Grandma’s Hands: An Ode to Black Grandmothers everywhere

Alexis Oatman
ZORA
Published in
3 min readFeb 4, 2021

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As a child, I have fond memories of my Grandmother (or Nana as I called her), in the kitchen, gallantly floating across our floor. It was like watching a master at work. She would know if something was off by just one taste.“Pass me the salt,” she would say. Me being her eldest grandchild and assistant, I was always happy to do so.

We would sing and dance around like nobody was watching, sampling the food, trying not to think about the days that lie ahead of us, just focusing on that present moment. My Nana was so many things — a chef, confidant, hairstylist, etc.,

I can remember hours upon hours sitting in front of the TV as she parted my hair softly, cascading grease down my scalp. “This will keep that dandruff down baby,” she would say. Her hands, round and thick, covered in gold rings could do everything — cook, sew, and handle business, all while juggling me on her lap. Like most hardworking Black women of the baby boomer era, she was the Matriarch of my family, our “Big Momma,” you can say. Everyone came to Ruby Lee with their problems.

Long ago, when my family owned our own dry cleaners, my Nana, like with everything, was in charge of running it. Sometimes after school, she would pick me up in her white Lincoln and take me with her while she worked. We would run through the mountains of clothes behind steamers and irons, and she would chase me around the building.

But then one Christmas, everything changed.

While cooking her famous pineapple upside-down cake, hands covered in flour, she sat down in a chair and began to look at me. She couldn’t move her lips, and her face was sagging on one side. She dropped to the floor, convulsing, and had wet herself. What was happening to my superwoman?At nine years old, I didn’t realize she was having a stroke. I just remember being terrified. She ended up being in the hospital for months, and then subsequently had a short stint in a nursing home. When she finally returned from the hospital, she was no longer the woman I had once known.

She didn’t smile or dance the same, and could no longer cook like she used to (thanks to the stroke and early onset Dementia). It got to a point that we didn’t even trust in her the kitchen by herself anymore. However, when she would sneak and try, it wasn’t hard to quickly figure it out when that burning smell would pierce the air. Her hands were too shaky to braid my hair anymore, so I had to defer to my mother from then on. She started having severe mood swings and forgetting things. But how could the woman that helped raised me turn into this other person right before my eyes?

I was too young to understand then. There was no way I could imagine what she must have been going through — trapped in a hospital, surrounded by strangers poking and prodding at her all day. Despite all the sacrifices she made for me, the gifts, hugs and kisses, I felt hopeless as I watched her deteriorate.

That said, I’m grateful that she’s still here. I enjoy the brief moments we share when’s she not lost in the entrails of her mind. It’s as if she never left. She gets that little glimmer in her eyes that once dazzled me as a girl. And while her hands are still a bit shaky, she can still snap them on beat when Al Green comes on, and gets that same jig in her thigh.

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Alexis Oatman
ZORA

Freelance writer and journalist. Follow me on Twitter @itslexdawriter.