My mother was a single parent for much of my youth. She worked during the day, and so when I was about 5 to 12 years old I would spend the summer at my grandparents’ home in Georgia, with my mom bringing me back to Athens on the weekends. In my early years, I protested. You see, their home was large. I truly thought something would come and steal me in the night and that no one would hear my cry for help. The house sat on a farm off Highway 78, surrounded by trees and animals. Oh, the noises I would hear! If a small branch so much as dropped on the tin roof, I knew that was the end for me. But I learned to love being there as I got older and realized how special this time was with my grandparents.
Those summers in Georgia were hot. I’m talking Georgia hot. Even shadows looked for shade. Just a five-minute walk up the street was a little hole in the wall called the Patriot, where you could buy the world’s most delicious sausage dogs. But you couldn’t dare go without bringing back Grandma two scoops of butter pecan ice cream on a cone. And you had to race home, because that cone didn’t stand a chance in that heat.
I was a grandma’s boy. My granddad tried with all his might to get me to help work in the garden. He even taught me how to drive his tractor. I couldn’t be bothered. I may or may not have messed up a few outdoor chores on purpose. Just to add a little sauce on it, I pretended to be devastated so he didn’t suspect he had granted my wish. So I cooked and cleaned with Grandma, Rosena Burgess. She was a tall woman, a giant in my eyes. When we would take naps, I would sleep on her stomach to make sure she was breathing.
My grandparents had eight children, and my mother, Sandra, was the baby. You can imagine the perks that come with that title. She relied on the comfort and love my grandmother gave her. I guess you could say she was her best friend. My mom had wrestled in some capacity with insecurities that followed her into adulthood. Being in Grandma’s presence seemed to ease them for her. She seemed to understand my mom on a level I haven’t even come close to matching. They shared a shorthand about all things work, church and family, and often would burst into hysterical laughter.
As I got older and busier with my classes at the University of Georgia in the late ’90s, I wasn’t able to visit my grandparents as often as I liked. So one time I decided to spend the night with them. As we were watching Channel 5, one of the three stations they got clearly, I noticed my grandmother kept repeating questions. I answered them as many times as she asked. I just thought it was old age. But then she got on her knees to pray, and went to bed. She got out of bed and kneeled down to pray. She went back to bed, then sat up and said, “Goodness, I forgot to say my prayers.”
I moved to New York in 2003 and was cast in a show at the Fringe Festival. (I think we got a subway stipend but no pay.) I was on my way to rehearsal when I got the call: Grandma had died from complications of Alzheimer’s. I was the only member of my entire family who was unable to be in the room with her during her passing, and I have never gotten over this.
We were all devastated, but I couldn’t help but notice what it did to my mom. She had not only lost her mother but also her best friend, her shield, her protector in a way. I did what I could to fill this new void, but nothing seemed to help. She would sleep all day. She barely ate. I would call, and it was a stranger on the line.
When I was growing up, we got spankings. Accompanying them was the phrase, “This is out of love, not to hurt you.” I didn’t understand it at the time. But suddenly it was my turn to express firm, uncomfortable love. My mom wanted me to come and see her. I had been searching for a way to help her, and with that one request it occurred to me how to parent my own mother. I was scared as hell, as this is my mama I’m talking to. It took everything in me to muster the words, but I said “no.”
I told her: “Mommy, you are hurting, and I don’t know how to help you. I will come for a few days, and it will offer some relief, but when I have to leave you will be that much more distraught. My leaving will compound grandmother’s absence. I will come see you on one condition: You have to seek grief counseling. Not just for you but for me.”
Oddly, that “no” ambushed the old Sandra into showing up. She couldn’t believe I would talk back to her, let alone deny her this desire in a time of need.
She hung up on me.
The roles were reversed. I had a certain power now that I didn’t know I had. And I had to use it to usher her through that difficult phase. We didn’t speak for a few weeks. Then I got a call, and to my surprise she was telling me about a counselor she had been seeing. When I flew home, things were so different. We had all new roles to play. A whole new dynamic to learn.
I will never forget as we sat at the kitchen table, seeing each other as adults for the first time, and I said, “I did this out of love, not to hurt you.”