Some time ago I wrote a short story about my grandmother, Alfleet Pender McNeill (1932-2002). I wanted to pay homage to the woman who raised me, and often without words taught me everything she knew, to acknowledge the fact that she was not just “Grandma”. She was a woman who had aspirations, yet they went unfulfilled because she was busy serving others. During my time in her household, not one time did I realize the gravity of her sacrifice. It wasn’t until after her death that I saw what she did for me and others as something she didn’t have to do, but she did it so that the rest of us wouldn’t fall apart.
As I’ve matured, I understood the full weight and meaning of my grandmother’s sacrifice, and lamented over how I should have done more to show appreciation. It didn’t occur to me that being at everyone’s beck and call with no days off was something she didn’t have to do. Like many grandmothers I know, her acts of kindness and sustenance were seen as her reasonable service. If she cussed and fussed about all that she did, it was viewed as just another one of her rants instead of acknowledging they were moments of extreme frustration. She was frustrated as she watched everyone else live their lives while she stood in the background feeling unfulfilled, taken for granted, and maybe even unloved. She was frustrated because breakfast, lunch, and dinner were prepared like clockwork for kids and grown folks alike. She was frustrated because she was always expected to be on post while everyone else got a pass to do what they wanted to do. It wasn’t fair but I don’t think anyone really saw it that way. While she was able to help everyone fix their problems, who fixed hers?
There are many of you out there like my grandmother who are selfless. You are always helping someone and never want to see anyone suffer. You will give anyone–even a stranger–the shirt off your back without blinking. You have even been there for people who, when you needed them most, turned you away yet you still came through when they needed you. You are the person everyone can depend on and who people expect to always be “on” and say “yes”, never thinking about what you are giving up or what tight space you may be putting yourself in to be there for them. At times you may even feel discarded, that after people get what they want from you there is no more need for you.
People may be so used to you being the one to fix things that they don’t hear the depth of your pain when you say you are having a bad day, don’t know how to do something, or are afraid. You’re seen as a super human who can do anything, so while others get the full Monty of a listening ear and repeated checks, you just get told you’ll be fine. The fact that you’re strong does not illegitimize your pain. Sometimes you get so tired of telling people the same thing over and over again that you just go silent because no one wants to believe you have limitations just like them. And in the case of my grandmother, instead of me asking her what was wrong during those times she went zero dark thirty, I just thought she was acting funny. I didn’t know that she had gotten so tired of talking that she had to be put on antidepressants just to get through the day. If I weren’t so busy being offended, I would have read between the lines and realized she was crying out for help. She wanted to go to Red Lobster. She wanted to go shopping. She wanted a visit so that she could feel that she mattered. She wanted someone to talk with about what happened on the Soaps. I was so busy taking that I didn’t occur to me that it was my turn to give.
If there is one thing I would ask God to give me, it would be to have my grandmother (and grandfather) back. Even if for a minute, I would spend those 60 seconds telling her the many ways my life has gone right because of her. I would tell her I appreciated all the cooking, cleaning, food shopping, giving me money for no reason at the times I could really use it, stories about the old days, admonitions to do the right thing, and all of wonderful memories she created for me. I would tell her I’m sorry for treating her like a vending machine, and that I wish I was mature enough to see through the loud voice and strong words to realize she was hurt and sometimes didn’t even know why.
I’d like to give a word of caution to those of you, including myself, who have someone in your life who have laid themselves on the line for you; don’t take them for granted. As adults it is no one’s job to make sure we’re okay, fix our problems, or be there for us every time we ask. It is very easy to fall into the trap of seeing a person in terms of their do and not their who. No one has to pray for us. No one has to do favors for us. No one has to do a random act of kindness just to let us know they’re thinking of us. No one has to say they love us, they’re proud of us, they value us. No one. Yet when we are on the receiving end of that kindness, we think it’s nothing special because, after all, that person is always doing or saying something like that. And when they stop, we have the nerve to take it personal and become offended. STOP. IT. Maybe it’s our turn to sacrifice, to pray, to do something nice without the requirement of an occasion. Maybe we need to take our heads out of the sand and realize it’s not all about us and what we need all the time. Everybody got problems.
Today, right now, ASAP, tell your grandmother, your mother, your sister, your cousin, your friend, maybe even your jefe, THANK YOU! Two small words that are really two big deals.