— By Bruce King
As a born and bred Evanstonian, both of my grandmothers came here from the South. They brought with them genteel ways and southern hospitality. That’s where their similarities ended.
My paternal grandmother was a short, thick, very dark, very quiet and extremely powerful woman. She never rushed, was very methodical and paid close attention to details in everything. She was an example of what I would call, not feminine but delicate, stern but compassionate. In my presence, she never exhibited any signs of fear or hate, but her expressions of her dislikes were as clear from her eyes as they were with the words she spoke. You always knew where you stood with her. I don’t pretend that she was without flaw, but I have great respect for anyone that will be who they really are, in the face of whatever life brings them. . . it is a rare trait today and commendable at any time.
In my father’s family, you learned how to act and to respond from your siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles. To me, it was very apparent how truly larger than life my grandma was by my own parent’s demeanor in her presence. Everyone deferred to her! She only deferred to my grandfather. At family holiday dinners, she would direct everything and everyone while displaying cool and calm control. When everything was ready and only then, did she call out, “Arthur” and my grandfather would come. He would sit, bow his head and all was extremely quiet until and while he blessed the food. He had a quiet, comical air about himself, which encouraged “proper signifying”. I would, from the little table in corner, with my older brother and my cousin, sit and watch with amusement, as they would parry back and forth. For everyone and most especially the children, we were all directed by “the look”. My grandmother would smile and all knew it was alright to laugh or she would frown and there would not be a sound made, except from one of my more hardcore and most playful “Uncle Dickie”, Richard Edward King who was forever the jester.
On Saturday mornings, when my grandparents would go grocery shopping, my grandmother would dress and prepare everything needed before calling my grandpa. She would never have him waiting. He was so quiet and gentle in appearance that his powerful place in the family and their relationship would be missed until you recognized that her every effort was to put him first. He was the man and she epitomized womanhood. . . she complimented his power, wisdom and strength with her every decision.
My greatest and most powerful memories of my grandmother were when, at four years old, she called me in from outside playing. As she talked to me, asking me a question, I looked away, mumbling something, she immediately grabbed me by my chin and turned my face upwards to hers and said in the sternest voice I had ever heard, “When you are talking to someone or someone is talking to you never look down or look away. always look a person in their eyes. . . you ain’t no nigga.” It wasn’t until almost 10 years later that I was taught the rules of engagement during Jim Crow and how we were not to ever abide by such rules. Death was to be more preferable and it still is. She would tell me of the few times she took jobs as a cook in white people’s homes and as they would be giving her a ride home, she would always ask to be let out of the car a couple of blocks from home, in order to go to the grocery store. She would do this because she understood that if it were ever known how well she lived, her job would be immediately ended.
I remember her planning outings to places like Lincoln Park Zoo, we would wait with eager anticipation until the day arrived. Upon arrival we would hurry through the zoo, look at the animals and come back to spread out beautiful blankets and bedspreads on the grass overlooking the lagoon, which had flamingos and little islands with peacocks. The only difference in that meal and our holiday family meals was the fact that we were outside. The lemonade made you drool with the desire for another sip, the cookies, the brownies, pies and cakes were outstanding and abundant. I have rarely had hot fried chicken as good as the cold fried chicken she served and the salads, I still try to match. . . and I call myself a professional chef.
My greatest joys and greatest pains came from my grandmother. No one, not even my own mother could hold me in her arms and make me melt with the love and tenderness she expressed. There was no greater pain than the switch and disappointment that resulted in her displeasure, with me and my actions that caused such actions, words and emotions. Oddly, both joy and pain live within me today. I was loved, protected, nurtured, taught, corrected and raised with pride. Those actions and lessons I try to make manifest in my decisions and actions with all I do and meet today, after having lived a great portion of my life in direct opposition to those very valuable principles.
We must all recognize that we, as human beings, survive war, hate, famine and all of the other horrors we create because of the good, simple, kind and inventive principles we apply each day. These act as the sparks of life that help us navigate through these trials and to survive our self-made challenges and tribulations.