By Ko Bragg
Life is cyclical. It begins with the inability to remember even the grandest of events—our birth, our first steps, our first words. Then, all of that changes, and, suddenly, we can relate our present to our past and compare current moments to those of yesterday. However, we store away our memories intrinsically, some forever. So, it is virtually impossible to pinpoint the moment we begin to remember, or even when we start to forget.
Few understand the way time works or even its methodology. Time selectively steals some memories and leaves others intact. It leaves some memories vibrantly etched, ready for retrieval at any time. It lets too many precious ones escape prematurely, even abruptly, remaining hidden from posterity. In these instances, it is only when looking through the lens of retrospect that we curse and question the timekeeper for stealing indexes of experience, wisdom, and reliability. My grandmother was robbed so swiftly that she did not realize things were missing. The timekeeper ran out of sand for her, and we had to watch every grain slip through the hourglass.
One of my grandmother’s most significant accolades was her mind and what she accomplished with it in academia. De’Ella Victoria Toms, who went by Vicky, was born in 1928. She excelled in spite of her blackness and her femininity—two factors that American society at that time harshly delineated as indicators of incompetence. My grandmother and her sisters were raised in a row townhouse in the nation’s capitol. Her parents moved there to escape the oppressive, increasingly dangerous Deep South. They exchanged their life on the farm for life in a city with paved sidewalks and an expanding accomplished African-American population.
It was in D.C. that my grandmother began her academic journey. She attended Dunbar High School, the nation’s first Black public high school. My grandmother was one of those top performers responsible for the school’s prestigious reputation. She and her classmates became doctors, lawyers, professors—most of whom were “The Talented Tenth,” about whom the book First Class: The Legacy of Dunbar, America’s First Black Public High School was written. My grandmother went from Dunbar to Howard University where she majored in German, the subject in which she later earned a PhD at Northwestern. She knew so much. In fact, awareness transcended anything ever taught in school, which is why the reverberations of her losing her memory were felt so deeply in the hearts of everyone who knew her.
One of the most powerful things my grandmother knew was her worth. She knew it forwards and backwards. I would doubt that a person existed who could ever tell Vicky a thing. She knew she was beautiful, well-dressed, educated, powerful, well-spoken, cultured, privileged, refreshingly different, and charming. Most importantly, she was not afraid to say that all of these features made her a fine catch. “I knew that I could have any man I wanted, so I married the smartest one,” she would often say while reflecting on her college days.
Her husband, Robert A, Ellis, was one of the foremost plasma physicists of his era. He received an M.A. from Yale University and his Ph.D. from the University of Iowa. He spent the lattermost years of his life as a key member of a lab in Princeton, New Jersey, where he and my grandmother raised my mother and her siblings. She may have married one of the smartest physicists of his era! So, indeed, she did choose the smartest man she could find. She had a fantastic way of speaking grand aspects of her life into existence. She taught me that there is nothing to lose by setting goals and pursuing only meaningful life plans with strong potential.
More than anything, my grandmother knew how to give without limits. Every holiday, my whole family gathered at my grandmother’s home. We ate Thanksgiving dinners in her dining room, on her special white tablecloth, eating savory turkey and stuffing with her good china set. After any meal, she would give us lessons on her chalkboard, teaching us anything from German poems and French sayings to timeless Langston Hughes pieces and Negro hymnals. She boiled dozens of eggs every Easter, dyed them, and hid them in her house for our annual Easter Egg Hunt. She filled our Easter baskets with candy and treats and always managed to place them outside our rooms without ever being caught.
My grandmother had always hidden three-dozen eggs in her two-story home. Sharp as a tack, she was always able to recall where she had hidden every single egg. Then, one Easter, there weren’t nearly as many eggs as we expected. We didn’t dwell on the smaller number. We laughed. We moved on. We went to eat our classic dinner of the holiday regulars and everyone’s favorite — my grandmother’s scalloped potatoes. Except this time, the recipes were different. We ate the same as always, but something wasn’t quite right. Everyone’s tense laughs and awkward conversation were terrible masks for our worry. If I had to pinpoint the moment when my grandmother had begun to forget, it would be that rainy Easter Sunday. I was too young to understand why, after that Easter, my mother and I moved to New Jersey to be nearer to my grandmother. Her adamancy to override her increasing forgetfulness hurt to see, as it came in overt denial and snappy arguments.
The more time passed, my grandmother neither fostered new memories nor had the ability to recall something she had done just five minutes prior. In her mind, there was no difference between yesterday and last week. In the same hour, she could be a young girl during the Great Depression of the 1930s, and, then, just as suddenly, she would be in search of her late husband who passed away before I was even born. An hour would pass, and she would think she was the Vicky back in her row house in Washington D.C. and, at that moment, her daughters and granddaughters were unidentifiable strangers–intruders, even. There was no telling if she would have a good, stable day, or a frustrating one clouded with confusion.
My beloved grandmother lost control over her memories, so I, in turn, am careful about the ones that I allow to surface of her. On a regular basis, though, I remember her as the grandmother who used to brush my hair with such a softness that I hardly knew my hair had tangled. She is the first person who let me cross the street without holding an adult’s hand — a key moment in which I had realized I had matured some. In my mind, she will always be the one who took me downtown to the children’s library while my mom interviewed for jobs.
She will forever be the woman who could never grocery shop without being interrupted by former students who were overwhelmed by seeing their favorite teacher. She was a part of my life for as far back as I can remember and, until I am unable to think for myself, she will be the source of some of my fondest memories. Such is the cycle of life.