My great grandmother (Big Nanny) is the oldest relative I knew personally. We had a very close relationship until the day she died. She was a very strong person. She had two children: MaMa Zee (Zenolia) and Uncle Henry; she wasn’t married, or in a romantic relationship with anyone. She stuttered when she spoke.
I grew up in a very mentally and physically abusive household. During my childhood, if children were being abused by their parents, and it was reported, social services would come to the home to investigate. They would usually question the children in front of their parents, and take the word of the parents if everything else appeared “normal.”
Big Nanny made sure I stayed with her or MaMa Zee for at least 1 week every summer. During my visits to her house, she would ask questions to assess what was going on, and gave advice; She was my strength. She regularly exerted her seniority over my father to keep the abuse at a minimum when she was present; he rarely beat or verbally abused us when she came to visit.
I could talk to her about ANYTHING. I spent many summer breaks listening to her stories and advice.
I believe I was in the fourth grade when her son (Uncle Henry) was shot and killed. I’m unclear on the circumstances surrounding his murder. Big Nanny lived in an apartment in Harlem, NY. At the time, the neighborhood was very unsafe. Her apartment was very secure; there were two deadbolt locks on the front door, and a metal rod that leaned against the door for added security.
It was dark, and we were lying on layers of blankets on the floor talking and trying to stay cool. The window was open, and every so often I could feel a slight breeze. In addition, there was a small fan oscillating back and forth keeping us cool. I don’t remember what we were talking about, but I do remember positioning myself on the blankets, so that I could see the sky as I listened to her voice.
Suddenly, someone pounded on the door. We both jumped, and she yelled “who is it?” The front door was across the room, but we could still hear my father’s voice; “It’s me…Bob.” She got up and let him in. As he walked through the door, he said, “Henry’s dead, he was shot.” I felt as though someone had knocked the wind out of me. I looked at Big Nanny, and could see that my father’s lack of compassion had devastated her. She fell backward into a nearby chair and sat silently with a vacant look on her face. I became upset with my father and asked him why he told her the news in such an abrupt manner. He told me that there was no easy way to tell someone that someone else had died, so he just said it to get it over with. I was shocked at his obvious lack of remorse for what he had just done to her emotionally. He then asked if there was anything that she needed him to do, she declined his help. He then told her that he intended to take me home with him.
I was not able to stay with Big nanny after he broke the news. I wanted to stay with her to make sure she was alright. After some time, she assured me that she was going to be fine, and promised that I could come back to visit for a longer period next time.
Another memory that I have of her was the time a neighbor’s child accused me of taking $10 out of her room. The neighbors showed up at our front door. The mother, father, and daughter (who was my age) arrived, rang the doorbell, and asked to come in. We went back and forth for a few minutes about the accusation. They insisted that I took the money, and I denied it (because I hadn’t taken it). They wanted my father to look through my belongings to prove that I did not have her 10-dollar bill. My father looked, but did not find any money. Big Nanny sat in the next room listening to the events unfold.
The father asked that I be disciplined in front of them, so that I could learn a lesson that stealing is wrong. I tried to tell my father that I had not taken the money, but he didn’t believe me. My father used his belt to beat me while the neighbors watched. After they were satisfied that I had learned my lesson, they left. Big Nanny immediately came out of the next room extremely upset. She spoke to my father as if he were her child. She lectured him on appropriate punishment, and why what he had just done was wrong. I was amazed! She made my father visit the neighbor who had just left, and ask him for his proof that I had stolen anything from his house. My father did as she instructed. When he returned, he explained that there was no proof of any theft, after they left our house, the girl admitted to her parents she spent the money herself; she told the lie because she didn’t want to get into trouble.
Big Nanny was the first close family member in my life to pass away. She succumbed to lung cancer when I was 21.