Living as a child in a house where the adults who are responsible for my care were often absent was very frightening for both my brothers and me. We learned how to care for each other the very best that we could. Often we were tired at school because we didn’t go to bed at a decent hour but instead stayed up late watching television or playing because there was no one there to supervise us. We were hungry because my mother didn’t buy groceries regularly, and when we did have ready to make food, we gobbled it up as quickly as we could for fear that one of our siblings would eat it first and we’d be left empty-handed. We were often dirty because we’d simply forget to take baths with no adult around to remind us, or my mother hadn’t been home recently to wash our laundry so we wore dirty clothes. Those nine months during the school year when we lived in that way were difficult for me. So, I spent nine months of the year out of the year, I living for the future: for summer time when I could visit my grandparents and live as a normal child.
My grandparents lived in another town south of the city that we lived in. It took us what seemed like centuries riding in a car to get to their house. In today’s time, people don’t balk at driving over two hours to visit relatives, but when I was a child, my mother acted as though we were asking her to drive across the country when we asked her to drive us to visit our grandparents. The anticipation overloaded my thoughts and was almost too much to bear. I imagined myself sitting in my grandfather’s lap as he rocked me in his big, old recliner. I imagined my granny patting me down with her sweet-smelling powder that she only used on special occasions, like when I visited her. Sadly, I also imagined all of the wonderful food she would cook for us, and teach me how to cook as well.
We saw our grandparents at other times of the year, but my mother was there, too. It wasn’t the same. Wherever she was, my mother had a gift of sucking up all the life out of a room, therefore, spoiling the fun we were having. My grandmother let us take her china in the backyard where we were making mud pies. We needed serving dishes, but my mother threw a fit, and we had to put the dishes back. My grandfather let us use his tools to build imaginary villages for our “little people.” My mother screamed and yelled, and eventually, we were forced to put all his tools away. In our eyes, the only thing we were allowed to do at my grandparents’ house when she was around was to sit and be quiet. But when she was not around, all of our imaginations were free to soar under the encouragement of my grandmother.
My grandparents were my mother’s parents. To this day I am baffled at how she was ever their child. Even though they were by no means rich, we got everything we desired from them during our summer visits, maybe because we didn’t desire anything other than what children should expect. Their house was situated in a small, delta town on a residential street. It was an old house and fairly small. They had a long lot that included land enough for a garden.
My grandfather had a garden every summer. He grew vegetables mostly, with some fruits like watermelons and strawberries. My love of fresh vegetables stemmed (no pun intended) from picking our dinner in the early evening with my grandfather. We learned how to judge when vegetables were ready or not, and how to tell how much longer we may have to wait to pick certain foods. The lesson that I learned most of all is that I didn’t have to be hungry with my grandparents. We always had plenty to eat.
One of the things I ate all summer long, and asked for on a consistent basis, was “leaves.” As tired as he was after working all day, he took me out in the delta heat with the glaring hot sun beaming down on our faces to the garden to pick the “leaves.” We trudged through the soil down the long rows until we reached the turnip greens. I helped him pull the turnips out of the grown, the roots clinging to stay anchored, until we had enough greens that would fill my belly. We took them inside while my grandmother cleaned them and soaked them before cooking. Hers were always the most delicious meals I’ve ever had.
My grandmother was a storyteller. She blossomed a love of reading in me and a love of storytelling. Storytelling is an art. She was an artist. Whether her story was completely made-up or a retelling of a classic, she spun the tale fantastically. I learned from her that reading could take me to places I’ve never been before. She taught me that there were no limits to what I could do; obstacles were only challenges that I could overcome if I keep my focus on my desires. In my eyes, my grandparents were perfect. In their eyes, I was, too. The reciprocity of our love was obvious to anyone.
A day doesn’t go by that I don’t think about them and their love for me. Sometimes with a tear, I think about how difficult their lives were, how hard they worked, how much I miss them and long to see them again. Sometimes with a smile, I think about my grandmother braiding my hair like Laura Ingalls or my grandfather playing his guitar and singing “You Are My Sunshine” to me. No matter the memory, in the end, my heart is full of love for them and always will be.