Updated: Jan 11, 2020
I used to be secretly annoyed when people would say, "It's so and so's birthday today!" I'd wonder to myself, "When will we stop celebrating it? They're dead."
This morning I woke up thinking about Lillian Ionie. It would have been her 97th birthday. As I made my bed in the semi-dark dawn I thought...
Tell my Ionie that I said hello, I love her and Happy Birthday in Heaven. I'm not sure she'll hear me over all the noise. I think everyone in our family may still be trying to talk to her. Tell her that I had a dream last night that she was holding me to her belly and she had my mom on the other side of her body. I was making them laugh. We had tears in our eyes, because we were laughing so hard. Then, when the feeling was getting too good they disappeared and I jumped up and down on her bed like a child. I bounced so high that I was able to touch the ceiling. I would never jump on her bed in real life. I woke up, there she is and here I am. Tell her that she's infusing everything in my world now more than ever. Amen
I felt slightly silly saying all of that in prayer until I thought I heard my Grams call my name. She'd call me Jazzy. She said it like no one else ever has or ever will. Sometimes she'd say it in a sing song kind of way that I can't explain in better words. She had an Antiguan accent that sounded distinct from all the others. She just sounded like my Grandma. I started calling her Ionie a few years ago when I wanted to get her attention in a room full of people. It always worked and she seemed to love it.
I wanna talk about my Grams for a bit...
Many would remember her as a praying and faithfully religious woman and she was. She was what I would consider a super prayer warrior...But, that is not the teaching that thoroughly stuck with me.
My maternal grandmother, Lillian wore satin slips of cream, beige and pinks. They hung like simple yet elaborate cocktail dresses. Some had the tiniest bow in the center of the breast. Some had mini vertical pleats. Some were cinched in the waist with an invisible elastic band or had a satin drawstring. They were classy and classic. She passed on to my mother how to properly put on pantyhose, who then passed that on to me. One leg at a time, pointed toe and slowly roll up one leg, then the other. Sit while doing this with care as not to snag and create a run, which can cause fury and change a mood. I learned that there were proper layers of dressing and even if you weren't well you were to put your best foot forward in a well polished, well soled shoe. Certain dresses should be dry cleaned and not worn too many times if you could manage. Also, don't put on your dress clothes until after you've had your boiled egg, tea and toast. She had shoes, hats, bags and accessories to match every outfit. Her dresser and vanity were neatly filled with perfumes, lotions and powders in shallow yet wide pastel containers that had a fancy fluffy pad for application. The kind that had the dainty satin ribbon to hold it to a delicate palm.
Items in her world had special places to contain them and they were stored properly, so they'd literally last a lifetime. Tissue paper was folded over certain things or items were placed in a specific box and organized accordingly. Things that belonged in the kitchen stayed in the kitchen and likewise for every other room in her spacious three bedroom apartment that she lived in for over 40 years.
She was a different kind of woman...the kind who didn't usually turn on her t.v. in the early half of the day, while she helped raise her grandchildren. We learned how to preserve her peace and quiet. If I close my eyes now, I know what it sounds like when my grams used to wake up early in the morning and walk slow sure steps to the bathroom...She'd do this after her morning devotional meditation to God. Then she hums and primps herself in the bathroom, walking back and forth between rooms and closets. I know what the light-switch sounds like. It goes on with a heavy C L I C K. The kind that takes the force of a finger or two to turn it on. The light is bright over her old, but very clean enamel sink. The tub is also old, deep and long. You can easily fit two people on either ends and they can soak up to their necks without water spilling over the edge. The silver stopper is on the outside. That's how you stop the water from draining out, pull up and twist. Twist and push down when you're done. Never leave the bathtub dirty, or else...I don't know, because we were respectful and never did that.
She taught me the importance of sitting still while wearing a Mary Kay face mask. It was crucial to do all the steps, even if it took 30 minutes to an hour to complete. She even had a specific chair that she'd sit in - it was in her middle room. It was brown with a seat cushion that was so perfect it looked hand stitched and had apron strings to tie and hold it in place. She sat there with her perfectly shaped brown legs crossed on a foot stool in front of her. I think I was around 10 when I started paying attention to her every move. I'd sit on the stool with her feet on my lap. Sometimes, tasked with removing her nail polish. She'd hum as we listened to easy listening Christian music. She loved the Great Is Thy Faithfulness cassette tape. There was another tape that she had. A white lady sang it the whole way through. My grandma's favorite song was Run To Be With Jesus. I remember cleaning her bookshelf listening to the lyrics and feeling confused as to why my grandma loved the idea of saying, "Good-bye World Good-bye!" She would dance, smile and shout H A L L E L U J A H with a quick two step. When the lady sang Run to be with Jesus, my Grams would run in place and laugh, which made me, my brother and sister laugh as well. It was confusingly funny to me, but to her she was just overjoyed with the idea of Heaven. However, while she was here on Earth, she'd lead by example. In my mind, that was in every little thing she did. In my mind, my grandma could easily have taken Moses' place and led her people out of bondage. While she was here, it was hard to imagine her gone and now that she's not she's all that I can truly think about.
I never recall her doing anything out of order. Wake up, pray, make her bed, wash up, breakfast, then she replaced her always pressed pajamas with a pressed house dress...she straightened up her apartment and read the bible for what seemed like a couple of hours (There was a point in time where I wanted my bible to look like hers, so I tried to read it in it's entirety. I never finished, but I highlighted and underlined random passages in random colors. It looked like a mess and I thought I would get punished somehow for defacing the it). On the days that she had errands, we all dressed to go outside and you knew to look as presentable as she was. Tory, Alex and I would walk with her to the Post Office on Jerome Avenue, the fish market on Burnside or sometimes the optical place on the Grand Concourse. When it was still around, we'd go to Alexander's Department store, but my favorite place when I was a kid was Woolworth's. There was one a few blocks away. That is where my grandma introduced me to the world of crafts. She wasn't a crafter, but she allowed me to be. In the late 80s there was still a lunch counter, which always made me think of burgers and fries. It was like looking directly into the past. Everyone knew my grandma. They called her Mama. She loved walking around her neighborhood.
When we returned home, she'd always meticulously remove her clothing, hang them on the hook outside of her closet to air out. Her hat would be hung in the front and she'd put away her shoes. Then she'd prepare dinner before the sun went down, while we entertained our great grandmother, Aunt Tallie or watch shows like Different Strokes or The Facts of Life. She'd let me type for the rest of the day on an old typewriter that was in the closet. Or sometimes I'd cut up scraps of cloth for Barbie clothes. She was the only person that allowed us to do things like that. She took impeccable care of her husband. He ate in time to do so while watching Eye Witness News at 5 o'clock. They'd sit together, while we sat in the kitchen and ate dinner at the same time. She hummed while she washed dishes and got ready for the settling down of the evening. She took her time and did everything with care.
Each space in my Grandma's apartment was designated for something. My great grandmother's room was for recreation, kind of like our lounge. :) The middle room is where Tory, Alex and I slept, but it was also where my grandmother would get away and relax. It was her personal space before we came to stay in it. The drawers were filled with neatly folded towels, wash cloths and blankets. If neat folds and crisp creases had a scent, they'd smell like my grandmother's drawers. There was something comforting about that middle room. Chances are, if she was mailing a barrel back home, it would be neatly kept in that room until it was mailed out. That room was our space to be as close to her as possible without anyone intervening. She would let us drape ourselves over her soft small body
as she sang, tapped her foot and patted our shoulders or backs. It was also, a space to take a nap or hang out the window and talk to our cousin, Aneidra who lived on the other side of the same building on the same floor. The kitchen was where my grandmother would do hair. She was a licensed beautician for years. The best days was when she had a client. The living room was mostly reserved for her husband, Grandpa Campbell (her second husband). We knew not to invade his space unless he invited us in. Lastly, there was my grandmother's bedroom. The quietest and most delicate of places. The door was made of glass and had panes that separated it into smaller square sections. The nob was crystal (now that I think of it, the living room had the same door) and a beautiful sheer curtain hung on the inside of it to reserve privacy when it was closed. When it was closed we only knocked if there was an emergency. If you were permitted entry, you could touch, but put everything back the way you found it. You could sit on her bed or arm chair, just don't slouch. It was a place reserved for hushed tones, until only my grandmother lived there. The dining room was in the center of the apartment and was for company. It was where the china in the cabinet shined as bright as the chandelier.
She's only been gone for about three weeks now...
but, I'm thinking on her so heavily. The world has to know that she was here and she was her version of great. Her life story is far more interesting than anything that I can fit into this blog post. October will never be the same, because it was the year that she breezed in (1922) and breezed out (2019). She's a huge part of our vast family's foundation. She's a huge part of what makes us great and that is to be C E L E B R A T E D.
My Grandmother, Lillian Ionie Watkins taught me to be true to myself. She let me know that it was perfectly fine to be a soft, yet extremely strong woman. Her message rang loud and clear that appearance is important, but you don't have to always be the person that everyone likes. Sometimes life will force you to do things that people will never understand, but it doesn't matter, because it's all up to you and God anyway.
She will be missed by many and definitely will be continually loved by me. So Happy Birthday in the great unknown Grandma. I hope it's as wonderful as you always knew it would be.
L O V E,
J A S