Vortex of Grief and Joy

Vortex of Grief and Joy
A collage consisting of sweetgrass to represent my grandfather being Gullah Geechee. The Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller New York State Plaza was the last construction job he worked on. My grandfather in 1989 as we were heading off to my grandparent’s surprise 50-11th wedding anniversary party.

Elders are a portal

During a recent conversation with mother I brought up my grandfather, her father, repeatedly. I kept reminiscing about these moments we shared when I was a little — moments that continue to impact me as an adult. I asked, “Why do I keep thinking about Papa?” There was a brief silence between us, and my mom responded, “It’s not his death date, hmmm.” But then I remembered, it was the anniversary of his stroke and that incident impacted me in a greater way than his death.

According to the US Census records, my Papa, Joshua Middleton, was born in 1905. That he was still alive and vibrant when I came along in the mid 1970s is a miracle in and of itself. When I was born, he’d long been retired from his work in construction and he, and my Nana, were my world. My mom was hospitalized after I was born due to toxemia and my dad brought me “home” to my grandparents to help care for me. I was blessed in that my early childhood included adventures with my Papa. From his reading the “funny pages,” racing and stock sections of the Albany Times Union to me daily, to our trips to Saratoga Springs to take in the horse races and Green Mountain in Vermont for the greyhound races, to hanging out with his homeboys (the first time I ever heard the word) Robinson and Smalls listening to then talk smack.

In the warmer months, we’d sit in our matching lawn chairs in front of my grandparent’s brownstone on busy Clinton Avenue and talk about nothing. Just about everyone who passed knew who he was and would, at minimum, say hello and tip their hats. In the winter months, as snow began to fall, we’d get our matching shovels that were neatly hidden under the stoop and clear a path in front of the house. It’s wild to think that he had mini versions of the things he used most for me. From the lawn chair and shovel to my small recliner that I would pull up next to him when we watched Soul Train followed by Hee Haw or The Barbara Mandrell Show on Saturday mornings.

This recent onslaught of remembrance has come at the right time. Or rather, I have realized that now is the right time. Like many of us, I am in a transitional space. Not only am I dealing with my daughter’s pending high school graduation and college attendance, I am in my own transition fueled by the desire to do good work and live authentically regardless of the overall social and cultural conditions we are currently living under.

I was 19 when my grandfather had his stroke. This was a year after he was my co-conspirator in helping me to escape move to New York City by myself. He flat-out lied to my mother about my whereabouts and funded parts of my move — grandparents FTW! He was 89 and had lived a mythic (to me) life. But the stroke took away his ability to clearly speak. The person who taught me to talk, my first conversation partner, the person who responded fully when I’d ask “why?” as a toddler, the person whose sense of humor I inherited…could no longer talk with me. Although we figured out other ways to yuck it up — he still had his laugh — I was, and I continued to grieve. It’s taken me a long time to recognize that his stroke was an aspect of my grief, not just his death.

So much of who I am and who I am becoming, I owe to Joshua Middleton. His presence in my life and my remembrance of him act as a portal to remind me of who I am, what I am capable of, and what I desire.

  • I can still hear his laugh, which reminds me of the possibilities of joy. Full-bellied and hearty, I can’t help but smile when it echoes in my memories.
  • When I told him, and everyone who could hear me, that I was going to be a doctor at the ripe age of 3 because I wanted to take care of his and my Nana’s heart, little did I understand that my work as an educator and creative would fit that role.
  • His stories about the peanut men in South Carolina being the first rappers and Kid-N-Play “ain’t doing nothing but the Charleston,” as he walked in on my younger cousins and I watching Yo! MTV Raps fueled my love of Black History,
  • Putting me behind the wheel of his Pontiac at 14 and telling me to drive (yikes!) reminds me to just go for it even if I don’t feel prepared.

There are many more instances of how my Papa is a portal. The grief over his loss still lingers, but the joy he brought me overshadows it. Sitting in the energies of both of these emotions allows me to keep moving forward. We all have the possibility to connect to these portals of remembrance. While some of us don’t have familial elders that we can tap into, there is someone — a teacher, family friend, or even someone we’ve never met (one of mine is Zora Neale Hurston) — whose action, works, or ways of encouraging us to remember who we are.

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