By Rashah Neason
She called me La-La. No one in my family knew the origin of this nickname because the letter L is nowhere to be found in my first, middle, or last name, but I responded each time the name I heard her say: “La-La come over here and give me some suga.” She had a scent that lingered. You could smell it on her clothes, her jewelry, her wigs, and even on her plastic-covered furniture. I still smell it from time to time in various places.
She gave without expecting anything in return. I didn’t have to go on a pilgrimage, meditate for hours, or practice yoga for years to know what compassion is. I didn’t need a guru, or book, or a church to show me how love looks and what love does. She showed me. She taught me. For half of my life, her presence was a sacred place. Although her teachings did not find a home in my mind, body, and spirit until she was gone, I always knew there was a reason I was given the gift of a Granny like her.
Before marriage, her name was Nellie Gene Wilson. After marriage, her name was Nellie Gene Hayes. Her family and friends called her Gene for short. I called her Granny. Her face wore freckles that faded with time. Her hair was reddish-brown, she had bow legs and cheekbones like mountains, and a smile that could warm anyone’s heart.
She was born to Silas and Juliet Wilson on the red soil of Talladega, Alabama. She had three brothers. She made her way to Cleveland, Ohio at the age of eighteen. Not too long after she moved there, she met and fell in love with her neighbor, my grandad. They had three children–my mom and my two uncles.
My Granny was far from perfect, and she never painted a picture of herself as if she were. She wasn’t a meek woman who held her tongue and stood in the shadows of her husband. Her tongue was like a fire that couldn’t be extinguished. She said what she wanted when she wanted, and she didn’t apologize for saying it. Even when I was young, there was no topic too taboo for me to hear.
My Granny had an in-home daycare from the time my mom was little until the day it was time for my Granny to rest. For years, she cared for children in the neighborhood. Education was a top priority for her. She didn’t go to college and, let her tell it, the only reason she passed high school was that she got an A in flirting with the teachers. Another beautiful thing about my Granny was that she never claimed to be a saint. However, she never wanted her life to be the life her children experienced, especially not for me, her daughter’s only daughter. She wanted us to be independent and smart and to do more than what she thought she had done.
The first question my Granny would ask when I spoke to her on the phone or saw her in person would be, “How’s school goin’?” I always did well in school, and that always made her happy. She would give me a gift and encourage me to continue to do well in my studies, in dance, in piano, and in other activities in which I was involved.
I remember the last time I saw her. She came down to Atlanta with my grandad to see me perform in The Nutcracker at the Fox Theatre when I was eleven. I remember how big her smile was when I got into the car after the performance. I remember our last conversation on the phone a couple of months later. She asked about school, I told her about some new activity I wanted to do, and, of course, as always, she encouraged me to do it.
Ovarian cancer was what returned my Granny back to the soil. Her death was the second I had experienced. The first one was her dad’s, whom we called Big Daddy. My Granny’s death was the first I felt in my gut.
At the funeral, I saw the circle of people standing around my Granny’s casket. Many of them I had never seen. I did not weep as I heard voices speak about the impact my Granny had on their lives, but I was in awe of what I heard because all my life my Granny was just my Granny. In that circle, she was also “Grandma,” “Ms. Hayes,” “Gene,” and “Mama.” I learned later that my Granny was made to feel less than. She didn’t have a degree, she watched after other people’s children, she worked from her home, she was from the deep South, she cursed like a sailor, she wore daisy dukes, and she wasn’t “proper.”
As I stood in that circle, all I could hear was testimony after testimony about my Granny as a woman who was loved. She didn’t have a fancy degree, didn’t have a platinum album, and didn’t write a bestselling novel. She wasn’t a T.V. star or a famous scientist. She wasn’t known by millions or by thousands, but she had touched many lives. She cooked for those who were hungry, loved those who needed to be loved, protected those who needed protection, and cared for those without care. She always seemed content.
Was it her humble beginnings that shaped my Granny’s outlook on life? Perhaps. Was there someone in her life who taught her how to walk with dignity in all places? Maybe. All I know is that, on the day of her funeral, on an afternoon in May, I realized how many people loved Granny for her compassion, her generosity, and her love. I experienced a change that some might see as an awakening.
It still amazes me how I became closer to my Granny after she was gone. I would wake every morning and greet her and tell her goodnight every time I closed my eyes. I would listen to countless stories about her from my mom, who began to look more and more like my Granny. I felt my Granny’s presence, usually when I was in need of guidance or reassurance. Every year, without fail, I receive a gift of her visiting me in my dreams. She is constantly sending me messages. Some are encouraging. They tell me to continue to move forward. Some are warnings. I have stopped wondering if her guidance is real. I know that it is real because she is a part of me.
Many people want to know how they can find the joy and peace in their lives that they see in mine. They want to know if I meditated for hours. What books did I read? Was it my travels or my diet?
Yes, I meditated. Yes, I read books. Yes, travel and diet impacted my life. However, I know that my Granny’s return to the Spirit World is the joy and peace they see in my life. On the day of her funeral, I made a vow to remember that love is more important than material possessions, family is more important than followers, and generosity is more important than greed. My spirit is joyful because I am a descendant of Nellie Gene.