Familiar Faces and Spaces

The comforts of home. Not just home home, but extended family homes, in my experience. Lately, I've been reflecting on the importance of gleaning wisdom from my elders, those who are living, and in some cases, even those who are no longer with us. It's been interesting to pick apart the parallels and the differences in lived experiences across generations. Based on a few recent conversations with my grandparents, here's what I've learned:

1) Untapped potential is still potential.

My paternal grandfather, Nathaniel Williams, migrated to the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area from South Carolina in search of job opportunities. For the entirety of my life, I've known him to be a former construction worker and a long-time D.C. cab driver. He still fondly tells the story of how I was naught but a yapping newborn at his retirement celebration. I always admired the flexibility that driving a cab during his post-retirement days afforded him. On a number of occasions, granddad was the one who came and drove me to school when I missed the bus - if not him, then the responsibility was typically offloaded onto Mr. Gregg, God rest his soul, my grandfather's childhood friend and the closest quasi-relative within driving distance of my parent's house.

I asked my granddad over dinner at Farmers Fishers Bakers in Georgetown what he would have done if he could have done what he wanted to do professionally instead of what he needed to do to support his family. His reply: "I never really thought about that." Humbling, to say the very least. My parents and grandparents have worked and made decision after decision to afford me the freedom to decide for myself. To have the agency to think about what it is that I actually want to do. That doesn't mean, however, that I discount the impact of the careers that they had and the trades that they mastered. When I started attending Oxon Hill High School back in 2007, I often shared with pride that I was the daughter of an Oxon Hill graduate and the granddaughter of a brick-layer for the original building.

I could never fathom the thought of being embarrassed by the fact that my grandfather helped build the exterior of a school where I would go on to gain some of the best friends I could ever hope for and some of the most memorable experiences of my young life. The fact that he might have gone on to have a much different career path had he been born in a different day and age doesn't mean that he didn't have potential, but that his drive and skill manifested themselves in ways that I can still admire and appreciate.

2) Our gifts are generational.

One thing that I love about my grandmother's 100-year-old home in New Haven, CT, is the garden. For those of you who are familiar with New Haven, you might be wondering how someone could possibly grow grapes and more in the middle of a such an urban area. But that is my grandmother's gift: the ability to grow and nourish, both people and greenery. As children, my brother and I would spend at least one week of every summer with my grandmother. Though I never learned how she watered and groomed her plants during that time (I was too busy burying my nose in my books), I never stopped appreciating the fact that year after year, that garden still flourished. That garden is her piece of peace. And it's something that is consistent: no matter which children or grandchildren come and go (and come back again and go again), the garden remains.

I haven't personally tried my hand at plant-rearing, but I can certainly say that the gift of growth was passed down to my mother. While we don't grow grapes in our backyard in lovely southern Maryland, my mom has kept the same plants alive across our household for as long as I can remember. Now that I think about it, I have never once seen a plant die in our house. Never. The plant that lives in my room has been there for as long as I can remember, hanging from the ceiling and roiling down toward the floor. My mom recently told me that she associates the well-being of the plants in my room and in my brother's room with our well-being, wherever we may be in the world at the time. Our gifts are generational and even more importantly, they can connect us to both our loved ones and our broader purpose.

3) Suffering is relative.

When I think about the fact that my maternal grandfather had to walk for miles to get to elementary school, I am frustrated. When I think about the fact that during those walks, young, white children would sometimes spit out of the window of their school buses as they rode past the black children walking on foot to get an education that would not extend beyond elementary school, I am enraged. What's most interesting to note here is that so often in this country, injustice is as commonplace as breathing in oxygen is. What seems like a disgusting display of racism and Jim Crow's influence at its finest to me truly seems like nothing more than a regular day to my grandfather and to so many of his peers who endured the same and worse. What to me appears to be an act of heroism - watching my grandfather return to school after the age of 80 to pursue the education that he was robbed of as a young, black man in America - to him is nothing but a reasonable conclusion to a series of standard events.

This makes me think about how commonplace our struggles can feel in the moment, and how jaded we can be to the bravery with which we operate in this world each and every day. When I realize that each of us are the byproduct of the strongest of our ancestors, of those who survived and those who lived, I realize that each generation will have its turmoil and its strife and certainly its fair share of injustice. I realize that our strength, even when we don't acknowledge it, will hopefully be seen and understood and appreciated by those that come after us in the same way that my grandparents' strength is revered despite the fact that in real time, they would never have heralded themselves as the strongest.

30 years from now, those who come after us might recoil with astonishment at the thought of consistent school shootings, the execution of black and brown bodies for reasons beyond the point of justification, ongoing, fatal violence violence perpetrated against transgender people (overwhelmingly transgender women of color), government elections rife with the influence of perpetrators of sexual assault and violence - the list goes on without end. To so many of us, these things remain infuriating, but in all honesty, feel as commonplace as spit out of a school bus window felt to my grandfather. Suffering can cause apathy, but as we continue to heal despite the throes of day-to-day life in this country, may we acknowledge our own strength now in the same way that those that come after us will likely revere our survival later.

4) Love the ones you're with.

Trouble doesn't last always, but the more we learn to appreciate the time that we have with our loved ones, the more that the good times will. I would give more than I have for one more chance to sit at my late paternal grandmother's kitchen table while she lovingly stirred a pot of yellow grits. Those mornings and that labor of love unfortunately mean more to me in hindsight than they did in the moment. I wish I would have taken the time to learn from her how she achieved that consistency. I wish I could've learned from her what steps she took to make her biscuits so that they flake just right. I wish I could've learned from her what it's like to be a black woman in her America, a mother to two boys, a sister to nine siblings, and a Sumter, South Carolina native.

This wishful thinking isn't steeped in regret, though. It's steeped in the desire to spend as much time as I can when I can with those I still have with me. My grandmother has been gone for quite some time now, but over the course of the past year, I lost four other members of my extended family. I lost people that raised me and that raised my parents. Having experienced that much consecutive loss made me realize that my time is precious, but that it's not time to lavish on myself alone. For what is the benefit of love, and of time, if we don't gift them both to those God gifts us with during our time on this earth?

I'm not perfect as far as calls and texts and visits go by a long stretch. But I'm grateful for reminders that time and good times are precious, even when those reminders come in the shape of loss. Even more importantly, I am so, so grateful to have 3 living grandparents to live with and learn from during this life journey of mine. There's nothing that brings me greater joy than my granddad's group texts providing us updates on his classes, or my grandmother's stories following her trips with the seniors, or my granddad's smiling face during every annual Christmas breakfast. And judge me if you want to, but I can't wait to ensure that my grandmother's recipe for sweet potato pies and chitlins make it down to me, and that's that on that.

Have any family lessons that really change the way you think about things? Let's talk about shared wisdom on Instagram!

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