100 years ago seems like a really long time. In many of the ways we take for granted, it was a whole world away. 1914 saw Henry Ford introduce the first assembly line, something we use in the production of damn near everything now. The Panama Canal opened. Beverly Hills incorporated (and I’ll watch it’s Real Housewives when my kids go to bed). The first stone of the Lincoln Memorial was placed. The first successful blood transfusion happened. The birth of Paramount Pictures and color films, commercial airlines, Greyhound Buses…hell, that’s the year the Red Sox first got Babe Ruth. World War I started that year!
My grandmother was also born that year.
Now, think of all that has happened since then. 2 World Wars, and a host of other conflicts the world over. The birth of the auto industry and it’s expansion until almost every household in the US has at least 1 car. The advent of computers and the advancement of computer technology until I can type on a lap top that weighs less than my current reading selection. The entire Civil Rights Movement.
And my grandmother lived through it all.
I would have loved to hear her talk about all she had seen. She was a living historical perspective. While she did like to talk, she didn’t like to talk about her past or the past, in general. I guess there was just too much history. I mean, we’re talking about a black woman from the South who lived through the time before Civil Rights. That’s a pretty dark time.
I’ve seen pictures of her when she was young and she bore a striking resemblance to me. In fact, we looked so much alike that my parents said they used to pray that I’d break 5 feet (she was about 4’6″ while I’ve peaked at 5’7 1/4″). I apparently also got my stubborn streak from her. This is a woman who honestly argued with me about how long I could keep my hair in a French braid (I said 1 day and she said at least 3) and swore up and down that I didn’t call her anymore (she often confused the sound of my name with the sound of my dad’s first wife’s name on the phone).
I like to think it was that stubborn nature that carried her life beyond all the negative. I’ve never known anyone who could pick them selves up by their bootstraps quite like she could. This is a woman who outlived her husband by almost 3 decades but could still smile when she talked about her time with him. She outlived her oldest son by a decade, too, but could still roll her eyes and joke about his hijinks.
I’m kinda a history buff and I wish she would have told me about her past. I wonder what it was like for to watch the advances of the world from her tiny apartment in New York City.
I’ve been reflecting more on her life and how her experiences impacted me now that I’m living in the South. She was from a small town that no longer exists in Virginia. I actually drive by an exit labeled with the town that absorbed it 3 times per week. I’m only a few hours from where she grew up, a place she couldn’t wait to escape. 10 years ago, I told her that I had started dating a boy from Lynchburg, Va. I remember the pause on the phone, followed by her concerned little voice. “Honey, we wouldn’t even drive through Lynchburg.” Seemed silly at the time, but I get it now. Not because there is anything wrong with this city, but because of where she was coming from.
People talk about slavery and the Civil War with a measured sense of detachment. It’s something that happened a long time ago. Most people I meet in Virginia are 5 or 6 generations removed from it. Also, most of them are white. This gives them a certain separation that I’m not afforded. There are a lot of Confederate flags around here, though very little outward hate. When I point the flags out, the most common response is something along the lines of, “It’s heritage, not hate.” If I say it’s the heritage of a battle based on hate, people get very uncomfortable and point out how long ago slavery was.
It wasn’t that long ago for me. Slavery was 3/4 generations back for me. My grandmother, born in 1914, was raised by her grandparents because her mother was a teenager. Those grandparents that raised her were freed slaves living in Virginia. My grandmother was raised by people who had been property. When you used to hold the same value as a chair, you view the world as a very scary place where you’re never sure of your own merit. My grandmother left Virginia as soon as she was an adult and went to a big city in the North. She raised my dad, who became incredibly political. He went to UC Berkeley during the height of the Civil Rights movement. He dated my mother, a white woman, while the Supreme Court decided if different races should be allowed to marry. Virginia v. Loving was the case. Yup, back to Virginia.
And now I live here. I live in a place intimately tied to my very existence. The capital of the Confederacy was a few hours from where I sit now. A Confederacy that wanted my great great grandparents to remain property and not people. A state that fought tooth and nail to keep people like me from being anything other than illegitimate bastards. A state that is now trying really hard to embrace the changes in the world while rewriting it’s past to make it a little less horrifying.
And my grandmother watched it all. It colored who she was and how she saw the world. It made her fierce and strong in a way I can never imagine. She died a few years ago, but I can imagine her watching with intense interest as her home state once again tried to stop people who are “different” from having the same rights as the majority…and the joy she would feel when they lost. She would have been proud to see the state of her birth become listed as one of the top places for interracial couples. I think she’d be a little scared seeing me live here, but I think she’d also be a little proud.
Maybe I have a little more of her stubborn streak than I’m ready to admit. I just hope I have some of her strength, too, because my big mouth is going to get me into trouble in this place. 🙂