From Chicken Soup for the African American Soul

Not Gone Yet

Life is short, and it’s up to you to make it sweet.

Sadie Delaney

Good grandmothers are the commodities of great childhoods. My Grandma Versie, mother of seventeen children and grandmother to more than fifty, was the center of our universe.

During my visits “home,” I would keep Grandma Versie company as she made breakfast for the twenty folks sleeping there. I pulled up a stool and watched as she rolled out dough for biscuits, stoked the fireplace for cooking and traipsed to the well for water for our coffee. She took her coffee black with a hint of milk. I took my milk with a hint of coffee. She moved carefully around the kitchen, dropping pearls of wisdom that fell on my preoccupied five-year-old ears. Instead, I wanted so badly to tell her everything I knew, to teach her as much as she was teaching me.

As we both grew older, our together time switched to early afternoon. We slept in later and she was forced out of the kitchen to “rest.” We sat by the fireplace in the living room of her new, less spacious, ranch-style home. With my head cradled in her lap, the same hands that kneaded dough now kneaded through my worries. She listened as I tried to explain to her what no grown-up could ever understand: what it is like to be thirteen.

During college, my trips to Grandma were more infrequent. We sat together in her garden. More discerning and considerate, I talked less and listened more. I asked her questions about her life, searching for a window into mine. Taking her hand, I examined her fire-red polish, while she asked me about the boys in college. I told her how beautiful and flavorful they were.

Grandma said, “You know I was only thirteen when I married your grandfather. He was so handsome.” After an hour or two of her funny stories, I hit the clubs to hang out with my cousins.

Once I began my career, trips back to Mississippi were event motivated. Most of the time, they coincided with the loss of aunts, uncles and cousins. Before the family left for my Aunt Grace’s funeral, I made my way to Grandma. Her polish needed touching up, so I searched out some red and I painted her nails.

“Baby girl, you know it’s not right for a mother to bury her child.”

Until that moment it had never occurred to me to think of what Grandma was feeling. She didn’t have anything else to say about the topic so we went on to something else. I told her about my job and the places it sent me. She shared with me how she ran away to the big city once before she got married.

“I wanted to be a professional and work in the factories in Memphis,” Grandma said.

Before she could get settled, her brother came for her and a little while later she married my grandfather. Her professional life consisted of helping him run his 800-acre farm. In her eyes, I could see that somehow she was living her dreams through me, through all of us, and she was proud.

When my father called and told me not to wait too long to go home and visit Grandma, I almost shrugged it off. In my mind, Grandma was immortal. After all, she was in her nineties and looked as beautiful as she did in my childhood memories of her. Weeks led into months, and it wasn’t until she was bedridden that I felt the urgency to go see her. My cousin Demetria, who loved Grandma as much as I did, accompanied me. Upon my arrival, my youngest aunt tried to prepare me for how she looked physically: Her once 95-pound frame had dwindled to 70. Her strong facial features emerged skeletal under her thinning skin. Her voice was failing. Her eyes slowly opened after every blink.

My grandmother was dying. Without seeing her, I ran outside wailing tears of pain, loss, regret and sorrow. All I thought was, It’s over.

All of our talks, our private conversations, are over. Never again will I hear her comments on life. My procrastination cost me life lessons that only she could provide. Her absence will leave a void at reunions and during the holidays.

Demetria followed me. “She’s not dead yet.” I listened intently as she continued, “Michelle, you are mourning her before she is gone. Don’t waste this time mourning her as if death has already come.”

Her softly spoken truth resonated with me. With regained composure, I went into my grandmother’s room. I sat beside her.

“I am going to get married, Grandma,” I chatted, trying to assure her—and me. “And I am going to have seventeen children, too.”

She frowned with disapproval and held up three fingers and whispered, “Three is a good number. You don’t have any land for all those kids to work.”

I was there for a few hours before my aunt brought me a can of Ensure and a baby spoon for me to feed my grandmother. I fought back tears, recalling all the times that she had made me breakfast.

She is still here, I kept saying to myself. She is still here.

As I put the spoon to her mouth, she beckoned me closer. I leaned toward her. “Where’s the beef?” she murmured.

“What, Grandma?” I asked.

“Where is the beef? I want some meat!” she said definitively.

I fell back in my chair laughing and watched her chest bounce in silent laughter, too. Demetria was right. Grandma was still here!

My aunt ran in the room at the noise, and I repeated the phrase Wendy’s Restaurant had made famous. My aunt looked puzzled, but when I looked at Grandma, I knew she was serious.

“Y’all better get my grandma some beef!”

I fed her crumbled hamburger meat and afterwards polished her nails. There was no longer anything to mourn, only a life to celebrate.

Michelle Gipson

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