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The Briar Patch— On kindness

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Bomani Moyenda’s aptly named Yellow Springs News column “Sankofa Talk,” is inspired by the Ghanaian proverb that instructs us to “go back and fetch it” as we move forward into the future. Symbolically captured as a bird flying forward with its head looking back, it is a charge of sorts. Study past events, be they personal, familial or historical, and learn from them so as not to repeat cycles of trauma, of harm, of doing things which do not serve the greater good. In the familial realm, our relationship to history itself can be flash points for personal discovery, revelatory processes in which ancestral lineage crescendos into a series of photos, obituaries and birth certificates that reveal truths. They can sometimes build bridges over long held pain and misunderstandings.

In a family photo a young girl, probably 13 or 14 years old, is sitting on a couch with her family. Not smiling, eyes red from crying, she is seated in the center, surrounded by family, her auntie and siblings. Her blue volleyball knee pads are resting down by her ankles, she was pulled into the photo despite being hot and sweaty, coming from volleyball practice. It was late summer, just before the school year started. Also in the photo is the young girl’s grandmother Cleola, a thin, regal elderly woman, seated on the edge of the couch, eyes penetrating the camera lens, almost piercing through the viewer, unsmiling, brittle, stern. Everyone is posing except the girl and her grandmother.

The grandmother said something incredibly harsh, though probably true, that caused the girl to cry right before the picture was taken. What she said is lost in the annals of unclaimed memories. What matters is the juxtaposition of the young girl and her grandmother, and a story of unprecedented and swift generational change.

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Born in Alabama, Cleola Rodgers Durgans was married by the time she was 13 or 14 years old, though the records are a little murky. She was 15 when she had her first child. Moving to Chicago at the age of 17, she bore four more children, including a boy named James, who died of pneumonia when he was a baby. When her oldest child, a sweet boy nicknamed Sonny, was little, he was hit by a car. She picked him up from the street and ran with him in her arms to the nearest hospital — 10 or more city blocks. Her husband, William, worked for the railroads, lifting boxes into freight cars in Alabama and was set to move to Chicago to be with his family when a white man, claiming he wasn’t moving fast enough, threw a heavy box at him. The box struck him in the head. Bleeding from the brain, he died when a hospital refused to treat him because he was African American. Cleola Rodgers Durgans was tragically widowed with four children at the age of 29.

When the girl’s uncle Charles got addicted to heroin as he was just hitting adolescence — hooked by a woman who owned a candy store and hosted parties involving drugs and sex in the store’s basement — Cleola had to padlock her refrigerator and the front door of her apartment to keep her own son from stealing the family food in order to sell it to feed his addiction.

In her lifetime, Cleola witnessed the girl’s father, Thomas, almost lose his grip on reality in his fight for sanity against paranoid schizophrenia. Her oldest boy, William Jr., or “Sonny,” succumbed to a sudden heart attack, and her youngest child, lung cancer. By the time she, at age 76, sat on that couch with her granddaughter in Yellow Springs, Ohio, that day, she’d buried a husband and three children, all the while pushing for educational opportunities for herself — she was trained as a nurse’s assistant — and her children.

Cleola, who was a married woman by the time she was the girl’s age, must have thought this girl was a completely alien species. How does one make sense of a completely different worldview and experience that occurred between two generations? What is to be made of an entitled and spoiled granddaughter crying through the lens of affluenza white privilege that she herself doesn’t even have access to? How to reconcile a Black girl given the space to speak up boldly and to become, well, anything? How was it possible that she could talk back to her parents, had white friends, and was holding space in an integrated world that was vastly different from her own?

After picture day on the couch, the girl couldn’t understand why her grandmother didn’t seem to like her, but it was clear her grandmother loved her. Every year, high quality warm winter coats and clothes from the best Chicago department stores arrived in time for Christmas. When the family came to Chicago’s south side to visit, Cleola would send the girl back to Ohio with boxes of Cracker Jacks and animal crackers, pop and Jay’s potato chips. It was a processed-food smorgasbord. Her hugs were fierce for such a thin woman, and she wrapped the girl with strong arms when it was time to leave. The hot summer visits, sitting on plastic covered couches, the sound of sweaty legs breaking away from the plastic when getting up from the furniture, was all worth it if it meant visiting her grandmother.

Cleola loved baseball and listened to Cubs or White Sox games on the radio. At home, she wore her long hair in two braids, milkmaid style, housecoats and knee-high stockings that held up on her skinny legs because she wound them into tight balls just at the top of her calf. A church lady on the usher board, she was that woman: she loved gorgeous suits, perfumes, red lipstick and stylish wigs, and was also an active member in community service and charity-related social clubs throughout her life. Cleola came from a generation that didn’t speak about the tragedies; things like generational trauma or resilience informed therapy didn’t exist for women like her. But her love was action in the form of resilience, and she was kind.

And what would Cleola think of this iteration of kindness we are experiencing now? This market driven world of contemporary culture that has attempted to commoditize kindness into a kindness tourist destination trap. Thank you, Grandma, for providing one of the greatest lessons of my life, demonstrating that offering kindness isn’t always an obvious act.

About two years later, after the last picture taken of me with my grandmother Cleola, she made transition at the age of 78, the last remaining survivor of her family line, the seventh child out of 10. Her kind heart had finally given out.

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