By Je’Don Holloway-Talley
Here I stand again, before a congregation of loved ones reading aloud the life story of one of my mothers. I composed her obituary as though I were creating a memoir bathed in honey. I give my grandmother’s virtue the honor and respect she, my Gama, deserves: a proper farewell, an ode to her legacy, a lyrical mirage of love, the same as I did for our second mother, Nana. As I stand before my family, I see the immeasurable sense of loss in their eyes. A mirrored reflection of numbness is shared by each of us like a heavy cloak of grief. What do we do now that both our matriarch and cornerstone are gone?
On March 26, 2014, we lost our cornerstone, Nana, and on March 29, 2016, we lost our matriarch, Gama. In our home, Nana was the breadwinner, and Gama the homemaker. The two sisters were so deeply connected that one came back for the other at the second anniversary of her death. Some would call that poetry. Oddly, so do I. Nevertheless, here I stand. This time in my hometown, in my childhood church, before my family and its congregation, and I’m temporarily lost in a state of observation.
The first 10 rows, left, right, and center, seat my grandmother’s entire lineage: seven children and their spouses, 26 grandchildren and their spouses, and six great grandchildren. We are a village of brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, and cousins galore—all of us except one. There is one cousin missing, and it is not because he had a previous obligation. Well, perhaps he did. The young lad had a date with death that none of us saw coming. Three days prior to Gama’s departure, on March 25, 2016, my beloved cousin was murdered—one day before Nana’s anniversary. In this moment I come to the unnerving reality that this time next year my family will be grieving three death anniversaries in one week.
Blinking away tears at the sound of my eldest aunt’s soothing voice, I resume at the good and comforting part of the obituary, where I put into my family’s minds that our dearly departed loved ones are not dead due to absence from the body. They are simply multi-dimensional now and can travel in between all the realms of the galaxy. Some of my family members hitch their eyebrows up in confusion, as this is very much an Apostolic Pentecostal church and funeral. My perspective of life after death is bewildering to them, and I am certain they find me audacious. A few aunts and uncles purse their lips with wrinkled brows, already aware of my differing beliefs. My big brother and a few cousins smile, say “Amen,” and root me on because we’re all on the same spiritual plane. Other cousins chuckle because we all know what the entire church is thinking: “Je’Don is crazy, and she’s going straight to hell!” Here I stand—tattooed, pierced, and adorned in jewels. I speak boldly before the congregation, totally out of holiness dress code, and unashamed of my free spirituality. This moment is my emancipation from religion, and I revel in my liberty.
Thankfully, the funeral is now over, and I can continue my reclusive and introspective reflection. We are a grand parade or a prancing fleet, the fruit of my grandmother’s womb are escorting her to final rest. As we take the slow stroll down the aisle behind the pallbearers, I look into the many faces of the church family that I grew up with, and I see a world of wonder. They are unable to understand the spiritual freedom I’ve acquired in life’s cycle of evolution, yet it is only because of this virtue that I am not paralyzed by the velocity of these catastrophic losses. My understanding enables me to not feel abandoned by my family’s physical absence. Instead, I take stronghold of the truth—they are still with me.
Of my grandmother’s 26 grandchildren, seven of them belong to my mother. In fact, my mother is one of seven, and so is her mother. I am the second oldest of seven full blooded siblings—two boys, five girls—and it took the dynamics of a village to raise us. Quite simply, Mama was a wild child, in love with the fast life, fast money, and an even faster man. A natural born rebel, she never shied away from mischievous adventure or recreation and made less-than-perfect decisions in her early life.
But one thing my mother has always done is shield us from the woes of her choices and the wiles of her world. Our safety and well-being was always more important than her mother’s ego. Some women will string their children along with them on their downward spiral for fear of emptiness, abandonment, and self righteousness, but not my mama. We are not a brood of children estranged to love, provision, or security. We are privy to it, and expect nothing less from life. We call it The Village Effect.
I was fortunate enough to be born into a family that tends to their own flock. We do not leave one another to fend for themselves, nor do we leave our familial crises to be governed by public administrates. We are a family tree with deeply grounded roots. Our bonds are impenetrable, no matter the circumstances or poor choices. We pick each other up when we fall, and we fill in the gaps where there are spaces. We protect, we provide, we love, we survive, and it is the essence of these core values that our village is built upon.
Laughter and comedy is always our remedy. We are a village of funny comedians, and we make each other’s bellies ache with laughter. Our genetics are strong. We all share the same eyes and similar features and personalities. It’s hard to tell who are brothers and sisters or just cousins. And it’s even harder to determine mother and daughter from aunt and niece as our genes have the tendencies of a chameleon—we look like whomever we are standing next to.
Watching my aunts and mother mingle together, I realize I could not be one-third of the woman I am without each of them. Without the examples of wifehood and marriage provided by my aunts, I wouldn’t have known the proper things to look for in a husband, or how a queen runs her castle. Without my mother, I wouldn’t be the sassy, sexy-confident woman I am. My mother taught me the raw, unsullied truths of the world. Frankly, without my mother’s charms, I just wouldn’t be Je’Don! My uncles showed me the true definition of manhood, and because of them, I was able to recognize when a real man truly loved me. Without my cousins, life would have no color. We are closer than a picket fence, more like 26 brothers and sisters.
Helping cook and parent as the oldest girl of my mother’s seven children undoubtedly shaped me into the responsible overseer that I am. Our bond and dynamics as brothers and sisters is complex and indescribable, as the older siblings are part parent and part sibling. But without the infusion of our diversity, I would not be the person I am.
My mother’s mischief calmed long ago, and for the last 15 years she has fulfilled the duties of her role, as our rock and our fortress. I can’t say the same for our father. He is the most familiar stranger I know. He is always present, but his presence lacks power and significance, even here on this day. Despite that, I am proud to wear his name, as it is a deep tie that binds my siblings and me together. My half and whole siblings, together there are ten of us.
My mother’s youngest sister and oldest brother were two crucial links to my family’s kindred spirit. My dear uncle is indeed our family patriarch, and without his provision, Nana and Gama couldn’t have sustained our village. It is his watchmanship and servitude that created the structure. My dear aunt was the essence of youthful, sweet motherhood. She was always my stand-in mommy in our locomotion of life, as was her husband.
At the repast following the funeral surrounded by immediate and extended family and friends, I take a moment to take in the energy flowing around me. My chest cavity is heavy, but it is no longer full of grief. Instead, I am full of love. I can feel the pulse of my ancestors coursing through my veins, and the love that they instilled within each of us is oozing from our pores. It’s heavy in the air, and their legacy of resilience, humor, and love is thick like syrup and strong like rum. I want to remember this moment forever, and I want to be able to pull from the energy of this memory in later times of mourning.
The universe has a way of bringing your life full circle. Gama and Nana stayed with us long enough for everyone to evolve enough to live on without them. Watching the breathing, living pieces of my life move about around me, my life has spun a complete orbit. I am who I am because of each and every one of them and the hand of cards I was dealt. There’s only one thing left to do now: live life, explore culture, and unify people. I’ll spread a philosophy, and I’ll call it The Village Effect.