I couldn’t sleep the night you died but I wasn’t up crying either. It’s not because I wasn’t sad or that your absence wasn’t immediately being felt but rather every time I thought about you I smiled; smiled thinking of how you dominate my memories, including those of my first home, 1303 Hicks Street.
It was modest brick house with a white rod iron railing in the middle of the Bronx, just blocks from Gun Hill Road. In hindsight, the house itself was nothing special, however, the fact that I shared it with you, my brother Randy, Aunt Johnnie, Grandpa Ernest, Uncle Buck and five of my cousins made it home. 1303 Hicks Street was the place where you gave me my foundation; where you laid the groundwork for the girl I became and the woman I am still trying to be. And, oh what a base in family, love and morality you gave me.
There were family dinners and I don’t just mean the ten of us; there were ones so big relatives poured out of every door, stood in corners with plates, and children huddled in every corner. After all, how could whole family gatherings be small when you were the matriarch of the Brown family which consisted of your 16 brothers and sisters, there children and grandchildren.
I can recall you teaching all of the kids in the house our prayers then lining us up every night before bed t recite them in unison; this after we spent the entire afternoon together riding our bikes in the basement. There were the days you walked each of us to our first day of school with grandpa following and hiding behind the mailboxes not to be spotted. Of course, I also remember you bundling all of us up and sending us to school for one of the last times during the blizzard of ’78 because you forgot to listen to the weather report.
I’m not going to pretend it was an idyllic childhood, especially after grandpa died in 1978. I can still hear the howl you let out when the hospital called to tell you he died, then the bang of the receiver against the wall, and the mad rush by Aunt Johnnie to run to your side to catch you before you crumbled into a grieve pile on the floor in the kitchen. I was seven but I knew life as you and I knew it changed in that moment.
Not long after my grandfather, your second husband died, my home and yours, 1303 Hicks Street was gone. You and aunt Johnnie moved into a small two bedroom apartment on Corsa Avenue and my brother and I, as well as all of the other cousins who grew up with us were all back home with our respective parents full-time. I suspect you reverted back to what a grandmother was intended to be, the person with whom I spent summers and occasional weekends. But, for me, my second mother was gone.
You might not have been there everyday anymore but your impact on my life was still mighty. I remember you sitting me down after my first fight and telling me to “fear no man, to stand up for myself and not let anyone run over me.” However, you were equally clear that I shouldn’t “go looking for a fight because I just might find one;” that wasn’t all you taught me. Seemingly, you had a phrase to give me the guidelines to living an upright life.
You said, “Mind now” whenever I did or said something you found disrespectful. It’s only as I have aged I know that means I should always be respectful of my elders. One of my favorites, “Tell the truth and shame the devil,” meaning I should be as honest as possible, even it’s painful because the alternative will lead me to even greater sins. “God is good all the time,” taught me it’s critical to have faith even in the face of adversity.
At 4 foot 11 inches tall, with your words and actions you stood taller than all of the other women in my world, except of course my mother, who you created and raised to not only sound like you but emulate your best qualities. Okay, she picked up some of the quirky ones too like using home remedies to cure some of my ills: rolling an onion under the bed to cure fever, steaming up the bathroom to help me breath and putting a cold rag on my forehead when I had a headache. I have to admit these are things I still to this day.
In fact, I am becoming so much more like you as I age it astounds me but I am proud to say I inherited your determination and independence. You’re the woman who had your first child at 14 but still yearned for a better life so you left a dysfunctional marriage, and your four children behind, to come to New York for a better life. You didn’t know what you would find but you took a chance and it turned out the road was rough, working in the frigid Rockaways in Queens as a maid. Often, you told me how it was so cold your spit would freeze before it hit the ground and your legs would be like blocks of ice because women didn’t wear pants back then. To warm up so you could do your backbreaking work, your employers would give you a glass a warm Brandy. Still, you kept going, sending what little money you made home to South Carolina to help support your children. How much you actually made, I’m not sure but I know it was meager compared to every standard. Despite this, you managed to scrimp and save to buy tickets to fly to destinations all across the world; places your siblings never fathomed going because some never left St. Matthews, South Carolina. Yet, you didn’t go anywhere until you made sure my mother, your youngest child, had tap lesson and anything else you didn’t growing up.
It was this kind of selflessness you tried to teach me out when you’d say, “out of a little bit, we must divide.” You shared you home, your money and your time with any and all who asked for it whether it was serving in the choir and usher board at Beulah Baptist Church for decades, paying for the funerals of relatives who didn’t have insurance, or using ten percent of your social security check to donate to charity; it is a spirit of giving I’ve tried to emulate in my own life.
This is not to say you were not a complicated and oft times difficult woman, who sometimes scared the living daylights out of me. When I was a child, I would hear the heels of your slippers clicking across the wood floors in the house and hope you weren’t coming to interrogate me over something one of my cousins had broken or done that was against the rules. And, if I heard a snapping sound, I knew you had the strap— a thick, black leather belt, in your hand and it was time for line up and get whacks until someone confessed to whatever offense was committed.
Perhaps some would say you harshly instilled the values you wanted all of your children, grandchildren and others to have. You’d pinch us if we couldn’t sit still or spoke out in church. You’d slap us in the mouth if we talked back or cussed. If you couldn’t catch us, you’d throw your slippers. But, before you did you’d always utter, “don’t make me get up.”
Yet, your feisty moments were always fleeting. You were the same woman who would then make my favorite dish peas and rice, whip up a bread pudding or offer chips, mints or peanut chews as comfort.
As I aged, you became more of a comfort to me than a threat; dare I say you became my friend, as well as my grandmother. You attended ever major event in my life, from graduations, to barbecues, to parties, and all holidays. And, when I moved away, you called me at least once a week to talk about what was going on in my life.
I was in awe of you because you never stopped learning and growing, taking huge strides for a sharecropper’s daughter with a fourth grade education. You adjusted to cable TV, call waiting, using a microwave, and anything else we threw at you. More importantly, you learned to stop seeing me as a child or your granddaughter but as a woman of whom you were proud. And, even though strokes left you unable to walk or see towards the end of your life, you always knew my voice and open your eyes whenever I came to visit you in the nursing home.
For a time before you passed, I was filled with melancholy, missing the talks we used to have over events that changed my life, like losing my first love. Your response was to tell me, “God must have something better planned for you.” And, when I told you the doctors told me I had a chronic condition which I feared would cause an early death you told me, “there is no need to fear; at least God gave you a chance to make every day count. HE makes no mistakes—and we all have a cross to bear— this is yours. So, fear not because HE wouldn’t give you more than you can handle.”
I must admit, I wondered if that were true when I’d visit you and saw how frail you’d become. However, I know I was wrong. My mother told me you looked peaceful, like you were sleeping when you passed. So, I firmly believe that before you left this Earth, the words to the solo section of Sign Me Up For the Christian Jubilee you sang for decades in the choir were playing in your head:
When Jesus comes, they’ll be no more sorrow, no more pain,
When Jesus comes, he’ll wipe the tears from my eyes,
I want to be ready when Jesus comes.
The instant after it stopped, I know you were gone and you were free. So, I’m not sad and I can’t cry because my heart of filled with joy knowing that like in your favorite hymn, your name was on God’s roll, the Lord lifted you and you were ready when Jesus came for you.
Rest in peace: Nettie Brown Artis Jeffrey