It was a typical Detroit Winter in the late ‘70’s about a week before Christmas. My grandmother was in town from Cleveland and all was good. The bathroom pipes were thawing out as this became a process we would have to do when the temperatures took a suicidal jump from normal to well below zero. We would set up a kerosene heater in our vestibule that was located directly beneath the upstairs pipes to thaw out the pipes and prevent them from bursting. The steady stream that we were so used to was reduced to a trickle until the heat from the heater did its job to open up the pipes. The crisis of busted pipes was averted and we sat down to enjoy the company of my grandmother…until I heard my father’s voice from the upstairs bathroom.
My brother had recently gone to the bathroom and as he often did he used enough toilet paper to clog the Alaskan pipeline. The toilet was plugged and instead of telling someone about the damage he did my brother just exited the bathroom hoping the clog would magically disappear. My father entered and attempted to flush the toilet and the sudden rush of water having no place to go spilled over the toilet and on to the bathroom floor. As the dirty toilet water cascaded over his wing tips the dirty words also cascaded out of my father’s mouth. Soon after we could hear him wrestling with the plunger but the clogged toilet appeared to be winning. As a father now I know my father was thinking the budget for our family of 6 didn’t have room for an after-hours plumber to come and free the toilet. Balancing our budget around the holidays especially was a greater feat than anything the Great Flying Wallendas did. The slightest unexpected expense could send it careening over the edge. So as my father fought with the toilet he searched his mind for a solution that wouldn’t cost any money. I’m sure he thought; “If I just had a plumber’s snaking tool I could unclog this myself.” From the upstairs my father shouted down for me to call my best friend’s family who lived across the street to see if their father had a snake. Fearful of my father and his temper I quickly did as I was told. Our neighbors had advised they had a snake and it was ours to borrow. I grabbed my hand-me-down parka, slipped on my hand-me-down snowmobile boots half way, negotiated around the kerosene heater and out the front door. I ran clumsily across the street hoping the boots didn’t come off in mid-stride to retrieve the snake. My neighbor greeted me at the door with the tool and I rocketed back home to help save the day. I’m sure the relief my father felt in knowing the repair would soon take place without busting the budget was a peace that passed all understanding. I entered the front door and in one motion shed my boots and jacket, jumped over the kerosene heater and jetted up the stairs to my waiting father in the bathroom still armed with the plunger. I handed him the snake thinking I had helped slay the ceramic dragon. The presentation of this holy gift was met with, “What the hell is that?”
“It’s the snake you asked for,” I said. I wouldn’t have known what a plumbers snake was if it bit me. I was simply told by our neighbors this was a snake so I believed them.
“This isn’t a snake!” My father said as he held this apparatus out in front of him as if it were a deadly king cobra.
What I had been given was a funnel with a small piece of garden hose duct taped to the small end of the funnel. After my father explained to me what a snake was I understood his frustrations.
“Well, they told me this is all they had.” I said as I ran out of the bathroom and downstairs. The colorful speech returned and I landed on the couch with my grandmother afraid I would be chastised for our neighbor’s poor interpretation of tools.
When I explained what happened to my grandmother she erupted with laughter. My brothers and I sat there and replayed the scenario over and over trying to figure out what my friend’s father was thinking when he presented us with this poor excuse for a snake. The more we talked about it the more we laughed. Tears rolled down everyone’s cheeks from laughing so hard, including my grandmother’s. Her inclusion in this made it okay to laugh. She made it okay to laugh at my father who was beside himself in anger. It was her son upstairs waging war against the toilet so we felt safe in having her enjoy this moment with us. She was immune to any punishment my father could give out and she would make sure to cover us in her immunity.
Two years later, my beautiful grandmother would be diagnosed with Cancer. She was a smoker for many years although I never saw her smoke. I found out later that she would sneak out behind the garage when we would come to visit to get a smoke in so we couldn’t see her. Two weeks after she was diagnosed, grandma passed away in the middle of the night in a Cleveland hospital. I remember my father calling the house in the middle of the night from my Grandmother’s room to tell us she had died. I miss her especially around the holidays and always think of the snake story when I think of her.
Grandma was always a soft place to land. Being a transracial adoptee I was always conscious of not fitting in or matching the family; especially around extended family. In my grandmother’s presence I was simply just one of her grandchildren and she had a way of making me fell like I was her favorite.
She was a small silver-haired German immigrant who settled in a German neighborhood in Cleveland. Grandma had this wonderful accent that I loved to hear. We would often tease her about the way she pronounced certain words. Grandmawould patiently sit with me on her davenport (she was the only one I knew who referred to her couch as a davenport) and we would exchange words each pronouncing them in our own way. We would laugh as I would try to get Grandma to say them correctly.
I never remember her angry and only saw her frustrated a few times. Her frustration would display itself with an “OY,” and a simple shake of her wrinkled head. Whenever I hear that word today I think of this kind soul that God choose to be a part of my life.
Since Grandma was a German immigrant, I think she understood what it was like to be treated differently. I’m sure she was treated differently every time she left her German neighborhood and opened her mouth. There was no denying she was German and her broken English made it difficult for her to communicate. I think that experience made her partial to who I was and how I fit in to the family. She was kind and gentle and wonderful and I knew when I was in her presence no one else mattered and I was safe. I was still Black but not as conscious of what that difference meant when I was with Grandma. As a result, my grandma had full access to me granted by my parents.
My mother’s mother was much different. She really struggled with race and what it meant to be a grandmother of a child of color. In her presence I felt I wasn’t good enough and wondered why I didn’t share the same closeness with her and Grandpa as my brothers did. My small brain had reduced there was something less loveable about me that caused this.
Over the years my grandmother did the best she could and I think she justified me in her head by saying, “Well, he’s not really Black.” So I was different shade of Black than the Blacks she feared. Once while visiting my grandmother’s home she noticed a Black man was walking down the street. My grandmother turned and whispered to me, “I think he’s been stealing my tomatoes from the my garden.” I was in my 20’s and by then I understood she had issues with race so I prodded her a little just for my own enjoyment.
“Why do you say that?” I asked.
“Well I’ve noticed some tomatoes missing from the garden so I’m sure it’s him.” She said convinced.
There was no logic to her answer and the way she connected the dots was random but in her mind it was simple calculation. He was the tone of Black I wasn’t. He was the Black that was criminal and less-then in her mind but if you asked her to explain things like this she couldn’t. It was so in grained in her belief system that it became logical to her when it was so far from logic. My mother knew this about her mother and because of this, this grandma’s access was contained. We only saw her and my grandfather once a year purposefully because my mother didn’t want her parent’s uneasiness and discomfort to be felt by me. Even though the access was contained I still came to believe I was not like her biological grandchildren. I’m sure she loved me but I was never convinced she liked me. When it was just her and I in a room I always felt like she would have rather had any other grandchild there with her.
The last time I saw my grandmother alive she was in and out of sleep/consciousness. In a very lucid moment she looked intently up at me and said, “You look alright, Kev.” I thanked her not putting much thought in to what she said. On the ride home my wife asked me. “Did you hear what your grandmother said?”
Before I could answer she asked again, “Did you really hear what your grandmother said?”
Grandma, after 30 some years was finally saying I was okay. I worked a lot of years for those words and they were good to hear, finally even if I almost missed them.
What I’ve learned from my grandmas and a snake.
- Access to your children is not guaranteed it’s earned.
- All children should have a safe place to land.
- Vetting family members is important prior to bringing the child home. You should know who will and won’t be okay with your child’s different race. This is done through conversation not assumptions.
- Children can sense much more than we give them credit. Assuming they won’t leaves them open to walk away feeling less then without the ability to understand it.
- Christmas just wouldn’t be the same without my German grandmother and a snake.