Today, September 8, 2019, is National Grandparents’ Day.
I have been particularly reflective leading up to it, as this is the first time I’m commemorating this occasion with all four of my grandparents residing in the ancestral realm.
Many thoughts have emerged about them – their lives, their sacrifices, their love – and how they made my existence possible in every sense.
Recognizing that the gift of grandparents is the best present that can be bestowed upon a person, I offer a few thoughts on who these four irreplaceable people were.
Born in the American South in 1900, Walter Jackson Sr. lived through the vast majority of the twentieth century and was a revered icon of Tallulah, Louisiana.
A community-oriented businessman, he operated a cab company, worked for Yerger Oil, and ran dancing establishments where people could decompress after long work weeks.
He survived a great deal – World War I, the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, World War II, the Civil Rights Movement, and the ubiquitous racism of the Jim Crow South that informed all of his experiences.
When he was a younger man, he briefly considered joining the millions of Black people who ventured from the South to the American North & West, searching for – as Isabel Wilkerson would put it – warmer suns. He boarded a locomotive heading to Chicago and arrived safely after nearly a day of travel. He jumped off the train, got a blast of the wintery winds in his face, and immediately sought the next thing moving back to the South. This just may be one of my favorite stories about him.
He was married once before meeting my grandmother. Sadly, his first wife passed away, and that union produced no children. Soon after meeting my grandmother, he swiftly married her and proceeded to have thirteen children over twenty years. He was 48 when his eldest child was born and 68 when his final child entered the Earth.
My mother often reflects on her father, who I did not have the good fortune of physically meeting during this lifetime. She describes him as a patient and caring Elder – a man who would labor assiduously to ensure that the City of Tallulah – particularly its Black residents – were taken care of.
He joined Mt. Olive Baptist Church in the mid-twentieth century and dutifully served as a deacon until he passed. An especially resonant refrain of his time as a steward of the City of Tallulah entails him regularly venturing to the community grocery store, Doug’s, purchasing whole chickens and cans of oil, and distributing them throughout Tallulah.
Toward the end of his life, as he valiantly fought diabetes, his doctors informed him that a leg amputation would alleviate some of the worst pain he was experiencing. With the wisdom of 82 years on Earth, and the smile that had warmed northeast Louisiana for decades, he respectfully declined.
With the grace of the ages, he exited this life on his own terms. I believe that my calmness, my commitment to social justice, and my sense of peace are directly attributable to him.
A leader of Tallulah, Louisiana and my beloved maternal grandfather – I celebrate him.
A wise teacher, unyielding prayer warrior, and compassionate friend.
Mary Lee Dunbar Jackson was born in Rodney, Mississippi on the eve of the Great Depression, and she primarily experienced the next 92 years of global and American history from that region.
She and her siblings grew up in a farming community where she developed a unique sense of bravery. When my sister and I were small children, she regaled us with stories about how she used to swim in the Mississippi River. She was baptized in the same body of water when she was ten. She was absolutely fearless.
Around the time she was 20, she decided to move to Tallulah, Louisiana – just a couple hours away from Rodney. The next seven decades were filled with the happiness and prosperity she deserved – just over a dozen children, a loving husband, a supportive church family, and the completion of her bachelor’s degree from Alcorn State University.
My grandmother was simply a tour de force – she glided through the world with grace and goodwill, and she was adored by so many people.
One memory of her that stands out occurred just a few years ago, while I was still in law school at LSU. We were shopping at Doug’s, and a local community member approached us. They greeted us with the routine – “Hey Mrs. Jackson!”
After conversing for a few minutes, the community member shared a thought that had been boiling up –
“Mrs. Jackson, you should have been the Mayor of Tallulah.”
We all grinned as the conversation continued.
That moment stuck with me because it felt so true – my grandmother was a stateswoman, a mentor, an Elder, and a friend to myriad people.
Her wisdom, encouragement, and love push me to be better every single day of my life.
She spoke to me regularly on the physical plane, and she speaks to me still from the ancestral plane.
I am listening, my cherished maternal grandmother.
A son of the Carolinas, a veteran of the U.S. military, a debonair young groom, a greatly admired father, and a doting grandfather – if only for four months on this physical plane – Leon Henderson Hairston was born in 1935 in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
Soon after I was born, and he received word of my arrival, he asked my Uncle Ed to carry him to my parents’ home to meet me. He was tired from complications from liver & kidney failure, but he was determined to hold his first grandchild. He succeeded in this endeavor, and I had the great honor of spending his final few months on Earth with him.
In the half of a century that preceded that moment, he served as a diligent son, brother, husband, and father.
His father abandoned him, his mother, and his younger siblings when he was just 14, but he never missed a step. He eventually began a career at R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, married my grandmother, and built up a family of his own, comprised of five boys.
My father will sometimes recount the story of joining Phillips Chapel Baptist Church alongside his mother, brothers, and father. My father was about ten years old. Following a typical Sunday service, my grandfather stood and marched down to the front of the church. My grandmother, father, and uncles soon followed.
These stories characterized my perception of him, even years after he entered the ancestral plane – a quiet, focused man of faith who took his familial responsibilities quite seriously. I imagine that I pull a great deal of my resolve from his example.
His legacy looms large in my life. The way that my father and uncles still reflect on him manifests how incredible of a man he was.
I will hold tight to those four months that I spent with him for all of my days.
Thank God for the gift of a praying and steadfast grandfather.
I carry him with me always.
Memories swiftly emerge of wonderful times in the Winston-Salem house. My paternal grandmother cared for me diligently during the first five years of my life.
She had a bountiful laugh, a peaceful spirit, and a warm sense of love that flowed through the home that she built for her five boys.
We were mischievous together, in every good way imaginable. For example, she allowed me to use Q-Tips to clean my ears. My mother at least tacitly forbade the practice, for fear of damage to my eardrums, but Grandma Hairston allowed it. It became our little secret.
Under a meek and relatively soft-spoken exterior existed a spirit of tenacity and perseverance. My father informed me that she cleaned the residences of wealthy white people in the Winston-Salem area.
Laboring though the evils of Jim Crow segregation and the achievements of the Civil Rights Movement, my paternal grandmother stood as a proud Black woman who derived so much joy from her family.
Once she married my grandfather, the boys came in rapid succession – born over the course of the 1960s.
Aside from that cleaning career, she dedicated her attention and energy to being an attentive mother and homemaker.
From the 16 years I spent with her on Earth, her million-watt smile and rich laugh stand out to me the most.
During sermonic reflections, my father often quips about how his mother could transform a jar of mayonnaise into an entire meal for her boys. That industrious spirit served her well as she navigated the pitfalls of American racism and made it all happen to the best of her ability.
I honor her warm spirit and her quiet dignity. It must not have been easy, but you couldn’t tell if you spoke with her, laughed with her, or simply sat in her presence.
What an honor it is to be her descendant – to journey in the legacy of her love.
I will remain eternally grateful for the wonderful gift of grandparents. Rest peacefully, beloveds. Thank you.