I climbed the stairs to Aunt Tee’s apartment. The hallway was dark but the semi-opened blinds let in a hint of sunlight on the second-floor landing. The burgundy carpet was clean, other than a tennis ball-sized stain in front of the door where my dad’s foot rested. He stood in front of the door and knocked. There was no answer. He was about to do it again but the door flung open. It was Aunt Tee. She told us to come on in, and hugged us both like she hadn’t seen us just a week ago. It had become our Sunday ritual to go see my grandmother Mama Della. She moved to Chicago from her Mississippi home because of burgeoning health issues, and growing concerns from her children, most of whom came to the city decades prior. Aunt Tee had both the time and space to take care of Mama Della. My dad visited her as much as he could, and I made it my business to do the same.
Mama Della was snuggled up on a worn La-Z-Boy chair, with a brown and yellow quilted blanket across her lap. The white house-dress with blue and pink flowers that she wore swallowed her frail body. She once was a robust woman with tree barks for legs and “childbearing” hips, but sickness and time had taken away her shapely frame. Thankfully neither had any bearing on her personality, nor her spirit. Her eyes lit up when she saw her last-born child and her namesake. My dad bent down to kiss her cheek then sat on the couch. I did the same. Sometimes when we visited there weren’t any seats because aunts, cousins, and uncles were there as well. But on this day it was only my father and me. Selfishly I preferred it that way because I could have my grandmother to myself, if only for a little while.
Hey Little Della! she said.
Hey Big Della! I responded with just as much enthusiasm. We chuckled like school girls keeping secrets.
How you Della-Della? she continued.
I’m good. How you doing Della-Della? I repeated, and we laughed some more.
That was our thing. The special way we greeted one another, shared only between us. Her late daughter Idell’s name was close to ours, but after she passed in a car accident many years before, I was the only descendant that carried Mama Della’s name.
My dad sat and talked with her for a little while, mainly about her health, medical appointments, and overall well being. I listened, just enjoying being in her presence. Eventually, he got up and joined Aunt Tee in the kitchen, and I moved to the seat he was in to get closer to her.
Come here and do something with my head. Mama Della said. The brush ova there. She pointed to a table on the opposite end of the couch. I grabbed the soft blue brush that was on the table next to a few bottles of medicine. It was greasy with strands of her gray hair sticking out of it. Mama Della’s hair was parted down the middle, and two silver braids sat on each shoulder. Her scalp was lightly oiled and smelled of Blue Magic grease. I unbraided the right side and raked my fingers through it to untangle her soft tresses. Gently, I brushed her hair over and over again. Eventually, I parted that section down the middle to make two braids; one going down the back of her head and the other down toward her ear. Then I did the same on the left side. I could have finished in just a few minutes, but I stretched it out; brushing and re-brushing her hair, braiding it again and again, to feel it between my fingers, and to hear her talk.
We talked about my husband, daughter, and the new baby boy I just had. She also wanted to know how my mother and siblings were doing, We talked on and on about this and that. Then she went on to talk to me about how I was named after her.
Your daddy brought Vicki down south one summer to meet me. They told me she was pregnant. I knew she was having a girl and I wanted her to name the baby after me. I already had a whole lot of granddaughters but none of ‘em was named after me. She said she didn’t want no mo girls but I knew she was having one, and when she did, that she betta name her Idella. Idella Michele.
My mother had told me a similar story before, but with a few more details. She said that when she was about six months pregnant she traveled to Mississippi with my dad to visit his mother, Mama Della. That was the first time they had met. She described Mama Della as extremely nice and welcoming to her, and said that she treated her like a daughter. However, Mama Della was a bit pushy and persistent about this one thing: naming her unborn child after her.
When you have that baby I want you to name her Idella Michele, Mama Della said to her.
My mother was shy and didn’t want to offend Mama Della but she told her, I don’t want another girl. I want a boy (my parents already had two daughters). But Mama Della insisted, that’s gone be a girl and I want you to name her Idella Michele. My mother did not want to hear Mama Della talk anything about her having another girl, as if my grandmother’s words could determine the sex of her baby. And it didn’t help that my father soon jumped on Mama Della’s bandwagon, often jokingly telling my mother after their visit to Mississippi, you better have a girl so we can name her Idella after my mama!
I appreciated Mama Della sharing that story with me. And I greatly appreciated any time I got to spend with her. Up until then we usually only saw one another on our summer visits down south, or on the rare occasions that she came to Chicago. But then she was eighty-one and sickly, and I knew she wouldn’t have forever.
Our weekly visits continued like that for a little while, until she was admitted to the hospital for something that we thought was minor. I didn’t see her for a few Sundays as a result, but I thought we would pick back up where we’d left off once she was released. Unfortunately, we never did. After about a week with no improvement in her health, the doctors determined that there was nothing else they could do. The news shattered me.
Old southern Black folks who were born at home also died at home. Mama Della was transferred back to Aunt Tee’s house to “pass over” in the comfort of her home and with the love of her family. Everyone was informed that her health was deteriorating, and her children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and great-great-grandchildren trickled in and out of Aunt Tee’s house to see her while she was still with us. But within days we got that dreaded call that everyone should come right away because the end was near for her.
Aunt Tee’s apartment was packed with no space to move about, and not because it was small, it was because there were so many people there. Family I had not seen in years were there, as well as some that I never knew existed. People from Mississippi (and other parts of the country) came to see her just in the nick of time. Aunts, uncles, cousins, siblings, grandchildren, sons, daughters, etc. all gathered. We made small talk and tried to console one another from the unfortunate, inevitable truth that our family’s matriarch was about to die.
The elders of the family instructed those who wanted to visit with her alone for the last time to form a line. Mostly everyone did, and the line meandered through three rooms: the kitchen, living room, and TV room- where I’d visited, and done her hair not so long ago. I got in and out of the line a few times, trying to decide if I wanted to go into that room for the final time to see her alive. The truth was, I didn’t know how to say my last goodbye to her. My cousin Tony was patient with me and let me get back in front of him again when there were just a few people ahead of us. I finally mustered up the courage to go in when Aunt Barbara came out.
It was a small room that she was put in for her last moments and for her loved ones to visit her in. The bed was low to the ground so I got on my knees to be closer to her. I took a deep breath to try to gather myself. It was so hard to see her like that. I was used to the fiery and spicy old lady who put people who stepped out of line, in their places. I was accustomed to her deep hearty laughs and her Girl, what you talking about’s. She looked peaceful and beautiful, though she was slowly slipping away.
Hey. Big. Della. I said, lacking my normal enthusiasm.
I struggled through the tears streaming down my face and the lump in my throat to get the words out. Her eyes were open but she couldn’t speak; her eyes said she recognized me. She knew her namesake! She could never utter our name again, and we could never act like school girls who kept secrets and giggled again. But I told her I would forever speak her name, and it would live on through me.
I kissed her on the forehead. I said, I love you Della-Della.
Her mouth didn’t move but I heard her say, I love you, Della-Della.
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