Remembering Grandma Boykin

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Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays, but the thanks of the season increasingly find themselves tempered with sorrow as the years roll on. A year ago on the 19th we said good-bye to my Grandma Boykin, a woman I didn’t get to see often, but who reminded me of the values of compassion, honesty, laughter, and the power of a home-cooked meal.

I’d always known of my Grandma Boykin when I was younger, but she lived far away and our family didn’t really travel much while I was growing up. Money was tight, so the few times we took a “vacation” often involved long drives or bus rides to Cleveland, OH, my father’s birthplace and childhood home. My Aunt Wanda still lived there with her three children, and we made the trip out to Cleveland to visit when Grandma flew in from California. I was roughly 11, maybe 12; I remember the drives being too long, the summers too hot, the air too humid.

I don’t remember much of Grandma from those trips; my sister and I tended to stay in the basement playing with our cousin and his Legos. She was a short woman with a keen eye and a constant willingness to work. The couple concrete memories I’ve carried were rebukes: a command to wash up after dinner, a comment about how I was starting to get chubby… the follies of memory, I suppose. Conceptually, I remember her smile, her frown, her strong, matriarchal personality. Nobody doubted that she ran the ship: perhaps she assumed that role when my Grandfather passed while my dad was still young, before I was even a concept of a concept. Then again, she was a landlord for multiple rental units and owned her own hairdressing business, so maybe she’d always just had that drive.

MY real memories of my grandmother really began the summer after I graduated from college; I’d just taken an internship with Disneyland in Anaheim, CA, and decided to fly out to Richmond a week early to spend time with Grandma before heading down to Southern California. Her furniture, old pieces bought from decades ago, were kept in good condition with plastic coverings. Pictures of my dad’s side of the family lined the walls, cousins and aunts and uncles all over the place (we were never great about sending photos). She spent much of her time either in the kitchen or sitting at the small informal dining room table, so I did, too; she’d make fried chicken and cornbread and greens in a cast-iron skillet I could almost swear she’d brought with her from her youth in Mississippi. Delicious smells of meals long past danced in the air as she cooked, her short frame working magic over the stove-top.

“You want more, baby?” she’d ask, her Southern accent eluding my Northern-trained ears at first. We’d sit and drink water and juice at the table, eating chicken and watching daytime TV. “You have as much as you want, baby; I know you not full yet.” Eventually I felt her pace, her tone flow in to me; conversations moved from formal get-to-know-yous to short statements between us punctuated with “mmmhm”s, laughs and sighs filling the space as courtroom judges sentenced petty criminals.

Grandma Boykin never wasted a thing. When I saw her in California, she she reused anything available, including resealable freezer bags and twist-ties. She drank water and juice out of a plastic Folgers decaf coffee container. The TV next to the table where she ate was an old CRT with fading, flickering light and a long, rabbit-ear style antenna. Frugality wasn’t a concept for her, it was a way of life: growing up poor in the South during the Great Depression, money was not a commodity to take lightly. A woman of strong faith and determination, she worked with what she had, even when she had almost nothing.

As a result, particularly after her retirement, she had money, particularly when it counted: she paid her own bills and maintained her own independence, she saved her kids from financial jams on multiple occasions, and still was able to send a little something to us grandkids on birthdays and Christmases. She sacrificed so that she could provide for the ones that she loved. That said, she still had a house with plenty of space for visitors, kept her pantry and refrigerator well-stocked, and she had quite the collection of fancy hats for Sunday services. 

Grandma wasn’t a woman to mince words, and she let people know how she felt. She worked hard, and she expected the same from those who were able. She cared about faith, and she showed it in her daily life. She wouldn’t let a person eating in her house go hungry. She could laugh and smile from not just her stomach, but her soul. She was happy. She loved, and she was loved.

I didn’t get to spend much time with her before she passed, but I really value those moments we got to spend together. I think about how much I have and how much I take for granted with my finances, with my friends, and with my family. Thanksgiving is around the corner, and somehow I’m just conscious that, no matter how much we give thanks for, there’s a certain amount of luck/blessing/life we simply take for granted. I was able to see her on one last trip a few months before she got sick, and I’m thankful that I was able to share more moments with her and learn from her before we lost her.

When she passed, she had two services: one in California, and one in Ohio; both were frequented with multiple people who loved and respected her. The effects a single person can have on the world around them astonish me, and I hope that those of us surviving her can learn from her example, passing on what we can to those who need it, appreciating our family, and loving everyone we can.

-Josh

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