The smell of hot curlers mixed with foreign chemicals filled the air mixed with the sounds of music softly playing from a small, black, radio with a makeshift antenna of a wire hanger. Occasionally, a dialogue could be heard but from the same voice. My grandmother’s home was small, outdated, and in dire need of repairs, but thanks to O.C.D. it was clean and cozy. My younger sister and I would love to visit her because it was always an adventurous trip filled with laughs. Besides, I was guaranteed to leave her home with a few items that she’d gift to me. Inside the bathroom, there was a cabinet stocked with what I called “goodies.” It felt like heaven in there and I have her to accredit my love for perfumes, lotions, nail polish, and make-up.
“Grandma? Who are you talking to?” A hearty laugh would respond. My grandmother suffered from mental illness. She would spend hours looking out of her front door arguing with an unforeseen force. Often she would talk about a past life of flying airplanes, serving the United States in the Vietnam War, fighting black bears with her bare hands, and a lifelong marriage to Clint Eastwood. For years, the label “crazy” or “nutty as a fruitcake,” was stamped to her personality as a pass for a demented behavior. Ella Mae Williams. That was my granny. She was a woman of an enigma. I didn’t know much about her because she chose to conceal the details of her past. She left home at a very young age and chose shut the door on her past. Inquisite as any child would be, I often questioned my grandma about Chicago where she grew up and her family. If any one thing could anger her, it was the mention of her family. She had a strong dislike towards them. To date, I’ve never seen a picture of her parents and didn’t know anything about her siblings. On the day of her funeral, in 2011, I met a few of her family members, including a son that she abandoned when he was only a few days old. My grandma in her casket was the first time that he laid eyes on her. For years, I considered myself to be Ella’s oldest grandchild until many, many more surfaced after she transitioned. Although it was rumored that my Uncle Robert had a daughter older than I, I always thought that she was made up because I never met her. I’m connected to her through social media but we’ve never physically met and I’m well in my 40’s.
Somewhere in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, Ella Mae, abandoned three children, relocated to Saginaw, Michigan, and met my grandfather, Jesse James while working as a “call girl”. My grandfather was a hard-working man employed by General Motors working in the steel plant. After becoming a regular customer of my grandmother, my grandfather fell in love, took her home and turned ” a whore into a housewife.” From their union were born five children, with my mom being the oldest. My grandmother became a registered nurse, a benefit from my grandfather paying for schooling. I later learned that she worked closely with babies, and found that to be so strange, considering that she had abandoned three babies of her own.
Growing up, I was so intrigued with my grandmother and often wondered, “Who was this woman?” My mom would share stories with my sister and I of my grandma disappearing for at least two years without any contact with her children and husband. She often lived a life of enigma. She would return as if she’d never left. I shall never forget that one day, I told her, “Grandma, I’m going to find out about your life and one day write a book,” she promised, “and I’m going to kick your ass Tiffanny. You are a kid and you need to stay in a kid’s place.” Well, needless to say, now I’m a grown woman and my quest to discover who my grandmother was will never go away. I have many ways that mirror my grandmother’s. As the hierarchy of this family, I felt that she had a duty to her children and grandchildren to empty her closet of skeletons before she died.
Mental illness should never be ignored. My grandmother’s illness was very visible but ignored by everyone that was close to her. In black communities, seeking help for mental illness is a sign of weakness and many are scorned to embarrassment. I often wonder what would life had been like for my grandma if she had received mental help. At times, she was very mean and unfortunately, she died alone. Whenever she would shut me out or treat me unjust, I would ignore her because I knew that she loved me and that at that particular moment, the “other” side of her would surface. I must admit, it would be very frustrating. I love her and would’ve never traded her for anything in the world. I have so many dear memories of her. Some of which makes me sad, because I’m reminded of how sick she was in a big, scary world that didn’t extend the helping hand that she needed.
Mental illness is real and it’s scary. If you have a loved one that’s in need of help, please don’t hesitate. There are so many professionals that are waiting to help. You can save a life with just one phone call. If you don’t know where to start, Google, Department of Mental Health in your area.
Below is a list of helpful links: