The power of a praying Black mother is storied. But she had to learn from someone. One of the first things I learned from my dearly departed grandmother was how to pray. And though she’s been gone for more than 15 years, I can still hear the sound of her voice in fervent prayer as she knelt beside each morning and night without fail. Her morning prayer would start with Psalm 121. And her evening prayer with Psalm 23. Sometimes she would pray for rain. Other times she would pray for a sick neighbor. She would pray for the Prime Minister by name. And “all the leaders around the world”. She would undoubtedly send up a word for my brothers and me who were in her care. And depending on which one was of us was particularly misbehaving, she would call us by name, praying that we would “break up our fallow ground”.
Perhaps there is not a more celebrated figure in Black matriarchy than the grandmother. The grandmother who always prays, the grandmother who always knows. The grandmothers, for many of which their children’s and grandchildren’s achievements were beyond their wildest dreams. Achievements without which their tireless sacrifices would have been all but impossible.
Born in 1920 in rural Jamaica, my grandmother was a product of the time. As one of 11 children, she was never given the chance to go past the 5th grade. I always liked to imagine the woman she might have become had she been given that chance. But like so many of our grandmothers, what she lacked in formal education, she surpassed in knowledge. She always knew what to say. She knew what clouds meant it would rain soon. She knew which leaves could be boiled for homeopathic remedies. And which ones were could be crushed to nurse a sprain or soothe a bug bite. She knew the benefits of aloe vera for hair, and coconut oil for skin long before capitalism caught on.
She was only a few generations removed from slavery. Her own mother separated by the abolition of slavery in Jamaica by a mere 55 years. She would often tell me stories of her life as a child. So far removed from that of my children now. Walking miles to fetch water. Walking with heads low and eyes peeled in hopes of spotting a shilling. Or trying to make it back before her father’s spit had dried, a direct callback to the slavemaster’s rule.
As an adult, she worked for 26 years at the same paint factory. She’d often recall the discomfort of having to wait for a break to go to the bathroom. The mind-numbing monotony of labeling paint cans. But grandmothers have always had to be selfless. For them, the idea of self-care was as foreign as walking on the moon. Even in her retirement, my grandmother was always buzzing about being busy. She had never known rest. Not in her lifetime.
She parented with love. But also with the inherited mentality that children were to be seen, not heard. And that Blackness was a deficit. But even in her most austere moments, I felt the piercing love of a Black grandmother who was trying to navigate what she was taught, and what she wanted to teach. Some lessons I’ve since unlearned. Some lessons I still carry and will pass on to my own children. Like the importance of having good manners. She would always tell me, “manners will take you through this world.” The value of honesty and integrity, even when no one is watching. And the lasting power of prayer.