Tuesday, September 1, 2020

A Great-Grandmother Who Listened


I was born and raised in the Jim Crow racial segregation of the South. I sat behind the signs for white people on the public bus and stood when empty seats were not available for colored people. I drank clear water from the "colored" fountain and attended segregated schools that were not equal. I grew up experiencing America’s daily misery of racial injustice. Like many African Americans who remember being colored, Negro, and Black, my unimportance to the larger society was the norm.

But something special happened to me when I was very young. I bonded with my great-grandmother. I didn’t realize until I was much older that many children did not have or even know their great-grandmothers like I did. I knew a woman who smiled when I entered a room, a woman whose arms hugged me with soft wrinkled skin. I remember a vision crowned with gray hair that made her look like a queen. That was my Mama Lelia.

What really made Mama Lelia so special was that she listened to me, I mean really listened to whatever I had to say. I had plenty to say long before I started school. I think I was around four when I realized this wonder of a woman and I belonged exclusively to each other. I was much younger, and she was much older. We were two extremes creating a close partnership through casual conversations.

I shared everything I saw, heard, smelled, tasted and touched with her in words. She shared her patient power of paying attention. My words poured out from a place of knowing she was eager to hear me. Her gentle smile revealed enthusiastic acceptance that affirmed my worth when she responded with passionate praise such as “That’s so nice, baby” and “Just keep on doing your best!”  

In another world on this same Earth where I lived far away from Mama Lelia’s special haven-heaven, every day was a reminder of how insignificant I was to many people, mostly white people. Signs everywhere told me I was not welcome. Images of brown children were often not popular in a positive way. Because I was colored, I was unfairly denied many beneficial experiences white children enjoyed, including the use of a public library, a warehouse of words I craved, on the same block where I lived. 

Inside our little paradise where I was always appreciated, Mama Lelia listened to me with adoring attention that was far more powerful than either of us could have imagined then. Her loving listening when I yearned so much to be heard helped me know to this very day that my black life matters.

Frances Shani Parker, Author
Becoming Dead Right: A Hospice Volunteer in Urban Nursing Homes is available in paperback and e-book editions in America and other countries at online and offline booksellers.
Frances Shani Parker's Website