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  • Howard Madison

Mae and the Life Nomadic

One of the last times that my grandmother sat at my mother’s dining room table, I asked her a question that had been on my mind for a while.


“What kind of music did you listen to when you were a teenager?”


She seemed to struggle with the question for a moment until I selfishly threw out Chuck Berry as an option to jog her memory. I was just starting to get back into listening to a lot of Chuck Berry and I wanted her to have listened to Chuck Berry as well.


“Yeah. I listened to Chuck Berry.”


“Okay. Anything else?”


She thought about it and hesitated for another moment. Then she explained that she would listen to the music being played at gatherings at the local town hall and other revivals. They sounded more like homecoming dances that were chaperoned by my great-grandmother and were attended by all the youth and elders in that small Arkansas town. At least that’s how I pictured it in my mind as she paused with a slight smile on her face.


In that silence, my mind wandered. I envisioned a wooden structure in the middle of nowhere with hard-tiled floors and streamers, where the men and women stood on either side of the room. I envisioned my grandmother snapping her fingers and patting her feet to the song Rocket 88 by Ike Turner and laughing as she tried to drag her friends out to the dance floor. She drank sweet tea, ate plates full of food with her hands, and argued with her sisters over the smallest things that siblings argue over. Fanning herself with a paper fan and leaning against the wall, she was a teenager on the cusp of the rest of her life.


I was going over the next question I was going to ask her in my head when she suddenly told me a story about how she and her family were going from different family members’ houses to stay until they got on their feet. The reason why they were looking for lodging was patchy, but I knew that this wasn’t an unusual event for my family in those times. In fact, by the time she was telling me this story, I didn’t even feel the need to ask why. I just kind of knew I suppose. She remarked how she was carrying around my uncle, who was a couple of months old at the time, on this journey. When the husband of the household that they landed on would kick them out shortly after, my grandmother took hold of my uncle and looked for a home elsewhere, but not before taking back the shoes that she had bought for her nephew, the son of the man. I pictured my grandmother wearing a light-colored linen dress, a loosely tied bandana, and flat soled shoes on this journey with a child cradled evenly in her arms. She walked into the fog of the unknown with her head held high and gritted her teeth as she continued into her life. She took to the nomadic life with an unspoken agreement and walked ahead.


I thought about the years she worked putting together television sets a couple of towns over in a factory. With children at home, she ventured out to lay as stable of a foundation as she could. Carpooling with other women from the same side of town and going into this part of life and returning at the end of her shift was nothing new. Packing her lunch and herself on a necessary journey for so long was in her bones already. In the passenger seat, staring out the window as the conversations and laughter ensued around her, her mind wandered out into the distance.


I thought about my grandmother making the trips from Arkansas to Chicago every other summer to avoid the overly humid summers of the South. Briefly packing up her life, venturing north, and settling in for a while was already in her bones and it showed by the time I noticed. She adjusted her seat slightly back and looked forward to the welcome that awaited her on the other side of this anywhere.


It wasn’t until she passed away a couple of years ago that I realized how stationary I thought her life was. That was the underlying narrative that I gave to her in my mind. To me, this was someone who never flew on a plane, never traveled out of the country, and, as she got older, never really expressed a desire to do so. She was tied to her small town and her ways in a manner that I couldn’t really fathom coming from a big city with a head full of ideas like mine. She was tied to her home in a way that a would-be wanderer like myself could not really understand. As much as I loved her, I didn’t see the other parts of my grandmother that had been traveling for so long and just wanted to rest comfortably. The gears had always been turning for her and the best part of home was that it never required that much work at the end of the day. Home is where you really feel at home.


I hate to do this but, let me briefly become one of those people that talk about their dreams. About two years ago, I had a dream that I had lost most of my possessions, save for my car, and was stranded somewhere that I didn’t recognize. As the fog cleared around me, I realized that I was in the driveway of my grandmother’s house. Knowing where I was, I told myself that I would take a quick breather in the house, get myself together, and get back on the road with my head held high. My body and my spirit yearned for the couch in the dining room that was no longer there. I would even take the non-reclining rocking chair in the living room that the older folks sat in at family gatherings, if only to rest my mind for a second. I knew even in this dream that my grandmother was no longer with us and the weight of that bore down on me appropriately.


It wasn’t just the fact that I would no longer hear her removing the wooden 2x4 from under the door knob before she unlocked the door again. It wasn’t just that I would no longer see her peeking her head out of the door cautiously, even though she probably looked out the window first to see who was on the other side. It was a host of other things. I knew that I could no longer ask her what her favorite music was as a teenager while projecting my own hopes on the answer. I could no longer ask her about growing up in the South during the Depression, Jim Crow, the Civil Rights Movement and what those things meant to her. I couldn’t ask her exactly how she made her peach cobbler and why she loved to make it so much. I couldn’t ask her how tired she was on her journey and how she was able to keep going for so long.


As I searched under the doormat for a key, the door opened and my heart raced as I looked up. There stood my grandmother, Lula Mae, decked out in a bright pastel outfit, some white loafers, and freshly pressed hair. She held her arms out to me and I started crying deeply as I hugged her. I was so tired and I didn’t realize it. She patted me on my back and let me know that everything was going to be okay without saying anything. I took a moment to look at her and saw her smile. It was the same smile that she had sitting at the dining room table those many years ago.


Lula Mae had lived the life of a nomad. She packed her things up and took what she needed with her. Yes, there are still unanswered questions that linger for me. But, in that moment, I understood why she smiled and I got an answer to another question that I had not thought to ask.


“Where are you, Lula Mae?”


She answered this one clearly and without hesitation.


“I’m home”.

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