One Sunday, my grandmother passed me a note in church that said, ‘Rod, Nana would like to see you get your Ph.D. before she dies’ Well, how could I refuse?
It was a bright, sunny day. My family and I piled into a black limousine and headed off to the church. Most of us focused on Brittany, the enthusiastic 3-year-old sitting in a beautiful white dress, almost the exact replica of her mother at that age. On that day, almost 10 years ago, my recently retired grandmother buried Brittany’s mother and willingly reentered parenthood by assuming custody of my aunt’s three children: Anthony, 18, Warren, 11, and Brittany, 3.
As a school educator and administrator, I’ve noticed in recent years a trend in the faces that sit across from my desk. More frequently, the care-takers advocating, celebrating, and supporting my students are their grandmothers. While gazing into their often tired, determined, loving faces, I frequently want to offer them a hug. I realize that I often look into the eyes of my own grandmother.
I was my grandmother’s first grandchild. My family lived in a working class community in the South Bronx. I was quite young when my parents separated, and my grandmother took an active role in the rearing of my siblings and me. Nana, as we call her, served as the matriarch, and her home was the fulcrum, nucleus, and command central of our family.
My grandmother had a strong work ethic. We have a saying in the African-American community that has its base in slavery: “Working from can’t-see to can’t-see. “The slave got up before daylight and worked well into the evening. I often watched my grandmother get up before the crack of dawn and drive to New Jersey to work in a factory and then return to
Work in the family business, Jenkins Luncheonette, to 10 or 11 at night. But I never heard her complain. I was the first person in my family to leave home for college, and, after I graduated, my grandmother purchased a car for me so that I could drive to my new job as a high school English teacher.
Then one Sunday, while nestled in our family pew at church, she passed me a note: “Rod, Nana would like to see you get your Ph.D. before she dies” Well, how could I refuse. So I headed to NYU determined not to cause my grandmother’s untimely demise. When asked by the interviewer why I should be accepted into the program, I simply responded, “My grandmother asked me to get my Ph.D. before she died,” and produced the little note.
It was in that same pew and in that same manner that my grandmother requested that she see me married and that I produce her first great-grandson before she died. Determined not to disappoint her, I married my beautiful wife, and before our first year anniversary we welcomed a son.
When I think back over my grandmother’s life, I am reminded of the words of the Langston Hughes’ poem, Mother to Son: “Her life has been hard with tacks, nails, splinters, and places with boards torn up-bare…Life for her ain’t been no crystal stair.” I am so thankful that my grandmother has always made us feel as if we lived in crystal palace.
The national profile
Nearly 4.5 million children under 18 are living in households headed by grandparents.
Nearly 2.4 million grandparents are responsible for raising grandchildren. —US Census, 2000
Jenkins is the founder and CEO of The Jenkins Learning and Development Group. He lives in New York with his wife Sabrina Renee and two children, Re’John and Jenee’.
Originally Published on GRAND Magazine in July-August 2006 Issue