It was the late 60s; I was four years old and had been sent to live with my grandmother. We lived in a small, white, frame house, tucked snug within the iron filled hills of the Ohio valley. The lake with its bountiful bass and trout supply brought expert and novice fisherman from near and far, not to mention the lush stretches of rich vegetation or hundred year old trees that stood resolute betwixt the houses and amongst the hills. All these qualities bore witness to and punctuated the perfect portrait of small town life.
My Grandma Lavada seemed to fit into this place, like a sudden found puzzle piece, snug and unquestionably pat. Her demeanor was one of determination, tinged with the surprise of sudden giddiness. She was so characterized by her tidiness and great cooking that if just one thing were out of place or the rice didn’t fall a certain way, then Lavada must be sick! Let’s look at the fact that my church going, polyester wearing grandma, starched everything! Not with the average spray can, starch. Oh no! We’re talking Argo, “boxed” starch, mixed with water, and then strategically sprinkled on the shrieking wrinkles. The items were refrigerated and then pressed to maximum cardboard stiffness.
Table Clothes! Doilies! Napkins! Sheets! Nothing was safe! She was a mad starcher!
Grandmas’ hankering for straightness had no boundaries. If pressing oil wasn’t available for our hair, she would use Crisco (cooking lard) to achieve ultimate hot combing success. Our hair lay shellacked in undeviating stiffness, until forced into pony tailed bondage. By the look of victory on her face, we could tell, that the deed had been done.
This five foot tall, chocolate skinned woman was the darkest of her four siblings, and had a mingle of black, grey and stark white hair, that somehow spoke of her unfair journey. Her fixed expressions and leather-tough hands further spoke of the “pressing through” of preset boundaries for Southern Women of Color… Women with little to no education… Women who had to grin and bear the hot kitchens of their white employees… And ultimately, Women who believed in God, the sweet bye and bye and hymns, bellowed out Billy Goat style.
This same Grandma would often behold me and my older sister with tears in her eyes and say, “You girls are so blessed.”…
The question mark in our eyes causing her to continue, “…because you are fair,” she would conclude.
It was a long time before I discovered that she wasn’t talking about our sense of justice. Grandma was conveying a sleepless pain. One she had been spiritually injected with and somehow projected, all of her smooth, chocolate skinned life.
In the interim, being ‘fair’ or light skinned, as she put it, was a blessing. For sadly, in her eyes, our skin color (my sister, in particular) was the closest she would ever come to being accepted by those of an unyielding prejudice.
Monday through Friday, in the wee hours of the morning… And like clockwork, my sister and I would leave the small, bungalow style house, and head for school. To this day, I can’t forget those lacey ankle socks that turned down to meet the tops of the ugliest, black, boy shoes in history! These shoes were unscuffable, indestructible monsters that would not tear up! But Grandma insisted that there was nothing wrong with these shoes except, “they needed wearin!”
Now, as a grandmother myself, sometimes when I open my mouth, my grandmas voice comes out, or when I’m cooking I taste her seasonings in my own food. Through her I learned to be rooted in something other than my own selfish needs. Through her, I learned perseverance, Through her, I learned that hope is strong enough to pull you through and last but not least, Crisco can also double as a skin moisturizer-Smiling-Thanks Grandma!