What You Lose When A Generation Dies

US National Archives
US National Archives

When I was 10, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day became the day my grandma died. Never mind that the date moves around every year like Thanksgiving; that doesn’t matter because all I remember thinking that morning, when my mother told me that her mother had passed on, was: “Wow, it’s really convenient that I’m already home from school.” Because of that, today is the 16th anniversary of my grandma’s death — even though in cold hard truth it was actually sometime last week.

My grandpa’s would-be 99th birthday was last week, too; in fact, my grandma died the day after my grandpa’s 83rd birthday. I didn’t know that at the time, all those years ago; I just learned this information last week and it made me feel very bad for my grandpa, even though he’s been dead six years already. That is some kind of birthday present.

The person I felt most bad for during those years was my mom, because she lost both of her parents within a quickly-drawn 10-year window. I did not — still do not — want to lose my parents and so I empathized with her, before I knew what that word meant. I didn’t feel my own loss, though. In fact, I was upset about missing school to attend my grandma’s funeral because my class was staging a trial that day. The case involved a zine that a group of my girlfriends had produced and sold to the fifth grade. The boys in the class copied the idea, selling their zine for cheaper. Did they have a right to do that? That’s what the trial was about. It felt important that I be there, for team morale, but going to my grandma’s funeral was more important and anyway, the funeral turned out to be fun — though not for everyone, I’m sure.

When you don’t know your grandparents very well, it’s hard to decide what you’ve inherited from them. My grandpa was born in Florida, my grandma on a Panamanian army base. They were both very old by the time I met them. They liked to watch Baywatch, or at least my grandfather did. He was an artist, she was a seamstress — among other things. They owned a painted-red house in Crown Heights, where I lived for a little while after my grandma had a stroke. They both had the skin color of a people who’d spent their lives in the sun, generations of heat and burning, their faces like a twinset of golden-brown raisins. I did not inherit that from them, though according to the one-drop rule I definitely inherited some of their blackness. It just doesn’t show outright.

My grandparents weren’t always old, you know, they were sort-of young when Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. I don’t know what that was like for them because I never thought to ask. I had the opportunity to inquire once my grandma died and my grandfather moved in with us fulltime, but did I have the right to do that? I always felt overwhelmed by his age, like his lifetime was so prolific that it required me to reject it, or at least use my discretion around it, his years a fragile celebrity and me, the overwhelming fan. He lived to see both World Wars, the Holocaust, the internet, the Civil Rights movement, Vietnam, 9/11, Korea, the 19th amendment, the Cold War, assassination after assassination, Pearl Harbor, Afghanistan, Iraq, Roe v. Wade and Brown v. The Board of Education. He missed the Titanic sinking by just two years, a 1914 baby who’d just missed the boat. So where would I begin to ask questions? It seemed silly to start, and besides, he wasn’t shy to talk — he just never brought any of these things up, and there had to be a reason, and I was afraid to know what it was.

Today, besides being my grandma’s death anniversary and Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, was also the second inauguration of America’s first black president, at least according to the one-drop rule. And it’s the first time I’ve ever asked myself: was it really just my mom’s loss sixteen, six years ago when she lost her parents? Was it also my grandma’s loss, missing out on a day she probably never imagined would come for this country? Was it my grandpa’s loss, coming so close to witnessing one of the most significant presidential elections in history, dying just two years shy of it — always two years off the mark, so close it tastes like something tangible — when he’d been made to watch the whole bloody struggle that made days like today possible? Or is it me, who will never really know the answers to the questions I’m posing, who doesn’t know the answers not because of a lack of resource but because of a lack of courage, a fear of connection? My guess is it’s all of us, that this is my inheritance. TC mark

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