The Reach of Grandmama’s Hand
When I arrived at Westover Air Force Base in 1962, there was insufficient housing on base to accommodate me for four months of temporary duty at 8th Air Force Headquarters. I was given a voucher to pay for housing off base. Rather than stay in a motel, my inquiries about alternate accommodations eventually led me to the home of Mrs. Phillips in nearby Springfield, MA.
Mrs. Phillips and I exchanged greetings, while immediately making some assessments of things to help each of us determine our willingness to be either a landlord or a tenant: personal grooming, speech patterns, eye contact, type of automobile, wedding rings, and other “gut feelings” that either guide your hand to sign a lease to stay, or to grab your car keys to leave.
After our preliminaries satisfied each other to move to the next level, she led me upstairs to a duplex apartment. I was satisfied and ready to give her a deposit. She had more comments and questions that were presented in a tone I knew from childhood in Valdosta, Georgia, which also informed me how to answer. She said, “I see you’re a sergeant, so ya must be behaving. Where you from?” I announced that I was born and raised in Georgia. Mrs. Phillips gave me an intense look and softly repeated my name and my place of birth: “Your name is Alexander, and you’re from Georgia. Who are your people?” Mrs. Phillips’ question was the same that I had often heard my grandmother ask of new acquaintances. “Who are your people?” One day I asked my grandmother the importance of that question. Without hesitation she said: “The answer sometimes helps me determine if I’m interested in further conversation or relationship, because I don’t want to know nobody who’s not somebody worthy of my time.” Then, she paused just long enough to allow me to appreciate her words, and she added: “Furthermore, I’m not interested in changing my standards.” My answer to Mrs. Phillips was crafted as though she and my grandmother shared values.
As I preceded her down the stairs I answered: “My mother’s maiden name was Catherine Alexander; my grandfather was Reverend George Alexander, and …” Suddenly, I felt a heavy hand on my shoulder, as she interrupted with another question in a loud voice: “Was your grandma named Mariah?” She repeated the question, with emphasis: “Tell- me–if–your–grandmama’s– name-was– Mariah?” My body became rigid and my tears quickly formed as I turned to answer a stranger who knew my grandmama’s name. She saw my face, and from the higher step behind me, she lifted my entire body and buried my head in her full bosom. My face was smothered, but my ears were partially uncovered, and as she clutched my suspended 170 pound body, I heard, “Your grandmamma saved my mama’s life, your grandmamma saved my mama’s life. Miss Mariah- saved- my -mama’s- life.” As she released me I also saw her tears, and she uttered a sound that alerted me to prepare for another giant embrace. I took a deep breath and just hung on, as she danced us down the steps.
During the period of my grandfather’s ministry in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, he was assigned to churches throughout the state of Georgia. His most reliable ministerial assistant was my grandmother. Sometimes she assumed duties that were not commanded in either the Old or New Testament. One night a parishioner almost died during childbirth. My grandmother, acting as the midwife, completed the delivery and stemmed further crisis. The little girl who assisted my grandmother and knelt with her to comfort and pray for her mother was now sharing with me the history of that night.
Before she released me Mrs. Phillips turned me to see her face and to hear her declare: “My apartment ain’t for rent to you. You’re the grandson of Miss Mariah. You just found your way home for as long as you can stay. Hallelujah!”