Today I wanted to highlight the role of service, faith and my black grandparents.
My maternal grandparents grew up about a mile or two apart from each other in a small town in Virginia. My grandmother was born into a poor family in the poorer part of town and went to a segregated school. She had 12 other full siblings — most of whom she helped raise, cook for and look after — and 9 other siblings from her father’s second family. Her mother died when she was quite young, but she stepped into the role of caregiver even though she was not one of the older children. And my grandfather was born into a comfortable family in the better part of town, attending school that (ultimately) was integrated. He has 3 siblings and grew up with both of his parents.
I don’t know the full story of how they met, but they had my mother when they were both in their teens. They eventually moved up to New York where my grandmother’s older sisters were living. My grandfather took a job as a custodian in Long Beach School District where he worked until his retirement. My grandmother eventually took a job as a bus driver within the district as well. My mother and uncle were in school while their parents worked in service jobs, cleaning up after, picking up and dropping off and caring for many, many children in the course of their times working in the school district. My brother and I also went all the way through high school with our grandparents in these roles and never thought that service to others was beneath us.
The pride my grandmother had in making Halloween, Valentine’s Day and Easter gift bags for the students on her route was something I vividly remember as being fun and worthwhile. In addition to enjoying her job, she took it very seriously. On several occasions she refused entry to my mother, uncle and for not having a bus pass and wouldn’t allow her colleagues to “let them free ride.” So they walked the 2 miles homes because my grandmother was principled.
Outside of work, my grandmother was heavily involved in the church until the very day she died. She was an usher during vacation bible school, cooked every single Sunday and for every single event (pastor’s birthday, men’s night, women’s night, children’s night, etc) because her faith and community were important to her. She was provocative and outspoken (like me) and never shied away from conflict. If she didn’t see eye to eye with the pastor it was because she thought what was being considered wasn’t in the best interest of the community or the church itself. And yet, she still made food every single Sunday and during the week if needed because she put her disagreements aside to do what she felt was her calling. Relatedly, she wanted to her tombstone to say “Good Wife. Great Mother. Great Cook.” And when she died that is exactly what it said.
I’ll be honest and say I didn’t always understand her devotion or ability to put the greater good — for her it was the community, her faith and the church — above all including any petty disagreements. It wasn’t always easy for our immediate family to see why she put so much time and energy into others when at times her family felt like she could be doing more for them. But now that I am older, I realize what guided her. We were fine. We didn’t go hungry as long as she was around nor did we ache for anything. She lent money and made food just because someone asked which then seemed unwise. But now, I get it. She gave back more to the world than she had been given and died a servant of God.
My grandparents never moved on to “higher up” jobs. My grandmother turned down dispatcher jobs because she didn’t want to be too removed from the students and the parents with whom she had developed relationships. Instead, my grandparents spent more time in their respective church: he a Pentecostal deacon and she an “anything the church needs” Baptist. Faith and community were important for them. I think they imparted the spirit of giving to others into their children: my uncle is a teacher and my mother works at a clinic focused mental health and substance abuse for children and adults.
I was never explicitly taught to care about other people or the greater good, but it was just an understanding that that mattered. For me, it is so hard to imagine why others don’t naturally gravitate towards this thinking. And I also never thought of myself as a service-oriented person until I started working in human services directly. But then it hit me, everyone in my immediate family has been this way and there never really was any other path.
As always for this month, feel free to ask me questions about what I posted (in the comments or DM) or any other questions you might have about BHM. See you tomorrow!
Part of a 28-day series of reflections, stories and feelings for Black History Month 2017. Read all parts (here).