Deep in Rankin county, on a road that connects two small, predominantly white Mississippi towns, sits a red brick house that my great-great-grandfather built. It's quaint, with lush St. Augustine grass that sprawls across three acres. It's nothing special, except in the past two years, after our family unit dwindled from four to two, it has become mine.
My great-grandmother Lorraine, who everyone has called Nanny since well before I was born, passed away alone, as hospitals were under lockdown and coronavirus cases had reached what was thought to be an all-time high across the state. She died four months to the day of the funeral for her son, my grandfather Larry, who had passed away from complications of alcoholism and drug addiction in late winter of 2020, one month before the COVID-19 pandemic tore across the U.S. His death is just one of a million casualties of the military-industrial complex, and even though he'd spent nearly two decades stuck in the revolving door of rehab and intensive care units, my mother, his youngest daughter, and I weren't prepared for his departure.
Since I was 8 years old, I knew I would inherit Nanny's red brick home, built upon land my ancestors bought when the only way to own something was to find a piece white hands hadn't touched yet. I was the only one interested in this home she shared with her son and the lives of those who touched it—mosaic floors placed by her father, linen closet built by Uncle Walter, a room all locked away that was very much Larry, until I cleaned it out recently. Moving in felt like an undertaking, considering Nanny didn't believe in cable TV or the internet, and in her passing, I discovered quickly that I didn't know what it took to run a home, or even more, run my life.
Until I was a teenager, death to me was theoretical—like a long vacation someone didn't return from, but I was sure they were having a good time. I didn't question what Nanny's passing would mean as long as I had my own TV and a place to put all of my books. The reality was that and more: Two TVs, three bookshelves, clothes overflowing from two closets, and sleeping when and wherever I want. Nanny dying didn't mean her things went with her. It meant the things that are distinctly mine (laptop, electric kettle, adorable terrorist/Lily) and were distinctly hers (oyster shell ashtray, four steam irons, and an impressive collection of obituaries) had to find a way to coexist.
When I look back at my childhood, Nanny exists as one of three main supporting figures I had, a protagonist in a gritty film noir who definitely did not kill her husband, always with a cigarette perched between her lips. Some of the first stories I've ever written were done so in front of her TV, with her in the softened leather recliner, tendrils of smoke yellowing her French manicure which was always painted red. I wanted to imitate her, to keep a PineSol-clean home, to dress casket sharp and cut men down when they spoke out of turn. So, in the winter, I ruined relationships with men who adored me, and all spring, I would catch a whiff of Doral 100s while working in the garden.
Soon, instead of running or reading one of the hundreds of books I've thrifted, my plans for the week would change to ruminating, questioning, and emotionally regulating. Memories of Nanny clashed with my vision of an idyllic Southern home, and my grief threatened daily to burst from the windows over the lawn and into the half-dead lilac hydrangeas.
Nanny wasn't a soft woman; She was a hard worker, and she spent her years serving others, even as her memory began to fade and her size 12 frame gave way to one I could reach around with just one arm. She would rise before the sun most days and promptly begin to mop these floors before her coffee would finish brewing. Together, we would change her bedsheets at least three times a week. I can't remember seeing a single dish in her sink for longer than an hour, and often, I would be the one to wash it.
Nanny's generation, the Greatest Generation, and historically millions before and after her, were hustlers. She worked in her aunt's general store. She was a seamstress in a factory in New Orleans. She mopped floors at a nursing home, and even after retiring, she ironed clothes for a few extra bucks toward her weekly trips to the casino. As an almost 30-year-old millennial raised in a home with members from three distinct generations with such competing ideologies, often I must remind myself that my desires are valid. Nanny wanted me to marry a wealthy man. PawPaw wanted me to be the next Michelle Obama or Oprah Winfrey. My mom just wanted me to graduate college. All I want is to be debt-free and to enjoy my existence. So far, it's not looking great.
My family is filled with electricians and educators, and I feel guilty about not using my degree, something Nanny never received due to dropping out of high school in the 9th grade. I'm supposed to be my ancestor's wildest dreams (whatever that means), and instead, I shy away from staying committed to any one thing for too long. Since I was legally able to drive, I've always had a job, or multiple. I'm surrounded by hard workers and tradesmen. I was reared by two hustlers, and with only a quarter of their collective lived experiences, I decided mid-career that I would rest.
It was difficult to relent and tell myself to sit down somewhere. Grind culture was created to trick dreamers into believing that by owning an LLC, they will be catapulted to a class above the usual victims of capitalism—mostly poor, working-class Black and other people of color. This distinction is important, because the American dream was built in the image of Jack and Jill, not Larry and Lorraine. In taking the last 18 months to step away from my Gmail and Teams notifications, from "circling back" and dropping it into Slack, I opened myself up to a question I hadn't had time to consider: What kind of person am I when I am not being watched, compared or measured by the dollar? Who am I in this home?
I'm certain that as my great-great-grandfather, Nanny's father, watched as they laid the foundation, he didn't imagine he would have a descendant who felt so removed from the meaning of community and family, of hustle. The Spanish flu did come around during the time that he was starting his family, so perhaps he found his answers in buying up acreage and building homes that now house at least one hundred descendants, and a few hundred more are scattered across the South.
I live walking distance from a daycare, a barbershop, and a baseball field. A family stable and cow pastures. I come from a community that creates and gives without hesitation, and moving into Nanny's home put me in a position to question why, in my constant outpouring into systems that do not serve me, I continually doubt my place in one that was created just for me.
I wanted my first year in the house to look like the second act of a Hallmark Channel movie. I was supposed to be banging out walls with a sledgehammer and smearing paint all over some nondescript romantic lead's face. Instead, it's been like the episode of Euphoria where Zendaya's character is in the midst of a depressive episode and Rue lays in bed—clammy and almost jaundiced, rendered unable to move. Depression takes over, and she's now this hull of herself who hasn't bathed in days and has ignored her basic needs for so long that she's now suffering. In the end, her mother bathes her, scrubbing her back the same way I used to scrub Nanny's. Except now, I have to twist and angle to do it for myself. The water has gone cold. My joints ache. I'm late for work, and somewhere there is a dog waiting for her morning walk.
As a child, I ran out of Nanny's home as soon as the clock struck noon, learning quickly that Southern politeness dictated giving people a chance to get their affairs in order for the day before demanding access to their private spaces. I rode my bike in circles in the driveway, swung in the hammock with a book bought with quarters she gave me, and picked at scabs from mosquito bites under her porch.
It's sobering to be in a home that's half me and half her. I was excited to sort through cabinet knobs and bring in plants and colors, all things the house lacked, but after completing the first project, I was struck by a searing bolt of guilt. This house and her land were all Nanny had, and in whitewashing the fireplace and taking down her photos, I was losing her.
A cabinet closing reminds me of the Sunday I learned how to cook a pot roast because I didn't have pantyhose to wear to church. The toilet tank filling in the middle of the night sounds like the Thanksgiving she had her bathroom refinished, or the time I had chickenpox and slept ten days in the recliner so my mother could continue to work. There's a trick to unlocking the front door, and even as strong as I believe my 28-year-old self to be, I can't quite do it naturally like Nanny. I can stand on my front porch and holler out in all directions to no less than a dozen family members because here, in this home. Owning a home was a symbol of finally making it, relatively undamaged, to adulthood. Losing my great-grandmother and granddad brought me here. It feels shameless to celebrate that.
Of the millennial mutuals that I'm closest to, we're strapped for hopeful visions for our futures. We're not paid well enough to qualify for mortgage loans. Climate change makes the summer unbearable and winters a wild card. The dating pool is just a catfish swimming in a rusty bathtub, and the health care industry is so fucked that if we do find someone we want to spend this hot, broke, exploited existence with, having a child would put us in debt we'd be paying until that kid is old enough to drive. That's if the next war doesn't render the world unlivable. Somehow, even knowing this, I find myself repeating a cycle of hustling and finding roadblocks not dissimilar to those Nanny might have faced.
During a time when everyone seems to be bettering themselves in hopes of emerging from the pandemic enlightened with 8-pack abs and a perfect credit score, I consider myself privileged to have had the opportunity to embrace a slower, more intentional pace. My thighs still chafe in my jeans, my savings account is on its last dollar, and I don't think I've cried more in my life than in the last two years. But, at least I'm vaccinated.
Reconciling who I've been—the scholar, the artist, the lover—with who I want to be has been some of the hardest work I've done, made harder by the icy cloak of grief. I get dressed from a laundry basket on a dining table I haven't used, and I buy groceries for one. Nanny's pantry was stocked for two, and somehow even that feels desperate for me to model. I have barely touched another person in almost three years, not just in the way of intimacy, but of comfort and warmth— a handshake, a hug, a cuddle from a sticky-fingered toddler, or kisses that smell like White Diamonds from rouge-lipped church mothers.
This house granted me the privilege to spend more time on -ing: Thinking. Dancing. Praying. Crying. Dreaming. I've discovered that I actually do not enjoy organic chemistry, or writing about the pitfalls of the juvenile justice system, or the process of building a persona every morning crafted for who I may see that day. My friends believe I want to be the next Issa Rae. My mother thinks I'm going for a Pulitzer. My former boss would say I'm on the way to becoming a pediatrician.
The truth of it all, I've decided, doesn't matter. I feel lost most days, but when I have a moment of clarity, it is beyond startling, like the obvious answer to the Final Jeopardy question of the day. But I am not Amy, and there is no theoretical quiz master holding the cards. It's just me and a dog I adopted one month into a pandemic we all believed would be over in 14 quarantine days. I ran from my past and the history I created in this house, and now I sit, with barely any visitors to have crossed the threshold, in the same bed that my grandmother slept some of her last nights in.
The pandemic has collected character studies of the people I've been for the last 28 years and put them through the shredder. I hate the green wall I painted. I'm heartbroken when the landscaper clips the lilies that Nanny planted seasons ago. I have progressed past lying about enjoying this existence, and instead have named the pain that sears behind my eyes and learned to be honest about how lonely this all feels. I don't want another conversation about the physicality of life (weight, beauty, presence, visibility), but of my worth beyond what I can be exploited for (warmth, honesty, joyful spirit). I've learned, however marketable Instagram tries to make the rush and the search for the perfect, most realized me, that I do exist first inside myself. The house was just a bonus.
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