Beans and Cornbread
No one does ham hock beans and cast-iron skillet cornbread better than my grandmother. Her sweet-tea with lemon drenched rim is also above the rest.
She was born and raised in the South and spent most of her upbringing in Little Rock. She married out of high school, had 5 children, and lived on a military base in Morocco for 3 years. While in high school, she played varsity basketball and was voted "Cutest Senior". When I would stay at her house, I'd thumb through her old yearbooks. There were amazing photos of her playing basketball and a full-page dedicated to the "Cutest Seniors" - her and another young man. Perfect outfit, jewelry, smile and hair - smart, athletic, bold, and beautiful.
These books and their images made a huge impact on me. From a young age, I wanted to be like my grandma.
My grandfather proposed to my grandmother at the end of high school, joined the military. and they had a baby boy. He was soon stationed in Morocco, and all 3 of them moved overseas. While living in Morocco, my mother and uncle were born, one year apart - at that point, my grandparents had 3 children. After their return to the states, they had 2 more, for a total of 5.
While living in Africa, my grandmother befriended a Moroccan woman by the name of Halima. Halima acted as a guild at first, then the two became close friends. They were roughly the same age, married with children. Halima and my grandmother would pack up the kids and go shopping at the market. The markets sounded incredible - meat, produce, herbs, spices, and handmade goods. But it was scorching hot.
To this day, I wonder if Halima's family and has heard stories of my grandmother, as I have of Halima.
My grandparents returned to the states and their marriage started to unravel. My grandfather looked like James Dean and drank like a fish. Throughout their 10-year marriage, he grew extremely abusive. One night, my grandmother became afraid for her and the children's lives. He had come home late from the bar. The kid's were asleep. Belligerently drunk, he held up his gun and threatened to use it on my grandmother. Within minutes, he passed out, and my grandmother grabbed the gun. Finger on the trigger. she kept the barrel pointed at him until she knew he was fully asleep. That’s when she knew that her and the kids needed to leave.
Racial tension in the South was also out of control at the time. She witnessed prejudice acts during her upbringing regularly and never understood how anyone could treat a fellow human being this way. As my grandmother told me these stories, I became aware of white supremacy in our country. She believed in education and equal opportunity and “felt in her bones” that she needed to raise her children elsewhere. Racial injustice and inequalities for women were showing little signs of slowing.
Divorcing her husband and starting fresh as a single mother of 5 seemed impossible. Especially in her tight knit Southern Baptist community. Then, the clouds parted.
The pastor at the local church knew the harm my grandfather was causing her and the kids. He and his wife helped my grandmother get the divorce process started. They also knew of work opportunities for women, in WA state. They told my grandmother that if she landed the job, the church would fund the trip North.
My grandma agreed.
Weeks after applying through mail, she had landed the job. All correspondences were kept secret to avoid my grandfather and his family sabotaging the trip. They were a ravenous bunch, and the church knew it.
The job was at a corrections facility outside of Cheney, WA. The facility offered a program for workers to simultaneously attain a degree in Social Work from Eastern Washington University. Housing was also set up for workers and their families. Travel funds were provided by the church and it was up to my grandmother to get her and the kids to Eastern Washington.
She planned to embark on the trip the next time my grandfather fell asleep after returning home from the bar. When the time came, she was prepared. As he slept, she quietly packed the car, woke the kids, then set off on a 2,000 mile journey North, They had a crate in the back with some toys, personal items and clothes.
There's an infamous story of my youngest uncle swallowing the head of a rubber toy on the way up. Then passing it. My God, I cannot imagine the stress and adrenaline she was feeling.
The next years were spent working full time, attending college, while raising 5 kids as a single mother. How she did this, I have no clue. Her drive and work ethic continue to inspire me in moments where I feel little hope.
As a single, working mother of 5, my grandma graduated in 4 years, with her BA and MA in Social Work. Her career was spent as a parole and Probation Officer in Spokane, WA. At a whopping 5’3”, 100 lbs., she was an unassumingly hardcore PO for 30 years.
Her office was downtown Spokane, in an old Brownstone building. It was beautiful and had white, marble staircases. Growing up, I spent most my weekends at grandma's house. She would pick me up on Friday and sometimes we'd have to head back to her office to tie up loose ends. I absolutely loved 2-hole punching her paperwork and putting it in chronological order.
Weekends with my grandma were far different from her rigid work life. We’d drink tea and talk for hours. Sometimes we’d go to the antique store to search for treasure. My room at her house was filled with “fine treasures" - vintage Barbie dolls, tea sets and fancy boxes.
If I wasn’t in my room, I was probably in the garden. My grandma grew herbs and wildflowers, with an occasional veggie. She also had a raspberry bush along her fence with huge, dark red berries. In the Summer, one of my favorite things to do was pick wild roses from her yard and hang-dry them in my room. At night, my room was like heaven. Fresh sheets, a rosy breeze and the sound of the train rolling in the distance. This was my happy place as a child. Hearing the train at night still puts me to sleep.
My grandmother provided a haven for me when I was a child. Her phone number and address have always remained the same. She’s been unashamedly single since the late 70’s and shows zero signs of wanting a significant other. She's extremely unique, independent, determined, honest and wise. Her faith in God is unbreakable. Her journey is colorful and fascinating. Her accomplishments are inspiring.
Her story has always driven me to strive for greatness and because of this, my grandmother remains my most influential role model.