Granny is not a cookie-baking grandma. She is sassy and shrewd with money, and an avid gardener. If there is anything that she loves more than her three children and three grandchildren, it is her yard in the Richmond suburbs. She grew up on her family’s farm in Mississippi, so it’s no surprise that she has an emerald green thumb.
When I come to her house, I bring my dog, Jodeci, who is effectively a great-grandchild because I don’t have any of my own. I’m the family member who gardens with her the most, and I appreciate the time we get to spend in the sun trying to coax life out of the ground. But when we have to leave the lush enclosure of her yard and enter the outside world to run errands, we fight about clothes.
“Your shirt is dirty! Go change,” I’ll admonish. Granny retorts, “No, it’s not.” We have a back-and-forth until one of us gives in. Some days I win, and she’ll change. Some days she wins, and we just roll with it. Making sure Granny is presentable in public matters because it shows that she is cared for. To me, that is the highest honor you can give your elder.
When I started helping my mom look after Granny five years ago, it quickly became clear a lot of work goes into running our little family. Though she is highly independent for a woman in her ninth decade living on her own, there are still many tasks Granny needs assistance with. My mother and I take turns preparing or buying her meals every day. We schedule doctor visits, hair appointments and house repairs. We keep scam callers at bay. During the pandemic, I’ve developed a fierce protectiveness over her, persuading her into a high-filtration mask.
This caregiving has taught me to be more patient and present and developed my problem-solving skills. It has been labor intensive, but it also tapped into a deep well of maternal feeling inside of me, making me realize how much I want to start a family of my own. Before, having children was an abstraction, something I would get to eventually. At 37, I am not partnered, and don’t necessarily need to be to start a family. But it requires I let go of motherhood in the way I’d envisioned it — a nuclear family with a husband, 2.5 biological kids, a house with a white picket fence — and expand my definition. Right now, I know I want kids and I want to raise them in community with folks who will love them and me, and help us flourish.
As a Black woman, I also wrestle with what Black motherhood looks like in America. Writer Candice Benbow’s essay on her own journey to having a family struck a chord with me. She explains that as Black women we’ve been told to focus on our education, career and community. But “when we aren’t married and in the third trimester of our second pregnancy by the time we’re 35, they ask what’s wrong with us,” she writes in the Grio. While I am lucky to have a supportive family, I’ve come to see that it’s challenging to balance this level of caretaking for Granny and cultivate the future I want.
I started progressively taking on more of my grandma’s care in 2017 when I moved home to Richmond. After a two-year fellowship in Detroit ended, I was looking for a permanent base as I transitioned into my mid-30s and grew tired of constantly moving for work. I decided I would chill with my family until I figured out where that would be.
The pandemic grounded any plans to relocate, and I turned into the de facto organizer of family safety for my three-person pod in Richmond as well as for other family members. They called me “Ms. CDC.” When the virus started spreading, explaining to Granny how her world would change was challenging. No more going to the gym, no more daily strolls with her neighborhood walking buddy.
During this time, I aged alongside my grandmother. Time during the pandemic seemed to both expand and contract, and it also brought the window of opportunity to have biological children into full view. Still, I am torn between wanting to protect and take care of the family that I have from covid-19, and needing the space to build the future that I desire.
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One of the things I respect most about Granny is her ability to get up and move. She left her family’s farm, like many Black folks during the Great Migration, for a life unencumbered by the hostilities of being a young Black woman in Mississippi during Jim Crow. She has lived, at various points, in Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina and then, finally, Virginia.
I want to set down roots in a place where the possibilities for creating a family of my own excites me. I finally made the decision that I would move away from Richmond, a place I love and will always be home, but its familiarity leaves me feeling stunted. After much consideration and too many spreadsheets, I’ve decided to head south to North Carolina.
When I told Granny my plans to move she was not a fan. Her initial stance was, Why would you leave? I miscalculated how much we had become embedded in each other’s daily lives. Bringing her around to my decision meant having this conversation over and over again. I let her know that I love her, and will still be there for her, just in a different way. I also had to reconcile that leaving was not a necessity, but something that I needed to do for myself, outside of being dutiful to my family. Eventually she warmed to the idea, asking, “When are you going to North Carolina?” every time we talk. Now she’ll talk bad about me if I don’t follow through on my word.
On top of giving me sass, she often asks me, “When are you gonna have that baby girl?” When I respond, “Why a girl?” Her reply is equally sweet and heartbreaking. “So she can take care of you when you get old, like you take care of me.”
Terryn Hall is a writer in Richmond.