They even got electricity before they got indoor plumbing and they got electricity around 1937.
My mama’s mama’s youngest sister almost died of malnutrition before their daddy went to work at the Rocky Mount Mills making $15 a week.
She loves to say that growing up, they were so poor that if all the houses were lined up in a row according to wealth, their house would be further yonder out past the poorest family, in a place all on its own.
They were even poorer than the colored families that lived closest to them and if you know anything about the South, then you know that’s poor like you and I’ve likely never seen. My mama’s mama says that they were so poor that even the colored families took pity on them.
I could tell you a thousand stories about my grandmother because my grandmother is like no one I know. I’ve got her history etched across my heart because she’s been telling it to me for 38 years now.
I know about the time she stole bites of boiled potatoes off the stove for an entire afternoon and how her mama cried when she found out.
I know about how her daddy would walk the train track in search of blocks of ice thrown from the train.
I know about the time her older sister got a nickel and bought a dill pickle from the drug store and wouldn’t share it.
I know about the lack of food and lack of heat and lack of running water.
I know about how some people can’t help being poor.
I know about moving around a lot and working a land that doesn’t belong to you while living in a house that’s not yours either.
I know about the way a false religion gives a family no hope at all.
I know about the long term effects of poverty on a body and the relentless audacity of a soul to long for more.
And I know about the strength of a woman who was born into a world with the cards stacked against her and how she beat the odds and raised up my mama on her own in a time when people didn’t do that.
I know about her marrying later in life and getting pregnant even later in life and how her sorry husband walked out on her before her baby was ever born.
I know about how she had to move back into her childhood home and then walk to work and pray for that baby not to come yet because she didn’t know what she was going to do.
I know about that baby coming and how my grandmother was exhausted from sun up to sun down and how she pinned two diapers to that baby during the night so she could just sleep before doing it all again.
I know about the long walk to work with a baby in tow and how she’d leave that baby with a woman who’d watch her all day until she could walk back to get her late in the evening.
I know about survival and the daily grind of endless work that doesn’t quite reap what you sow.
I know about getting to move into a cinder block house in the new government housing project and feeling like you might just make it.
And I know the shame that comes from being a single mom with a little girl and no daddy in sight.
See? I told you I could tell you a thousand stories.
But there is one story that I want to tell you and it’s one I’d not heard until two weeks ago.
Plain and simple.
Her body is giving out and yet, her mind is still churning out my legacy.
Thad and I took the kids to visit her two Saturdays ago and the tears silently poured down my face while she carried on like dying is just the next thing on her to do list. She couldn’t see me crying because she can’t see and so I just listened as she talked politics with Thad.
She’s smart as a whip, my grandmother. She called Trump a jackass because he is and said the one thing she hated most of all was having to miss how the whole circus was going to end up come November.
She wandered into history a bit and things like segregation and Jim Crow and racial division came out before she admitted that she was fearful that we weren’t going to be able to turn things around in this next election.
Satan is having a heyday. she said. He’s got us destroying each other. There is no rest in our hatred of one another.
And then she told a story.
I can remember one time when we were so poor we lived out past the colored people and even they wouldn’t have anything to do with us. My mama was standing outside the house when a colored boy from up the road came back down the road crying about something.
My mama went over to him and said “Boy, why you crying?”
“I need to go to the store for my mama and that white man won’t let me walk by his house to go there.” he said.
So she took him by the hand and walked him right up to that white man’s house and told him he wasn’t going to bother that colored boy. He had a right to be able to walk to the store if he wanted to.
Because he had the right to walk to the store and even though they were poor, my mama wasn’t going to let him be mistreated. Can you imagine how my mama must have felt doing that? She was worse off than everybody on that road.
She leaned back in her chair after she was done and for a while I sat there wondering how in the world we’d gone from Trump and Sanders to a black boy needing to walk to the store some seventy-five years earlier.
A few minutes passed before she said one more thing: My mama was brave to do the right thing.
And there it was. The whole point of the last thirty minutes on politics and religion.
She’d taken the present straight back to the past to remind me
From where I come,
On whose shoulders I stand,
And what legacy is mine to pass down.
The circle is complete in my mind.
The women in my family have been running the same race from the margins of life for generations.
And now, I hold the baton.