As Bill Withers plays in the background about grandma’s hands, I look down at my own. I have my grandmother’s hands. They are small with fat fingers. I once was told they looked like Vienna sausages. I simply laughed and said, “No this is all Geneva.” Geneva is my grandmother’s name. Many where I am now do not know that and I’m proud every time I choose to offer that bit of information. I wear these hands with pride. Grandmother’s hands told a story. A story of mystery and also triumph.
There is so much I would have loved to learn about her and still do, but as I said she is a mystery. No solid information can be found about her except for when she popped up in Cairo, IL where I grew up. Searching and searching it is almost impossible to find much information about her. Now, back in those days, it is not uncommon for this situation. There were plenty of times names were changed or misspelled. After all, people of color weren’t treated as they should, so no one receiving the information really cared about if it was put down correctly. In their eyes she was just a number or worker.
For this reason, I can only tell people what I know and what she was willing to share. She was the daughter of Hattie Mae Sumlin. Her father she never spoke of. She had eight siblings. Many of them she lost before I was born and never talked about them. I guess after losing some many over time it was easier to not speak of them.
When she was but a girl, she stopped going to school in the third grade. This was done to work and help support her family. She worked in the fields from sun up to sun down. Never one to complain, she did what she needed to do. Once she worked in a juke joint with her sister and even worked a cash register with her brother. Her bravery showed when she had to help her deaf brother escape being lynched, by hiding him in the trunk of the car and driving him from Tennessee to Illinois.
Illinois is where she put down her roots. There, she met her husband of twenty years. With him, she gave birth to twelve children like a pro; seven girls and five boys. Stood strong even when her husband left her with no help at all. Feeling sorry and letting circumstances get to her was not an option.
During the time of civil unrest, she led the charge. When the boycotts broke out, you could find her downtown boycotting. Many of her children, who were adult age and under stood beside her. A leader in the community who would help anyone and make things happen. At town hall meetings, she would stand up and start every sentence with, “I am Geneva Whitfield, and if you don’t know who I am you better ask someone and they’ll tell you.” Justice and equality are what she stood for. Being friends with the mayor, judges, commissioner, council members, and anyone with importance gave her a lot of pull. It took nothing but a phone call from her and the ball got rolling for whatever a person would need. I’ve seen plenty sitting at her table. Jesse Jackson stayed at her house for a period of time, and even Barack Obama stopped by when he visited our little town. Of course no one knew then that he would actually make it to the president’s chair, but her house was still one of the places he visited. The lady who dropped out of school in the third grade received respect and shook hands with many people of importance.
She once shared with me the knowledge of survival. Those lessons alone let me know the depth of growing up in the South and the need to protect yourself. She made sure everyone knew how to move around the house in the dark and even dial a rotary telephone in the dark. Now that’s a difficult task considering the exact setup of a rotary telephone and knowing the numbers. She also made sure that we all knew that if she ever yelled, “Hit the floor,” that is exactly what we were expected to do. As a child, you think none of this training would ever be used because stuff just doesn’t happen anymore. Then, the moment comes and you’re glad for the training.
The town recognized her for what she was. A strong Black woman who survived the times. That same strong Black woman who made sure that the times would not see her go under. She would survive and the generations after her. I remember her most for other reasons. Yes, she was a pillar of the community, but to me and those who love her, she was so much more. She taught many lessons. Some many did not understand or like her methods, but they learned just the same.
When I think of her, I think of the little old lady sitting on the porch tapping her feet to the music that would pique her interest in random moments of cars passing by. I think of sitting at the table with her cracking pecans and conversations that I wish I could have just one more time. I think of grocery shopping and hating that she walked down every single aisle, but in the end, she would treat me to fried chicken from Hardees. I remember the times of being mad at her, and then grateful for the lesson that came from the reasoning. And I think of how much I miss her presence. That strength that I also wonder if I am woman enough to have. I may not know much about her history, but I know enough about her. The woman who I loved with my all even when she made me mad. The very woman I wish my children got a chance to meet so she could pinch their cheeks and spoil them rotten.
When I was sick, my mama would take me next door to her house. There she would lay me on the couch and wrap me up in covers. Grandma would come in with a container that she mixed. I learned that it was whiskey, lemon juice, and honey. I was better the next day after a little bit of that and some time to sweat it out.
There was one time I got so mad at her I left the house because she was in it. Now keep in mind I was young and couldn’t go far, so I proceeded to walk around the apartments in front of ours waiting on her to leave. She yelled out and told me I eventually had to come home and she’d still be there because she lived next door. In my head, I wanted to laugh because that little information flew out of my head the moment anger took over. By the time I finally sat down from walking, she was right there. She asked me if I was done being mad and I simply laughed and gave her a hug. I could never stay mad at her no matter how hard I tried.
She used to have me comb her hair into these little puffballs. Being young, I wanted to go play, but when she asked for something I knew to do it. During those times she would pat her feet and hum or talk on the phone with different people. I would think in my head that she never got tired of talking, but in times like this, I miss her voice.
During her final days, I was gone. Graduated from high school and joined the Army. During basic training, I would call home and speak to her during the few calls that we got. She would always tell me I wouldn’t be home to see her and I would laughing tell her I would be home soon. When I finally made it home, she was weaker but looked at me and smiled. At that moment I was happy I made it home. I would walk past her door afraid that it would be that moment when she was no longer there, and let out a deep breath when I continued to hear her breathing. On my final day home I cried like a baby and didn’t want to leave. In fact, I didn’t leave, I intentionally missed my flight. One thing I am grateful for. That day was her last day on this earth. We awaken to find that she had passed not long after. That was fourteen years ago.
Now, as I look down at my hands, I wear them with pride. These are hands of strength and courage. These are hands filled with wisdom. These hands are my ancestors and one of the greatest women in the world. They are small with short fat fingers and they are my grandmothers’ hands.
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