They called my grandmother Pistol Packing Phoebe.
One day in a fit of rage and fed up with my grandfather’s rolling stone ways, my grandmother left her house with her pistol in hand and seething with anger. With righteous indignation she walked down the block to the other woman’s house. My uncle, a teenager at the time, pleaded with her to reconsider. From what I gather that must have re-centered her thinking but it did not deter her from the mission. Once she arrived, my grandmother kindly asked the lady to maintain a safe distance from my grandfather, showed her the pistol and gracefully walked home. From what I was told, she never had problems with that lady again.
My grandmother was the strongest woman I knew. She came from a loving family and grew up in North Carolina in the early 1900’s. They were poor but she never talked about what she lacked growing up. She only talked about the love and affection that she, her parent and her siblings generously shared and revered to weather the uncertainty and inequalities infecting the world around them.
She married my grandfather and they relocated to Alexandria, Virginia to raise a family and build a better life. He was an entrepreneur who owned his own cab. She was a domestic and primarily worked for one family over most of her career.
On many occasions, I vividly recall traveling with my grandmother on the city bus to clean the house of her ‘white family’ – a family that she loved and nurtured like her own. I was always mesmerized by the adornments that blanketed their space. I remember the clean lines, open spaces and natural light that made the house seem almost ephemeral. I coveted the environment, one that I interpreted as a space without deficiency and where one’s value was irrefutable. It was a stark contrast to the spaces I navigated day to day.
Although I loved my grandmother and reverenced her strength, courage and conviction, the space reminded me why I did not want to be like her. My closeted sentiments filled me with guilt but they also motivated and propelled me. However, in aspiring to be what I perceived my grandmother was not, I lost part of myself by fixating on fleeting signs of success. I set my sights on paths that would lead me away from the environment where she nurtured me. I was searching for the order, pristine adornments and material success that I associated with her white family.
But as my grandmother always said, “when you know better, do better.”
Now I know better and fully appreciated who my grandmother was and who I am as a part of her legacy. As the pistol packing Phoebe moniker suggested, she was fiercely protective. Family was everything. Whether that involved fighting for her marriage, raising eight children alone after becoming a widow or compassionately caring for another family. Those are all values that were passed along to me.
As she grew older, the fiery moniker faded away and she became affectionately known as the Silver Fox. She greyed prematurely growing a distinctive grey lock between her brow. That nickname also appropriately described her wise, spirited and quick-witted nature. Her wisdom enabled her to navigate the harsh realities of being a Black woman in a society where she was mostly invisible and overlooked. She survived while navigating overt racist institutions and systems that siphoned off opportunities. No matter the struggle, she always saw herself as a keeper of her community. That too is a legacy that I inherited.
She would often go into her prayer closet (her bathroom was the only undisturbed space) to center herself and pray. Through the door, I would sometimes hear her moan and weep. I did not understand then why she was sad. Now I understand that it was not the result of an emotion sparked by a sole event. It was the storm of emotions that overflowed as a result of what she navigated each day.
My memories of her continue to draw me toward my purpose. Her spirit acts as my North Star. I had been on a journey for answers to what I now recognize were misguided questions. My desire for external recognition and validation caused me to diminish my heritage, my worth and make my story and truth insignificant. As the seeds planted by my grandmother’s example germinated in me, I grew wise enough to embrace her legacy of strength and overcoming as an integral part of my own.