Mrs. Nella Kincaid – April 8, 1907 – April 15, 2008

by Wednesday, April 16, 2008

My grandmother has always had the softest hands I’ve ever felt. Whether she was using them to grow things in her small garden or flicking cards out in a mean spade game the texture remained the same. As children we only heard tales of how old grandma was. These tales may have been true but didn’t fester in the lines of her soft face. Her eyes as gray as her light hair are the first thing I remember ever fixating on. I’d never seen an old lady or any lady for that matter with eyes so light. I would peer into them and wonder how she could see me through the fog that covered them. I stared as if I was gazing into a bog looking for a pebble I had dropped in and could see but was to far to reach for. I regret not asking about all the memories the fog had enveloped.

I was her favorite. Always. She even gave me a nickname when I was a young child “fattums,” this true term of endearment didn’t stick but showed her appreciation for her middle granddaughter. After all, she was the last surviving of three girls herself. She was the 2nd, she understood.

My grandmother was born on Easter Sunday in 1907 and grew up on a farm in Cuthbert, Georgia. Her father, a preacher by the surname of Collier and her mother a housewife bore three girls. Grandma loved her two sisters dearly and spoke of them frequently, Lillian the stern eldest and Anna the conceited youngest. Both died before any of us were born so I have that and very few other facts from her upbringing. She was married and took the name Kincaid, but we had never had or had known a grandfather. She cherished her name and put spit on it whenever anyone tried to cross her, chewing up her favorite phrase “God Damn it, I’m Nella May Kincaid”. It was never clear where her Mr. had gone although years later it was clear that she could not give birth. We always knew she had adopted my mother.

Grandma’s house was in a housing project but had charm. Always immaculately clean except for two or three ashtrays filled with butts and half smoked filter less Pall Mall cigarettes. The furniture was antique and most had its age as well as cigarette burn marks etched into it. From the wooden end tables with the thick marble tops to the gold lined table lamps that seemed too priceless to touch. We never appreciated the beauty in age even though we had never seen such divine pieces any where else. To my sisters and I It was just grandma’s house all of these artifacts had been around since before our births. The grand old china closet was filled with delicate china and champagne floats I had never in life seen anyone use. Maybe they had come from the “white folks” that treated her like kin, or perhaps she picked them up on some church retreat he hadn’t remembered anymore. Certain things were always found in her house, Avon catalogues, empty water jugs and cookies. As we got older our favorite places to play became the places that were the least accessible to her – usually her bedroom. This was where she kept jewelry boxes full of costume jewelry and dozens of flashy outfits and scattered pieces of fur. We would dress up and scare each other and have everything put away by the time she reached the top of the steps. We could hear the drag of her slippers once she hit the first step. Like things always found at grandmas house, there were certain facts and/or rules you had to obey to appease her. No gum chewing, she could hear it two rooms away and the sound would throw her into a dramatic frenzy on impact, something like “god damn it to hell, get that mutherfukin gum out of my house for I whip some asses”. Don’t disrespect her cat or cats, the most she ever had was two but she treated them as she treated herself. We loved to tie things to their tails and torment them, we always left grandmas house with a scratch or two. A few other small things like, never turning from channel “2” which was CBS (cause the lottery came on that channel), everyone knew Grandama (or Mrs. Kincaid) never drank a day in her life nor did she ever wear make up. Though I heard her exaggerate the truth plenty of times, I knew grandma was no liar, she had never even had her ears pierced. This woman cursed like a sailor but was the epitome of sunshine. I never understood how she had lived forever without things I thought so normal to have.

Growing up being grandmas known favorite gave me some advantages. She shielded me from my mother’s middle child wrath even though most times I deserved it. Older than both my parents combined she would lift me to her cozy lap and wrap her wrinkled arms around me. Speak to me in her softest voice and laugh about nothing in particular. I’d sit with her in her recliner (it was a push button recliner that reclined you into a standing position as well) and run and get her ice water or cigarettes from across the room. I felt honored being the favorite at grandma’s house because I had witnessed the respect laid upon her by everyone who crossed her path. She cursed like a sailor and smoked like a drunk, she jive talked and played cards like and with the biggest men and counted her money in the open daring anyone to give it a second thought. Grandma was 74 when I was born.

I’d like to say grandma and I shared a couple adventures as I grew up. These childhood adventures were nothing more than trips to Elk meetings, grocery stores and church as well as my all time favorite’s funerals and wakes. Someone would inform my grandmother of the news of the dead and she’d call my mother to send over her chaperone over. This happened so frequent that I’m not sure if she even knew how she knew the deceased. However I was sure that she’d know a bunch of other old bitties attending for the same reason she was. To gossip, see old friends and to remember that they themselves were still alive. In my adolescents while I watched her work the room I wondered if all the elderly people in the room looked around and guessed who would be next. At the age of 80, next week or even tomorrow could be anyone’s time to go.

Grandma’s favorite forms of transportation were “jitney’s” a jitney is a form of a cab in the ghetto referred to as gypsy cab in other part of the north esat. Grandma knew all of these drivers and would call for them by name at the station. One or two even dropped by occasionally if they knew it was her time of the month to go shopping. Had I ever caught a bus with her I would have panicked. Although I was young I wasn’t adventurous enough to help hoist her up or down the steps. Wherever we were going she just grabbed my hand for assurance as she raged along. By my teens, during weekend visits I got very aware that she was old. She got sick sometimes to the point where I called an ambulance against her will. Grandma had always shook, not uncontrollably or even in a frightening way. Just barely. One year she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. I was old enough to understand but too young to realize its true impact. This was long before Mohammed Ali or Michael J. Fox had been publicly diagnosed so information wasn’t as immediately available. All the diagnosis did was assured her that she had been fighting the invisible battle for a reason. In her late 70’s these were the “good” years of her life. She ran her own very small business (illegally out of her house) and was surrounded by friends and family. No more scrubbing floors on hands and knees and raising children for others.

Grandma and I still shared the weekends, she fed me whatever I pleased and taught me to cook whatever she couldn’t. My parents seriously joked that every two weeks I spent with her I gained ten pounds. I was glad to help out and the fact that there was never a limit on my consumption as far as Television and food was always considered. As long as I didn’t bother whichever cat she had too much and turned the television to channel two at seven o’clock for the lottery I was more than welcomed. Over the course of two summers I watched my grandmother go from walking with one cane, to two canes, to a walker. Some time after that she was issued a wheelchair, a chair that she hated and tried to avoid whenever possible. It was around that time that she moved into a hi-rise apartment building. A year or so later – I moved in. I was around 15 and having problems at school and at home. Even if grandma didn’t understand me, she needed my help and wasn’t very concerned with my personality quarks. She let me be sad. Not because she could see it but because she needed me. Already well over 200 lbs, I would come home from a day of arguing in class and being picked on to cook her and myself a hearty dinner. I had the ability to do the grocery shopping so the cabinets were stalked with all of our favorite foods. She still got around but not as fast or as efficient as she used to, and the wheelchair was never far. She would fall asleep, in the bathroom or kitchen and even on the phone. Taking care of her helped me to forget how much I hated myself. I only remembered she needed me.

I missed my family but I loved my freedom. I had always worked a full time job so in between that and my home life, I didn’t have much time for regular high school activities. It suited me fine because I didn’t have many friends and everyone at school knew I hated them anyway. Sometimes I got involved with low life boys and would waste time crying even more than the usual. I could easily hide all my feelings living with a 90 something year old woman. I was sad, I cried, I ate, more than she ever knew. I took the opportunity to know her better – but not as well as I could or should have. Being too self involved blinded me to the best friend and historical creature I ever could have known. I didn’t realize that some day may have been too late. As old as she always was grandma was/is forever invincible.

Years later it would haunt me that I could have shared some of her best years helping her to remember the great adventures she’d had. At 100 years old and placed in a home I couldn’t help but remember when grandma used to cuss people out for fun. While repeating which granddaughter I was every five minutes and straightening the pink ribbon someone at the home had tied in her grayed white hair I wondered if the Nella Kincaid I knew was still somewhere in this trembling frail body.

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1 Response
  • Victory
    April 17, 2008

    Some say.. Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take but rather by the moments that take our breaths away. It certainly sounds as if your Grand Mother played a major role in inspiring those around her. May the holy spirits be with her always.

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