My Aunt Ruby asked me to share two paragraphs about my grandmother, Willie Mae Sales Griffin, who is affectionately known as “Nanny/Nannie.” I told her I would share some thoughts, but I honestly didn’t know how hard it would be. I can’t condense Nanny down into two paragraphs. That woman, beyond a shadow of doubt, was a child of God and one of my biggest cheerleaders. The love she had for her family and grandchildren was indescribable. So are the memories.
But I will try.
Let me give
two three memories.
First Memory: Bingo Cleanup
1993 was the last time I spent summer break down in Columbus. Like always, it was hot. And for those who know, Nanny and Griffin loved them some bingo. Whew Lawd. She went to Bingo as religiously as she went to church. Well, Nanny wasn’t about no idleness and was always down for a quick, legitimate dollar, so she made me and a few of my cousins go with her to clean up the Bingo Hall for some extra coin. I’m sure we were breaking all kinds of child labor laws. I know I wasn’t 16 yet. We ain’t want to go, but there wasn’t ‘nam cousin that was gonna tell Nanny “no.”
Cuz. Yeah. Switches and the like might be involved.
And don’t even think about asking for your cut of the proceeds. Nope. After all, she was keeping us all summer.
All of us couldn’t fit in the car, and so the custom was that some cousins would get drafted indiscriminately to come. Nanny had no rhyme or reason to whom she would pick… just cuz you went the last time, didn’t mean you were free this time.
On one occasion, I was picked–three nights in a row I might add–to go to the American Legion Hall in Phenix City AL. That’s where they played bingo. We left at like 9:30 or ten and we wouldn’t get back until 11-11:30.
Man, I hated that.
Well, with Nanny leading us, we began to clean the place up. Cigarette butts, spilled drinks, bingo cards, trash, funk, must, Bingo chips, etc… if it was in the game area, we had to clean it. On the way back, Nanny had car trouble. We had to pull over almost as soon as we got in the car. She went to a payphone–yes, back then, payphones had an important role to play–she went to a payphone and called Griffin, my step-granddad, to come pick us up.
We were by the 13th street bridge. There was a warm breeze outside. I was nervous… it was damn near midnight. In Columbus… I wasn’t that familiar with that section of downtown. I didn’t know my bearings or what I to expect. I already was mad that I had been on cleanup duty three straight times… but I remember sitting there with my cousins… and with Nanny. Instinctively, I knew everything was gonna be ok. Because…. uhm… yeah… it was Nanny.
Even in the midst of unwanted chores, cigarette butts, frustration, unforeseen circumstances, and the dark of night mixed with the orange fluorescent glow of street lights–my grandmother’s presence made it OK.
My Lawd, I miss that woman.
Second Memory: Phone Calls
It’s fitting that Nanny’s payphone call brought us rescue and relief that night. When I went off to school for undergrad and grad school, I started calling Nanny routinely.
Without fail, our conversations rescued me. From despair. From loneliness. From low self-confidence. My God. How she spoke–her inflections, pauses, and sayings–put you in contact with the meaning behind the words. Nanny was pithy as all get out. What has taken me paragraphs to write, would have taken her sentences.
Here’s one: “Life will process you.”
Nanny had a way of letting you know you were loved and believed in.
Over the years, I developed a misconception. I thought that when I called her I was showing respect, giving back to her all she had put into me. My calls were never out of obligation. I truly enjoyed talking to her. But I felt like that it was my time to do for her what she had done for me. I never realized until she passed away, how much she still poured back into me.
I don’t know how that woman had any more love to give to me. How many pies had she baked? How many slammin’ collard greens did she simmer? How many pounds of dressing did I consume? But it wasn’t the food… it was the love behind the food. How many times did I sit in the den with her and watch tv silently? How many days did she keep me? And on the phone, over and over, she would pour love into me. The way she said, “My Joe.” Or sometimes, “David”–though no one says “David” quite like my Aunt Ruby. We talked about religion, history, politics, tea, etc… it didn’t matter.
Along with my maternal grandfather, I dedicated my dissertation to her. Nanny didn’t know what Augustine and Pelagius were fighting about, but she told me to keep writing. There were times I doubted myself, I wondered if I was doing too much with my project… and though she didn’t know the intricacies of performance theory and liberation theology, she knew how much resistance and liberation, bodily presence and vocal intonation, mattered to an oppressed community. In her words, I heard what I was trying (oftentimes unsuccessfully) to communicate: A spirit of life-giving resistance that was born of love, hope, and faith and the admission that injury death and absurdity have a word in this world–just not the last word.
Nanny embodied that kind of resistance. That woman had no kind of quit in her.
I would not have finished my PhD program without her. Her refusal to quit was passed on to me, as it’s been passed on to many in our family.
On this side…
The last time I saw Nanny, I visited and spent the night with her in a hospital room. I brought a hymnal. She asked me to sing “Amazing Grace.”
It wasn’t the first verse… it was the 3rd. “Through many dangers, toils, and snares I have already come. ‘Tis grace has brought me safe thus far and grace shall lead me home…”
After I sang it, she spoke it. And I declare, the words had never been so alive, solemn, and hopeful to me.
Through many dangers, toils, and snares
I have already come.
‘Tis grace has brought me safe thus far
And grace shall lead me home…
The next morning as I was leaving, she spoke her last face-to-face words to me: “See you on the other side.”
Every time I hear that song, every time I sing that song, a tear comes to my eye. I feel her presence; I experience her voice, laugh, and spirit.
I love you, Nanny. And I sho’nuff miss you.
Faith, hope, and love….
©️2019 MJ Sales