The following personal essay was written by Harlem native Ayaana Marie, a storyteller and photographer currently based in DC. “Bag Lady” is published in part in MelaNation’s third issue, “we are family.” The full story is published below. Explore a moving account of love, mental illness, strength, vulnerability, and Ayaana’s relationship with her grandmother.
Bag Lady, by Ayaana Marie
My grandmother was my father. My grandmother came to parent-teacher conferences alongside my mother. She was there when we went apple picking and to the petting zoo. My grandmother was at every ice-skating show and every major assembly, there for the play in which I had only two lines, and there especially when my working mother couldn’t be.
My grandmother would still pick me up when I was five and my mother said I was too big. She never did mind carrying heavy things. She had to sneak out of me and my mother’s one-bedroom apartment so that I would not cry, up until I was nine. I wanted to be by her side as often as possible.
One of my favorite memories is driving to Virginia on a family road trip to Kings Dominion Amusement Park. I wonder if I really remember the trip at all or if memories are manipulated over time. I must have been four; back then I was still the baby in a family of just mothers and daughters. There was my grandmother and her twin sister. My grandmother has one daughter. Her sister has two. And they have one granddaughter each.
We drove some three hundred miles in a minivan from Harlem, where most of us lived then. My mother, the only driver, sat in the front with one of her cousins, doesn’t matter which. The other sat mid row with her mother. But Grandma always sat in the back with us kids. My cousin Zaire is three years older than me. With her and my grandmother, being an only child was not too lonely.
In the park while all the adults went on big roller coasters (that I would’ve scaled if I could) my grandmother stayed behind to take Zaire and me on kiddie rides. We drove bumper cars that Grandma must have been too big for, and took pictures with oversized Rugrats. My grandmother ran with us in our bright flowered colored bathing suits under artificial rain.
She did not care for roller coasters, but she would have stayed with her babies anyway. My grandmother never made a complaint – no be quiets, or maybe laters, or even I’m sorrys – there didn’t need to be. She always knew how to make us laugh. She must have taught my mother. She certainly taught me.
My grandmother is a gut-wrenching comedy. She is a classic: heartwarming but maybe so graphic you start to bite at your lips or fidget in your seat. She ain’t no predictable romance. My grandmother is a freedom fighter. My grandmother was an orphan. My grandmother was a single mother. My grandmother got raped in front of her child in Harlem once. She carries it all like luggage. My grandmother is a survivor.
Although they are undeniably beautiful the women in my family do not act pretty. They are aggressive. They rarely wear makeup. They are abnormally tall or abnormally hairy and do not hide it. You will get cussed out by any one of them if you deserve it. They call attention. Sometimes they demand it.
I was on the subway with my grandmother the first time I caught a glimpse of my own power. It must have been a number 3 train – I remember worn down seats that were orange and yellow, and not enough bodies around me for it to be the number 2. I sunk my twelve-year-old self into a yellow seat, with her bags at my side, while my grandmother stood and preached about violence against black folk.
She screamed her rage about the murder of Sean Bell. This was the day the cop who murdered him did not receive indictment. She threw up her hands in disgust about the displacement of poor families in a gentrifying Harlem. “Hands off Harlem!” she said on the train that day, the way she would later in the streets. “We have to fight for our own lives! Murder! Murder! Murder!”
I pleaded for her attention. I wanted to tell her that she should lower her voice. If I could have told the people on the train I was not with her I would have, but you can tell I belong to her just by looking at our faces. They looked up at her in either amusement or terror, but they all paid attention.
One white man looked down at her in disapproval as he stood up to tell my grandmother, “Shut the fuck up! Shut the fuck up, bitch.”
“You fucking cracker! How dare you!” is all I can remember her saying before I started to cry.
The next thing I knew they were in each other’s faces and no one intervened.
“Hit me, I dare you!” she said, and by this point I was screaming. “Hit me so your cracker ass can get locked up!”
He got too close, and she slapped him across the face. Then some people jumped up to protect her. Someone called the police, and I thought they would arrest her. But they let us on our way.
I wish I were the one to jump up for my grandmother. I was stuck staring, scared like the passengers and angry like the white man that my grandmother raised her voice to speak her mind.
Mania is what they call it, one pole to her bipolar disorder. There is not a woman in my family who is not affected by mental illness. Our mania, our depression, our anxiety, our suicidal thoughts – they all look like fear of the unknown, fear of life, fear of self. But all I know of these women is strength and resilience. To say my grandmother in the same sentence as “fear” somehow seems like oxymoron.
My grandmother is Carefree Black Girl. My grandmother is a canon-ball-style splash into the pool even though you cannot swim. My grandmother is “I’m cutting all my hair off again,” just cause. My grandmother is “Yaya, Grandma loves you!” as I walk across the stage at my eighth grade graduation, in my all white school, even though they asked everyone to hold applause until the end.
Just last year, she came to visit me at Howard the day before the twentieth anniversary of the Million Man March. She was at the original, she was at the Million Women’s March with my mother, and she was at the ten-year anniversary with me. Together again in Washington, ten years later, we attended a panel of students and faculty to discuss the relevance of a 2016 march.
They took comments from the audience. Again, when she spoke, all eyes were fixed to her. Still again, she preached a history of Black-American devastation and abuse. Unlike on the 3 train, everyone in this room looked up in awe and gratitude.
I wish I could tell you exactly what she said to spellbind them, but she had sent me back to my room to collect the photos of American lynchings that accompany her lesson. You really never know what you might find in one of her bags.
When I returned twenty minutes later, she was still speaking. The student body president soon stood up to offer her his seat at the center of the panel. She accepted. They gave her a standing ovation when she was finished teaching.
Afterwards, her fellow panelist and my world-renowned professor of Africana studies, Dr. Greg Carr says to me, “That’s your grandmother? Wow.”
She only has her GED.
“Yes, that’s my grandmother. Wow.”
My grandmother is candied-yams with pineapples and marshmallows – so sugary sweet it is hard to put down the fork. She is the Temptations spinning in sync, never missing a beat. My grandmother still appreciates a “fine young brother” without a shirt. My grandmother would take the shirt off her back for you. My grandmother would never be naked in the street like me, although she’d never shame me for it. My grandmother loves God. My grandmother loves you regardless of what or whom you love. My grandmother loves me more than anyone I know.
I remember she would tell me the story of living with her great-aunt after her mother was committed to the psychiatric ward. Their aunt abused her and her sister. She would leave them with no food, and beat them whenever she had an excuse. Once she even purposely burned the back of my grandmother’s head with the hot comb while pressing her naps. She still has the shiny-smooth scar, a bald spot where hair won’t grow.
They ran away, left to raise each other, living in group homes. My grandmother learned early to pack up your things and run. Even today she goes about her business always carrying at least three bags, while she only weighs some one hundred and fifteen pounds.
Her fear is not of living, it is of not being prepared. Her fear is being out in the world without something she might need. She never learned to pull out just what she needs so my grandmother carries everything.
My grandmother does not listen to me when I tell her she is my everything. On Mother’s Day, 2012 I made her breakfast: scrambled eggs, turkey bacon, toast, and milk and sugar with a little coffee. She did not eat very much. She was shaking a bit and quite smaller than I know her to be. She looked frail and wrinkly, pale, mostly worried.
“This is for me?” She said as if she did not deserve it.
“Of course it’s for you. Happy Mother’s Day!”
“Oh, Yaya. Oh Yaya, thank you.” Her lips started to quiver but she tried her best to eat.
“What’s wrong, Grandma?”
“I just feel so alone. I don’t have any friends and no one wants to be around me. Nobody loves me.”
“What are you talking about Grandma? I love you, we all love you!”
“Yeah. But now I’m getting old. Barbara’s gone and Aunt Baby. I don’t have any real friends anymore.”
“What do you want to do today? We can go anywhere you want.”
“No. No. I can’t go outside today. I can’t let anybody see me like this. I’m all skinny and my clothes don’t fit. I don’t want anybody to see me like this.”
I sat closer to her on my bed, in that bedroom my mother had said looked like a welfare motel. It was ugly off-white and small and we never changed the dirty blinds to curtains. I hugged my grandmother like she was a child while she repeated the same things over and over.
Like how she doesn’t amount to anything and how no one really loves her, about how she never did anything, and how she is alone. I watched as tears fell into her eggs and spit trailed as she bit her toast. I never forget watching her tears fall into those eggs.
It is hardest to see my grandmother look so broken. At least when she is manic she still has her fire, but when she is depressed it feels like she forgets herself entirely. She asks for permission to take up space and she dulls herself down. “Of course your life is worth something,” I want to tell her. “If anything, Grandma, look at your daughter. Look at me.”
I am so afraid I will end up like her, forgetting who I am even as I stare myself in the face.
My grandmother is, always remember who and what you come from; always remember what you are made of. My grandmother is, always speak up and speak truth; stand up for what you believe in and do not let anyone tell you who you are. My grandmother is so me.
My high school teachers would always tell me that I have so much “potential.” I have since come to hate that word. I associate it more with who I am not rather than who I could be. I see it too, though. On the surface, I am quick and sharp and I cut deep every time. Except on days when I feel blunt. Except on days when I think no one loves me.
It is hard on days that I cannot go outside because I am ugly or worried that my clothes don’t fit. I have gone weeks barely eating; it is hard to swallow food when you would rather cry and sleep. I have slept for over sixteen hours on many occasions. Stayed in bed for two days, in my room for two weeks. I learned to weigh myself down with old, stale air before I ever considered letting out my breath. I am only some one hundred and fifteen pounds. What if I end up carrying three bags whenever I leave the house, just to be miserable wherever I’m going?
— written by Ayaana Marie
See more of Ayaana’s work on Instagram, @radarsisbuzzin_