Editor's Note: I wrote this personal essay in February 2009 about my grandfather. He recently died at the age of 82. Since it's Father's Day, I thought it would be fitting to share this piece with you in honor of my late grandfather, who was a great man.
Almost everyone was there, gathered around the table. Me, my grandparents, my dad, my two aunts, my uncle and his son, a not-so-distant cousin, my grandfather’s younger brother and sister-and-law, and a few of my grandparents’ friends. The only folks who couldn’t make it were my brother and his family because they lived out of town and had other plans that day.
The reason for the gathering? My grandmother had prepared a feast for Sunday dinner, like the one in the movie Soul Food, only we didn’t have what most people would call the traditional soul food. Instead of fried chicken, catfish, macaroni and cheese, collard greens, hot water cornbread and sweet potato pie, we had tamales, asparagus casserole, mixed vegetables and honey-glazed ham. The only items that would have qualified as soul food were the ox tails, and maybe the four-layer coconut cake. This was my family’s version of soul food—food that just made you feel good.
This, however, wasn’t a typical Sunday dinner. My grandmother had personally invited every family member to her and my grandfather’s house in Newark in the way only she could: “Hi Martin,” she said over the phone in her best hostess voice. “Just reminding you that we’re having dinner at our house on Sunday. Three o’clock. Can you make it?” How could I say no to that? I’ve never been known to pass up a good meal. But while we were all enjoying the meal and one another’s company that day, I had a funny feeling about something. This had been at least the third Sunday dinner my grandmother had planned in the last three months, and she hosted every one of them at her home. It didn’t become clear to me until, right before we were about to eat, I looked over at my grandfather—who has always been a little guarded, mysterious and who over the past year, for the first time in his life, was struggling to maintain his health—and I noticed something miraculous. Something I’ll never forget.
My grandparents have this unique story about their journey here. By here, I mean California. They both grew up in the segregated South—in Jackson, MS. My grandmother’s childhood neighborhood was pretty, she says, adorned with nice homes, manicured lawns, a lot of children, and both parents were usually in the home—a stark contrast to today’s typical family. Many of her neighbors were nurses, secretaries and teachers. My grandmother was a teacher, and before that, her mother was a teacher. Although many of the families were poor, it didn’t bother people “because the children I was teaching,” my grandmother recently told me, “most of them took pride in where they lived.” In fact, right behind the neighborhood in which she lived was a golf course (segregated, of course, but a golf course). Reflecting today on what that probably looked like back then, her childhood neighborhood reminds me of a Leave It To Beaver Mayfield, only it wasn’t a suburb and it wasn’t a place that everyone—at least those that didn’t like black people—could relate to.
My grandfather’s experience with segregation was more pronounced. Many of the kids he knew while growing up had uneducated parents. All some kids had to aspire to being in life was a shoe shiner, he said, which perhaps was the only time when segregation wasn’t “everywhere wherever you went” because that was one of the few occupations that garnered respect from some white people. So many of the parents in his neighborhood pounded in the minds of their children the need to work hard and do better in life. That is what my grandfather’s parents were attempting when they moved him and his three brothers to Richmond, CA. Eventually, he would attend Cal State Hayward and UC Berkeley, trudging the steep hills and stairways on his own in pursuit of a better life. (Oh, by the way, he did all of this in a wheelchair. This was before the country had ADA laws, mind you.) After he got a job in human resources at Lockheed Martin, he went back to Jackson and reunited with my grandmother, who had been previously divorced from her first husband and was living next door to his aunt. My grandmother and his aunt and cousins were friends. He later married my grandmother and moved his family—my mother and her three siblings—to Newark, CA. At the time, when they moved to Newark, they were one of the first black families to ever live in the city.
Like many kids, I’m sure, I grew up adoring my grandparents. Everyone who has ever met my grandmother knows that she has a warm heart and looks to bring the best out of people. When my brother and I were younger, she used to make us give speeches in front of big audiences at her organization’s Black History Month events. She would make me get up on the podium, have someone hand me a microphone, and then have me sheepishly read a short poem about how great Martin Luther King Jr. was in my little church outfit. I always felt a little embarrassed being put on the spot like that. But now that I’m older, I can appreciate the fact that my grandmother wanted us to be proud of who we were.
Likewise, my grandfather, whose stoic persona kind of resembles the farmer in the famous painting American Gothic, has always been endearing. He always made sure I understood how important it was to have a firm handshake. As a boy, every time I went to my grandparents’ house, he would put out his right hand and grip the life out of my own hand. Now, when I come to greet him and give him a firm handshake, he looks impressed and breaks a smile like a proud sensei.
I’ve always admired my grandfather for his mysteriousness. Although he has spent most of his life in a wheelchair, he never let that define him. I remember one summer when he taught me how to clean the gutters of a house. He told me to climb a ladder to get on the roof and pointed out to me with a long wooden pole from his chair the places I was supposed to clean. While I worked on his roof scraping up the gunk out of the gutters, he kept his eye on me and knew when it was time to either keep scraping or run the water hose.
He also is a little stubborn. OK, maybe more than a little. But I never began to wonder about that until he had a stroke this past summer.
Now, because of the stroke, my grandfather’s entire routine has shifted. He is more cautious. He is more forgetful. Sometimes, he even gets a little paranoid—much to the chagrin of my grandmother, who now spends most of her time caring for him. Yet he still often remains a mystery. It’s like he is trying to hide some emotion or deep-seated issue from everyone else. He often doesn’t do a good job at it, but for a while I pictured my grandfather being anything else but invincible and strong-willed.
I sat down with him on a recent afternoon to ask him about his past. I wanted to try to get beyond the veil that he often holds up. While I knew it would be a challenge, I thought my journalistic skills could rise to the occasion. The first question I asked him was how he became disabled. I was thinking he might be hesitant to answer since for my entire life I had never heard him talk about it before. But he simply said in a frank tone, “A sandlot football game.”
After a little prying—to my surprise, actually—he began to open up a little. He began to explain that when he was 15, which was around 1945, World War II had just ended and he had dreamed of being in the Marine Corps “because my buddies were doing it.” But after suffering a spinal-cord injury from an awkward hit during that sandlot football game, his plans were drastically changed. It left him in a state of depression for a while, he told me. But then he snapped out of it somehow, he said, after his mother—the rock of his childhood life—urged him to get it together and move on. So that’s what he did. “I didn’t just want to sit by a window,” he said he told himself. “There was a whole world out there.”
Listening to my grandfather explain his life, I began to see why he had been so guarded, so mysterious, so stubborn for so long. He never asked anyone for a handout. He never accepted a “no.” And after spending most of his life having to prove that he was as able as any other person, the armor around my grandfather’s heart had just never been taken off.
So I think everyone who knows him has just learned to accept that, perhaps, he won’t ever be able to change. I guess, over the years, I learned to just accept that reality as well.
Until I finally saw something that day during Sunday dinner. Just before everyone was about to eat, my grandmother asked me to bless the food, as is tradition in our family and in the black community. Before I could say anything, however, my grandfather, quickly and discreetly, interrupted and said he wanted to share a few words. He announced that he was thankful to make it to another year in life, as this year had been his most challenging. Right then, I realized that he was lending himself to a teaching moment, even if he didn’t know it. That is because for that brief moment, with his lips nearly quivering, his voice almost cracking, he began to show everyone what he was feeling.
He was on the brink of crying. He managed to keep it in. But for the first time in my life, for that brief moment, I saw my grandfather willing to be vulnerable. I don’t know if anyone else saw it because it happened so quickly, but it taught me a very important life lesson: no matter how old you are, no matter what you’ve been through in life, at some point, you have to be willing to let go of the past and be thankful for what you’ve got. That was food to my soul.