed with it in principle or not. I don't think anyone has ever beamed with delight the way she always did when I would come home to visit her. She, too, is in no small way responsible for who I have become.

Mama D didn't understand all this gay business, and she was very conservative in her politics. Grandma never even went to high school, and was very invested in my getting my BA, but probably thought I was over doing it a bit with all this graduate school. But even though their grandson (Mama D's youngest child's oldest child and Grandma's youngest child's oldest child and her first grandchild) became a left-leaning, gay identified, artist-theologian which was probably beyond anything in their Arkansan frame of reference, they both are largely responsible for who I am, and PS - I like who I am.

I have to do some math to remember when my grandmothers died...I lose track of the time. One died about 5 years ago, the other about 3. One was 85 when she died, the other 83. I believe they died in April and July respectively. But I always remember that they were born in February.

I think of them a lot, especially in February. I miss them. I regret that I wasn't closer to Mama D. I think she wanted us to be and now, I want for us to have been.

I wish that I had been able to do more for Grandma at the end. I lived in New York at the time, and though I wrote her often and visited a couple of times each year, she always wanted more. Calling became so painful for me that I all but stopped doing it. Between fearing her death and feeling guilty for not being able to be more present for her, I withdrew some. And if I had called more in her final months, she might have felt better, and I would have one less regret in life.

In the final analysis, I loved my grandmothers, I inherited some of their best qualities, and I benefited from the ways that they knew to express love. February is when I miss them the most, and when I am most aware, I'm all grown up, making it on my own. Luckily, they gave me enough that I'm doing that fairly well.

Grandma and Mama D, I love you. I miss you. You both live on in my memory and affection. Let light perpetual shine upon you. Amen.

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