Growing up, I had a maternal grandma, a paternal grandma, and a pretend grandma. “Grandma Eva” is what we called her. Although she was technically related through marriage (her husband was my great-grandma’s cousin), she was simply “Grandma” to me.
None of my other grandparents lived in Kansas City like us, but Eva did—just down Bannister Road not too far from the mall where Santa came during Christmastime. Her house was similar to my other grandparents’ houses except she had a small dog, a blooming pink peony bush near the side gate, and a jar of jelly beans sitting on the counter next to the TV. She made sure we knew: We were welcome at her house anytime.
From as long as I can remember, Eva proudly took on grandma roles for me and my brother Andy. She babysat, sewed me and my dolls matching dresses, and attended our birthday parties. She passed down her old black-and-white TVs to Andy and me as we were becoming tweens. I also inherited some of her costume jewelry and colorful polyester socks as I got older.
Maybe it wasn’t intentional, but I learned a lot about history and life from her too. Of all of my elementary school projects, one of my favorites was a book I wrote about her husband, Grandpa Roy, who kept a framed purple heart medal hanging in their living room. Many days and nights spent at their house taught me things like how to play Skip-Bo and that oatmeal cookies become teeth-breaking hard when you overbake them.
The move from childhood into adolescence and then adulthood usually follows a similar path. We abandon afternoons on grandma’s tire swing for our friends and social lives. That certainly happened with me and eventually I wasn't at her house as much. But over time, I realized the world is mine to inherit too, it’s not just for my folks. Maturity led me to reflect over the mark I hope to leave on the world. How do I want to impact society? Where does my voice need heard? What is my generation’s role?
As I’ve tried to answer these questions, many roads lead back to Grandma Eva.
Not only did Eva age gracefully—she was making homemade cards on the computer and drove a bright red car with cow-covered seats well into her 80s, for example—but she carried a heart of compassion and justice into her final days. I didn’t realize where these same desires in me came from until I sat down and intentionally traced their path.
It led to afternoons in her living room where I’d, admittedly bored out of my mind, sit on her couch and stare at her wallpapered walls. Next to Roy’s framed purple heart were wooden shelves with glass figurines of both Black and White children. It was as though the kids were playing together. It was a perfectly normal scene; I didn’t think twice about it.
I also didn’t think twice about the afternoons we'd go to Operation Breakthrough. She was a proud member of the AT&T volunteers and signed up to help with clothes. I didn't know the stories of the kids we helped nor did I realize the unjustices of our world. I just knew I loved organizing shoes and searching for jeans so I could help. The kids' smiles matched mine and those were fun days.
Embracing diversity was a way of life for Grandma Eva, and she passed it on by modeling. She didn’t sit me down and have a talk about Blacks and Whites. She didn’t lecture me on the evils of the world. In fact, she lived through the Civil Rights Movement but she never mentioned it. Through her volunteerism, decorating and choice of neighborhood, she told a story that planted seeds. As I started to get older, I noticed more Black people were moving into her neighborhood and I also took note of her decision to stay. She’d often point out her new neighbors and tell me their names.
Did Eva realize her actions likely led to getting judged, yet she chose to turn a blind eye? I’d like to think so. Did criticisms ever get vocalized, and did they get to her? I’ll never know, she passed away last fall. But I do know that up until the day she died, she was progressive. She was compassionate. She was accepting. She was the kind of white woman I hope to be: one whose lifestyle matches the kind of world she hopes to see. One who knows a reward awaits those who serve and love like Jesus in heaven.
I am an adult these days. I also enjoy playing cards and am acquiring a taste for oatmeal cookies. I’m raising a little girl who is picking up lessons from me just as quickly as I learned from Grandma Eva. I’m in an era of life that felt so far off but was actually just a few decades away.
“How can I help?” “What’s my mark on the world?”
These are questions I’m asking myself a lot right now. I have many ideas about how to answer them. But the strongest sense I get keeps taking me back to Grandma Eva’s house and her wallpapered living room.
Grandpa Roy is feeding the dog jelly beans. They’re both sitting in recliners watching TV. My stomach is growling and I’m waiting for them to say it’s time to go eat dinner at Luby’s. While I wait, I sit on the couch and just stare at the wall. My eyes wander over to the shelves of Black and White figurines.
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