Grandaddy and I talk every day.
Two years ago, he called me and said, “Just Us, when you get a chance, I want a white cap with the words ‘Genie First born’ on it.” It was a weekday and the birds were up. We had buried my uncle Junie, his son and namesake, just 3 months prior. Still somehow the sun, despite the muted colors of grief, had just begun to show itself again.
I took out the Canon film camera my granny’s last husband had given me nearly a decade prior. When he handed it to me he warned, “She doesn’t have much time – capture her.” (We were in Niagara Falls, Canada about to go into the Ripley’s Believe It or Not museum. And no, I could not believe in an Earth without Granny. But I took as many pictures as I could. She died a year later.) I promptly loaded film into my camera and headed out. But when I was already on his Reservoir Hill block I realized I’d left the camera in my apartment.
“Assalamualaikum, Just Us,” I said, opening my trunk and then skipped the 7 steps up to his apartment and grabbed his wheelchair. It took all my tiny muscles in concert to lift his chair into my hatchback. Then, I went back to get him, offering my hand as a steady rail to help him walk down the steps.
Truth be told, I hadn’t been to Mondawmin in years. I had retired from my life in malls after learning Granny’s greatest lesson: that all the good things are in thrift stores. Besides who goes to Mondawmin after they unceremoniously took away the Target? And yes, we all love Auntie Anne’s pretzels, but they don’t hit much if you’re not celebrating getting your license at the DMV.
I parked at the entrance closest to Planet Fitness and pushed him up the ramp and into the mall. We wandered a bit, getting our bearings. Forever 21 was closing, but the Great Cookie was thriving. Shoe City was still there, but no one was inside. After about 10 minutes, we hadn’t found the hat shop, but we had asked the jeweler if he could fix Grandaddy’s watch. We were quoted an exorbitant price and scurried away. Then, finally, we saw what we needed– Lids.
As a Muslim man, an esteemed elder, and our family’s deified patriarch, Grandaddy doesn’t go anywhere without having his head covered. Kufis, bucket hats, caps, fedoras, boaters, you name it he wears it. We scoped out the hats. Then up top, behind the SpongeBob snapback, he saw it.
“That one,” he said, pointing to a plain white cap. “Ask that lady if she can put your mom’s name on it.” We spent some time picking out a font and text color. He settled on black text with an ornamental, but not sentimental, typeface. While the cashier ran the hat through the machine Grandaddy talked shit to another patron. (Shit talking is an ancient form of camaraderie-building that I’m pretty sure Grandaddy invented.)
Last month, I drove Grandaddy and myself down to Easton for the day. I love going down to Southern Maryland. My matrilineage, since the 1800s, were all born on a tiny little peninsula on the big peninsula in a town called Oxford. Oxford is a waterfront town where everyone knows each other, no one can drive above 15 mph, and rich white people store their boats for the summer.
Last month, one of my big cousins was having a party to celebrate the memories of his paternal aunts and uncles – many of whom have died suddenly in the last few years. But it also happened to be his mom’s – my mother’s sister’s – birthday as well. So, I threw Granddaddy’s chair into the backseat, buckled up, and rode us from the Western shore across the Bay Bridge to Easton. We listened to Lauryn Hill most of the way there. (“God, I love that Laryn Hill,” he said. “She’s got some kind of voice.”) When we got there, there were balloons, streamers, loud music, lots of food, a huge tent and tables. Everyone was celebrating the memory of a loved one all while wishing my aunt a happy birthday. It’s ironic isn’t it? Within the celebration of life there is always more life.
A lot of life feels learning how to live without the ones you love. A few days after our Eastern Shore trip, Grandaddy got sick. Since then he’s been on a circuit of hospital, rehab, hospital. Seeing his health decline so rapidly and dramatically reminds me of that first winter without Junie. Without James. Without Tricia.
This past weekend, I went to visit Grandaddy at the hospital. Of course, he was wearing a hat. This time a denim bucket hat like one of those dancers in pantsula music videos. My mom switched out his hat for a red cap. And taped a sharpie next to his bed with a sign that read, “please sign his hat.” I wrote my name, the name he gave me/us: Just Us.
Grandaddy says he gave me that name one day when we were talking on the phone when I was about six or seven. “I was in this drug program,” he says, “and we were talking about how your brother is nicknamed Tall Pall and your other brother Jesus and you needed a name. So that’s when one of us settled on Just Us and it sounded just right. ‘Cause it’s true, it’s just you and me; it’s just us. It stuck.”
In the early 40s, Grandaddy was born to Heavy Man and Honey in Raleigh, North Carolina. But soon his parents went back to Camden, South Carolina where he was raised. For the first few years of his life, he worked on a plantation as a sharecropper, where I did confirm he was literally singing “Wade in the Water.” He knew all about riding mules and picking cotton. He traveled back and forth from Camden to Baltimore where he had lots of family. Eventually, he dropped out of school sometime before 8th grade and moved with his family to Baltimore. Four years later, he and my granny had my momma, and named her after the great Italian actress Gina Lolabrigida. For the next four decades he kept having children. Totaling a whopping 12 kids by 5 different women. The true miracle is that all of his kids were raised by many of these women; that all of his kids speak to one another multiple times a week; and love each other deeply like the basketball team that they are.
The nickname Genie didn’t come into my mom’s life until much later. If you ask Grandaddy why he started calling my mom Genie, he’ll say:
“I changed her name because if you mess with her– if you rub her– be careful ‘cause she’ll come right out the bottle!”
Family is a silent letter that changes the whole word. If you take out the h in home, what’s left is om. Om is the greatest spiritual utterance. A solid symbol. A life fulfilling mantra. My family is my greatest home. They are the water I breathe and the air I drink. They are loud, aggressive and achingly sweet. They are in recovery of addiction and reliable accountants. They are expert cussers and talented musicians and dancers. And not to mention, they are in mass and amassing more love every day.
So if you meet a Forman or a Gibson in Baltimore or in Oxford, you’re meeting my cousin. Tell them I asked about them. Tell them I love them.