I have always been fascinated by the delicate thread between life and death. Everyday, we walk out of our doors not knowing whether we will ever return home safely again, never thinking that the very day in which we live might be the very day in which we, or a loved one, may die. Three weeks ago, my family suffered the loss of my great-grandmother, the matriarch of my maternal lineage. Though she was old and weakening, the knowledge of her loss still came as a shock to us. I don't want you to misinterpret my mood in this journal; I am rejoicing in her life and how it impacted me. Big Mama was ready to go, and I know that she is in a better place. I am no longer sad, and I am writing this journal with a smile on my face and in my heart as well.
Given the fact that we were military, we were a highly transient family. I was born in San Francicso in 1978, and from there we moved to Chicago, then Ft. Ord, CA; then Chicago; then Ft. Carson, CO; then Ft. Lyon, CO; then Albuquerque, NM; then Frankfurt, Germany; then Orlando, FL; then Chicago; then finally here in Hinesville, GA in 1990. All of this moving occurred before I got to eighth grade. I never attended the same school for more than a year and a half until I got to high school. It may seem like a very unstable life for a kid to lead, but it was all of the moving that has given me so much exposure to the world. I would never trade that experience for anything. Despite all of the travel, we always went back to one particular place: Chicago. For me, Chicago was always synonymous with two things -- Big Mama and home.
Chicago is our "hometown," I guess you could say. All of my mother's family is there, and it was always the familiar territory for us. Even when we weren't living there we were there for summer vacations and holidays. The two central figures of Chicago are my Grandma and Big Mama. Grandma is Mommy's mother, and Big Mama is Mommy's paternal grandmother. When Mommy moved back to Chicago after getting out of the Army, I was about one. I would always get confused about what to call each of my grandmothers, so mom started having me call my great-grandmother Big Mama. The name stuck, and it began to mean so much more than easing a little girl's confusion.
Big Mama was a warm soul and fills many of my childhood memories. Next to Mommy Lady, I would definitely have to say that she contributed the most to who I am today. To me, Big Mama represents my spirituality. She had a strong faith in God, and when we lived with her for a couple of years in the early eighties, she was there to begin molding my own faith in God. It was 1983-1984; I was between the ages of five and six. My most cherished memories of Big Mama begin there. Like I was saying, the center of her life was church. I remember getting ready for church on Sundays and riding in the center front seat of her Lincoln. We would arrive at my home church, Greater New Mount Eagle, and take our usual place near the front on the right side. I was baptized there when I was six, and I was given the very Bible I use today on that occasion. Big Mama always kept a supply of peppermints in her purse to keep me occupied during the sermon, which to me at the time was the "boring" part of service. The sermon fell right in the middle of my two favorite parts -- the singing and when the music gets cranked up and everyone starts jumping around and catching the Holy Ghost. If any of you have never been to a "Black" church, I recommend that you do sometime. It's a religious experience unlike any other. Excuse the digression... Big Mama always gave me that warm and fuzzy feeling that being in church gives you. I felt protected, loved, and taken care of.
Warning! This next part will ramble, because I have all of these memories and experiences of her that are all sort of hitting me so fast that I don't feel like I can organize them all in to a decent pattern of thought. These are my favorite and most cherished memories of her, and I guess my real point behind doing this is chronicling these memories for the sake of my children, who will know her in spirit but never in person.
The most amazing thing about Big Mama was the quirkiness of her personality. She was very spiritual, but by no means was she the old grandmother that bakes cookies and sits in rocking chair knitting blankets. She smoked, and had the raspy voice to go along with it. She found humor in some of the oddest situations and loved to shop (favorite stores: Zales and Marshall's). When she got cable and discovered the Home Shopping Network, that quickly became her favorite channel. She knew every host, the names of thier kids, and what times they would be on, rambling about this item or that. Her favorite segments were jewelry and electronics. We spent the summer with her when I was eight, and all we did was watch HSN and work on word searches together. However boring this may sound, it was actually fun spending all of that time with her. She would laugh so heartily at all of the hosts' stupid jokes, that I would laugh equally as hard at her thinking those corny jokes were so funny. By the end of the summer, I knew the different grades of cubic zirconia, the types of chain links, and approximate costs for various pieces of jewelry. I also had a good assortment of fake jewelry and great radio to take home, too.
I can't talk about Big Mama without telling the most hilarious story about her. The two things about her that reminded you of old ladies are the facts that the only dogs she ever owned were poodles (she had a different one each time we went back to Chicago) and that we never heard her say a single cross or curse word. Well, that's not entirely true. It was actually one of her poodles that lead my sister Chanel and me to the same discovery -- Big Mama actually knew how to get mad and what a curse word was. It was during that same summer we raided Home Shopping Network. I was eight and Chanel was three, and the two of us were sharing a bed in the guest room. We had just settled in and were drifting off to sleep when all of the sudden, Big Mama's newest poodle, Fluffy, exploded into the room with Big Mama hot on his tail. She had the meanest expression we had ever seen on her face, and she was brandishing a rolled up magazine. Just as Fluffy was about to dart under the bed, she grabbed his collar and swatted him on the butt while saying in a raspy growl, "I'm tired of this dog pissin'all over the damn place." Chanel and I gasped and whipped our heads toward each other, both of us wide-eyed with disbelief. After Big Mama dragged Fluffy out of the room, still fuming and muttering under her breath, Chanel and I spiraled into a fit of the giggles that kept us awake for the rest of the night. The next morning, every time we looked at Fluffy, we both passed this secret smile between us and started laughing all over again. That story still makes all of us laugh until we can't breathe.
Random thoughts about Big Mama
- The only time I ever eat New York Cherry ice cream is with Big Mama. It was a flavor that we subconsciously reserved for sharing with each other. We would each have a cone after dinner. I'm pretty sure that the only time she bought it was when we were in town.
- She regularly prepared and ate spaghetti like it was a side dish, never the main course. Customary meals were spaghetti with fried chicken, spaghetti with pork chops, or spaghetti with fish. Yeah, that's right -- spaghetti with fish.
- Speaking of fish, the only time I ever ate salmon patties is when Big Mama made them. Mom even tried to make them once and they just weren't the same. That goes the same for potato pancakes, too.
- The same dog spanking and cursing summer in Chicago, Big Mama revealed to three, almost four year-old Chanel that she wore dentures. One evening we were all eating dinner (spaghetti and meatloaf, I think) when Chanel suddenly says, "Big Mama, you have pretty teeth." Big Mama grinned and suddenly pushed out her top dentures. Chanel, with all the innocence of a young child, exclaimed through a mouthful of noodles, "WOW! You're gonna getta lotta money from the Tooth Fairy tonight!!"
- Those same dentures used to soak in a glass of Efferdent every night, right next to my great-grandfather's glass eye. He used to keep them in the soap dish. I told you they were quirky.
- Big Mama always kept the closet in her bathroom stocked with extra toothbrushes, first aid kits, mouthwash, soap, tissue (both facial and rolls), floss, towels, Alka-Seltzer, Pepto-Bismol, Tylenol, and every other toiletry you could possibly think of. It was almost as if she expected the entire continental Army to drop in seeking refuge.
- Cole slaw. Yes, cole slaw. She spent hours (literally) making one giant bowl of cole slaw. She started with fresh heads of cabbage, and would sit methodically cutting them into tiny slivers with a knife she had only for that purpose. When that was done, she would peel and slice carrots in the same fashion, then toss them in with the cabbage. The best part was the apples. She would find the largest, sweetest-looking apples she could, and peel them with such meticulous precision that there was one long, thin, curl of apple peel. She would always give those to me to eat. Then she would slice the apples into slivers and toss them in with the cabbage and carrots. Finally she added some raisins (always the Sun-Maid brand that comes in the big red cans), and mixed it all together with healthy dollops of mayonnaise (only Helmann's would do). God, I loved her cole slaw. When she was making it I would pop in from playing outside to see which step in the process she was at, and when she was finished, she always called me in so I could have the first helping. Of all of the other foods I mentioned, I especially never ate anyone else's cole slaw. I don't think I ever will, either. The morning after we found out she passed, I woke up with the aroma of her cole slaw in my nose and the feeling I had whenever I ate it. That morning I shed my last tear at the loss of her.
- Finally, no matter what time I woke up, Big Mama always seemed to have a sixth sense about when that would actually be. I could wake up at 8 am on one day and 10 am the next, and no matter what time I came stumbling into the kitchen, she always had breakfast piping hot on the table for me. Grits with butter and sugar, bacon, scrambled eggs, and toast always started off my days.
Kym, Kyra, and Jaiden