March is Women’s History Month and I decided to kick off another three part series a couple of weeks ago to share reflections and history about three women in my life who have influenced me, both of my grandmothers and my mother. Each of them has had a unique journey and life experience that I feel compelled to share as there were lessons that I learned from all of them. In Part One, I shared the story about my maternal grandmother who died before I was born, I will now share memories and lessons I learned from my paternal grandmother’s life as I grew up with her and she was alive during almost half of my adulthood.
I invite you to continue taking the journey down memory lane with me….
My paternal grandmother, Maggie Lee Ballard Farmer had influence in my life in many ways: There were things about her that I certainly felt compelled to carry on and there were limitations that my grandmother had in her perspective on things that perhaps would not have existed if she had more opportunities as she lived a very sheltered life steeped in religion.
I will first share some background on my grandmother’s life before I was born and then discuss my experiences with her during my life until her passing in 2007.
Maggie was born on March 17, 1910 in rural Mississippi to Aaron and Annie Bell Ballard. She was the third of ten children and had five sisters and four brothers. (Maggie’s eldest brother Willingham died at the age of 17 in a drowning accident). Maggie’s parents were sharecroppers and deeply steeped in religion: church was a regular part of life on Sundays from morning until sundown. Maggie had an outgoing, and assertive personality and was a marvel in some respects: she learned to drive a car when she was 16 and became an excellent cook. However, life in the rural South for African Americans was not easy, and Maggie and her siblings grew up in a very restrictive, segregated environment and the only social activity they had was church.
Maggie met her husband (my grandfather) Otha Lee Farmer at a church picnic and married him on December 15, 1929 just a few days before her youngest brother Sam was born. My grandfather had come from a blended family and was slightly younger than Maggie. Maggie actually taught my grandfather how to drive a car and encouraged him to become more religious which my grandfather embraced. They settled in rural Mississippi and started a family. Maggie had nine children in total but only seven survived as she had two stillborn children: Maxine, Otha Mae, Charles, Andrew, Milton, Gaddis (my father) and Gwendolyn. By the time Gaddis was born, Maggie and Otha started thinking about moving out of Mississippi and decided to move to Detroit, Michigan. After spending a couple of years in Detroit, Maggie’s sister convinced them as well as all of Maggie’s parents, siblings and spouses that they should move to Los Angeles, California. Many African Americans headed west to California from the south in the 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s as there were job opportunities in many industries as well as there was the opportunity to escape the harsh racism of the South. My grandfather got a job working for the Department of Water and Power in Los Angeles and the family settled down in the Willowbrook section of South Los Angeles near Compton, CA.
Life for Maggie in Los Angeles in the early years consisted of being a homemaker, attending church from morning until sundown on Sundays and cooking big family dinners. Like her parents, Maggie was a strict disciplinarian and her children, particularly her older children, grew up sheltered from a lot of social activities other than church. But there were things that transpired which changed the experience for her younger children. Maggie’s eldest daughter became pregnant at 16 with a child which shocked the family. Maggie decided to take her daughter out of church and in the tradition of many Southern folks, took over raising the child, a boy, who was named after his father but nicknamed Pookie.
Maggie raised Pookie along with her children and all seemed to be well until a tragedy occurred: Maggie and her husband took Pookie with them to Chicago when he was 13 years old for a church convention. One day, as Maggie and her husband were visiting a family friend, Pookie was outside riding a bicycle and he rode past an alley where a truck was coming out and was killed instantly. Maggie and her husband were so shaken by this tragedy that they could not drive themselves back home, someone else drove them back home from Chicago. Pookie’s death was hard on Maggie and she could no longer live in the house in Willowbrook as Pookie had been born in the house. In late 1963, Maggie and her family (which included my father and youngest aunt) moved to Inglewood, CA. By the time they moved, my father and mother had already met and were dating.
Also, by the time Maggie had moved to Inglewood, she already had eleven grandchildren. These eleven grandchildren experienced a younger, stricter, grandmother in Maggie: she still had energy to be a tough disciplinarian and had given all of them unique nicknames. My older cousins have shared stories with me that made their experiences quite different from mine with Maggie. By the time I came along, Maggie did not have nicknames for me, my sister, or other younger cousins and she had eased up considerably with being so strict. One thing that all of my cousins and I have in common is that we all loved Maggie’s homemade biscuits that she made from scratch. In fact, her biscuit recipe is still circulating among us.
My earliest memory of my grandmother was when I was about three years old and I was staying with her for a few days when my mother was in the hospital giving birth to my sister. I recall seeing her at church all of the time as I grew up in the church that she attended. Because of the church connection, most of my experiences with her were in the church setting and I traveled with her to church conventions that were out of town.
By the time I was seven, my grandparents decided to move to Lake Elsinore, CA as they were looking to retire in a place where they could enjoy the rural life they once had in Mississippi without being too far from their family. In Lake Elsinore, my grandmother had a home that sat on an acre of land and the summer days and nights were quite warm. She had a watermelon patch, grew greens, tomatoes, had chickens, and a couple of dogs. My sister and I spent several summers in Lake Elsinore staying with my grandmother and grandfather. My sister and I were never allowed to play outside past 5 pm as coyotes were nearby. Although Lake Elsinore had a lake, we never visited the lake, instead, my grandparents would take us to Lake Perris, CA for fun and recreation.
By the mid 1980’s my grandparents relocated back to Los Angeles as my grandfather had become ill and needed medical care as the medical care resources were quite limited in Lake Elsinore. My grandfather passed away in 1988 after my grandparents had been married for about 58 years. My grandparents were openly affectionate with one another and got married three times to celebrate their 25, 41, and 42 wedding anniversaries. I recall attending a reception that my father and his siblings put together for a 50th anniversary celebration for my grandparents. My grandmother was certainly devastated to lose her lifelong companion after so many years and decided she did not want to live alone: she moved in with one of her sisters who was also widowed.
As I mentioned, my grandmother was in my life during my entire childhood and half of my adulthood so I have memories of my grandmother being present during my middle school graduation, at my house when I went to my high school prom, and going to visit her to show her my cap and gown when I graduated with my first Master’s degree.
My grandmother lived on for 19 years after my grandfather’s passing and she died in 2007 at the age of 97. I still remember going to visit her after church on Labor Day weekend in 2007 with my parents and sister and I got an eerie feeling that this visit was going to be my last visit with her: it’s not so much that she was sick or showed signs of death, it was just a feeling I had and I could not shake the feeling. Later that week on Friday, she had a stroke and had to be rushed to the hospital. My parents called and I already knew that her time was limited. She died a couple of days later.
As my grandmother was transitioning, I remember that I was starting to campaign for a man running for President who most thought would never make it to the White House named Barack Obama. I was unable to have a conversation about Barack Obama with my grandmother and I quickly realized that she would not see him elected President which would have been amazing for her to see, especially given her life experience growing up in the Deep South. I know she would have been pleased to live that reality of being a US Citizen under the first Black President.
As she was transitioning I also began reflecting on what I learned from her:
- I certainly learned about affection and deep love (Blacklove) when I saw her with my grandfather, her children and grandchildren.
- I learned how to cook greens, biscuits, and homemade butter cakes (using cake flour).
- I learned a lot about religion, faith and spiritual connections.
- Being passionate about an endeavor of interest: as mentioned, my grandmother learned how to drive a drive at 16 and most women (of any race) were not driving cars in 1926.
But I also thought about the differences in my life vs my grandmother’s life and what her life could have been like if she had a different experience as she was quite sheltered living in the rural South and never worked outside of the home:
- What if my grandmother grew up in a major city and worked for a living, what would have changed about her conversation?
- Given her drive and assertiveness, if she had been born when I was born, what career choices would she have made?
- Would she have traveled more often and been involved in other community organizations other than church?
At the end of the day, I can certainly share that my grandmother had a long, lengthy, and blessed life to live to 97 years of age. In fact none of her children, siblings, or parents lived as long as she did. In some respects, the fact that she was sheltered helped prolong her life, but it also limited her options. I go back and forth in my mind about whether or not she really had much choice for options given the time period that she came along in.
I want to close by saying that when I think about the amazing experiences and opportunities I have had in comparison to my grandmother, her sisters, and others who came along in her generation, I believe I owe it to their legacy to live my best life possible and appreciate them for what they tried their best to do which was to express their version of Black Love with their spouses, children and grandchildren,
I hope my sharing of this story is an inspiration to all of you who took the time to read this…
Just Keeping it 100,
Part Three: Her Name Is Rosemary
Picture Courtesy of Christian Counseling