The way that each of my grandmothers affirmed me early in life has always been kept in front of me. My paternal grandmother’s affirmation is the inspiration for the name of this blog. As for my maternal grandmother, Helen Wright King, she was the first to affirm in me a love for learning. I am told that early in my life she proclaimed that I was “a student” and as I am near thirty and still in school, she clearly was not too far off in her assessment. I guess it’s true that “words mean things”.
When I was born, my grandmother was already in her late sixties. I don’t have many memories of us spending great amounts of time together, doing sleepovers, going on trips, or having play dates. I suppose that she was tired by the time I came along, which after birthing nine children of her own, who could really blame her? My grandmother and I did not spend a lot of time speaking on the phone or talking about activities we wanted to do together. But my grandmother and I had more things in common than I could appreciate when I was younger. And I never had to question her love.
We bonded over a shared love of history and genealogy. As a teenager, I remember going to spend the night over my grandmother’s apartment because I wanted to see all the artifacts she had collected over the years and wanted to talk with her more about the genealogy trees she had created for our family from her own personal research. For hours we went through old magazine clips, newspaper articles, and legal documents that my grandmother had saved over the years from different events and periods, many of them firsthand memorabilia from events I had learned about in school. We discussed her motivations behind wanting to trace back our family’s history and she showed me what she came up with for her family of origin (the Wrights), my grandfather’s family (the Kings), and even my father’s family (the Burtons). (Yes, the nerd gene is very strong in our family, just talk to ANY of her children for more than five minutes.) She was the first person to introduce me to the term mulatto and show me a census card from as early as the 1890s. She told me what it was like to live in Washington, DC firsthand in the early part of the 20th century and during the turbulence of the Civil Rights era and she explained to me what she originally intended to do with her life.
My grandmother was extremely bright. She graduated from high school at the age of sixteen and still managed to be her class valedictorian. So I guess if anyone knew what a student is, she would know. My grandmother had the mental acuity to have carried her to do whatever profession she desired but times were different. She married my grandfather at the age of 21 and was a faithful wife of forty years until his death in 1982. She began her twenty years of childbearing at the age of 22. Yes, my grandmother’s oldest was born in 1943 and her youngest was born in 1963. She may not have earned multiple degrees but I have no doubt that she was specially graced to handle the responsibility of raising nine children, a grace I do not have and do not desire to have. As I sat and thought about my grandmother’s life, she devoted over forty years into raising her children. FORTY YEARS. I could not imagine.
In addition to being a rather bright and talented individual, my grandmother’s general demeanor allowed for others to take her seriously. She was not one to waste words. She generally operated with a wisdom that was widely desirable. Even well into her seventies, she was a primary caregiver for an older cousin who was in his nineties. She gave of her time and resources to several causes. She was not intrusive in situations that did not involve her. She did not treat people any differently based on changing circumstances.
She was the reason I could not go to a birthday party as a preteen that I was invited to at the last minute. Apparently, my grandmother was a stern believer in self respect and she did not allow her children to attend events for which they were last minute invites. My mother continued this stance with us. I was so hurt and could not understand the point as a child but as an adult, I see this as an invaluable lesson. My grandmother could be quite firm when she wanted to be.
I’m told that at the time of my birth when the Code Blue was called over the intercom, she was the emotionally stabilizing force that kept various members of both sides of my family from falling completely apart. Her ability to stand strong and not be easily rocked in tough situations are, to me, among her most enviable qualities.
When my grandmother passed at the age of 84 in 2005, there were few things she could remember. The last time I saw her alive, I visited her with my family over the Thanksgiving break of my freshman year at Penn State. I looked at her and she looked very tired. I greeted her and I could tell that she was searching my face trying to remember who I am. She did not speak much. We sat with her for a little while and when we were ready to leave, my Dad said that we were going to pray. My grandmother could not remember who we were and likely could not recall much about anything at that point. But when my Dad placed his hand on her forehead to pray for her, she closed her eyes with familiar reverence. I watched as she reacted to the prayer in awe that with all the memories and things that had diminished due to the Alzheimer’s Disease, the one thing shining through this moment was an enduring faith. This faith was instilled in her when she was young and kept her through many things. This is the faith that her and my grandfather instilled in their children. This is the faith that drove her to many decades of devotion and service to God through the Catholic Church. And in that moment, her mind did not fail in reminding her what she could cling to – the God who loved her and knew her.
Today would have her 94th birthday and in December, it will be ten years since she’s been gone. In these ten years, I’ve often wondered how she would have reacted to the different paths my life has taken – my study abroad, my degree program in Dallas, my current degree program. I’ve wondered if I have honored her correctly in taking advantage of opportunities she was not able to have. I’ve wondered how she would have been able to contribute to the conversations about my desired research interests and pursuing a Doctorate degree. I would have loved to see her react to the election of our first African American president or the major milestone celebrations of the different events on the Civil Rights Movement timeline. I would have loved to see her smile at Arden or even at my [future] children.
I’ve come to the conclusion that the best way to honor her is to stay in the vein of what she knew to be true about me (before anyone else) – to remain a student. Being a student doesn’t just encompass what is learned in the classroom but I have taken it as a charge to remain open to all the ways I can learn and grow. In this, I honor her the most.
I am reminded of my grandmother a lot these days by my mother. She reminds me often of certain qualities in me that I should put to use regarding certain situations and her saying is “You gotta let that Helen King rise up in you…” Indeed. This is my heritage; this is the stock from which I come. I am extremely proud and I hope she is proud of her legacy in me too.
Helen Beatrice Wright King
March 3, 1921 – December 10, 2005
Happy Birthday, Nana. I love you.