Technically, I’m from Los Angeles.
I was born there. My Dad, a career military man, was on temporary duty overseas and Mom had returned to her mother’s home in East L.A., when I came into the world sneezing, coughing, and crying.
When I return to Los Angeles for the Mixed Roots Film and Literary Festival, it will be a homecoming filled with opportunities and tinged with sadness.
Grandma had raised Mom, taken her in after she left Alabama in search of something, anything better than the Deep South. Mom was loosely related to Grandma’s husband, Big Johnny, and I spent the early months of my life in their home, entertaining my extended family and learning my first words.
There, inside the screen door, past the fireplace, was the dining room table, where Grandma held court. She sat there with her friends and her sister-in-law, all stay-at-home moms before the phrase was coined. There, from the table, Grandma smoked cigarettes, recounted the nation’s events, and talked about people. She was always right, had the insight some poor fool did not, and saw the bad news coming before that poor fool realized what had gone wrong.
Though small, her home was ornate. It was all crystal chandeliers, brocade fabric, and honed marble. It was a community center of sorts. Folks dropped by to say hello and pass the time at her home, while Big Johnny managed an auto repair shop, and her son, Little Johnny, shot BB guns with friends.
I listened as they cracked up and fell out as they reported the day’s events. Somebody’s husband had showed up unannounced at Grandma’s and sent his wife home, while another friend had found her daughter up the street butt-naked with some boy.
Grandma cursed women who stayed with cheating men, or had filthy children, or didn’t know their butts from their heads. She meant no harm. Really. If she called you a bad name, she probably loved you. She was petite, portly, loud and jovial. She didn’t hold her tongue for anyone, and anyone bold enough to cross her surely paid for it later. Tongue-lashings were mild compared to what she could do with a wide-tooth comb, belt, or worse, a switch taken from the tree out front.
I treasured such memories as I traveled to Los Angeles several times to visit Grandma. Mom and Dad purchased plane tickets for me to see her twice when I was a child – once when I was 5 to celebrate my birthday and again when I was 15. Grandma was the only real connection I had to the city.
As an adult, I continued the tradition. I managed to see her in 1997 when I was an intern in San Francisco and again in 2003 so she could meet my husband. During that last trip, she gave me her copy of Mom’s wedding album and a small box of slides my parents had taken shortly after my birth. I gladly accepted the gifts and talked with Grandma about Mom, who had died a year earlier.
I had heard how Mom had hitched a ride from Alabama to California, but I didn’t know how or why. Grandma told me Mom didn’t feel safe with her family in Alabama and was unhappy there. She asked to return with Grandma and her husband to California. While Grandma and Big Johnny had a son, they had plenty of room in their home. Just like that, Mom had a new family.
I haven’t been back to California since 2007. That was the year I gave birth to Nadia. My beautiful baby girl was just a few weeks old when I learned Grandma was sick. A few weeks later she passed away.
The last time I had called Grandma was the day Nadia was born. I called because I knew I could give her a gift no one else could bestow upon her: a great grandbaby born on her 78th birthday. Unfortunately, she had already fallen ill and didn’t answer the phone. I left a brief message and didn’t think it strange when she didn’t return my call.
Though I was nursing an infant, Nadia and I made the 2,500-mile trip to Los Angeles. I had to say good-bye to the woman who had given my mother a home. I had to honor the woman who had given Mom a wedding in her living room.
I wept during Grandma’s burial. I did not cry for her or for me. I shed tears because her death closed a chapter in my life. I grieved because I would never again hear her voice. I mourned because I would never again hear her laugh or all of her stories about the poor fools who didn’t know their butts from their heads. I cried because that is what you do when a woman allows you to call her Grandma.