Never, until I die…that’s what Grandma Rainey Arrington said when I asked when she would retire. She said: “As long as I live and breathe, I will continue to teach. Teaching is my life, love, and lifeline.”
“Yes, I don’t know what or where I would be without my educational background. When I was a girl, I couldn’t attend school. Your grandfather never learned to read. I was fortunate to have an employer who taught me enough to do the shopping for the kitchen and cleaning supplies, probably because she didn’t want me to confuse baking soda and baking powder like the previous cook. I continued to get more information and learn more about European cuisine, and before anyone knew what I was doing, I wrote my first: Southern Country Cooking cookbook. After the first check arrived, I bought our family’s freedom. Freedom for sixteen people from Great, Great, Grandmother Wilson down to your father, anonymously. All of this was possible because of reading everything I got my hands on. It was before Dr. King had a dream before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat, and Malcolm was still alive. Never stop learning, darling. That is your golden ticket to everything in life.”
But you’re eighty?
“Choose your next words carefully. I hope old, frail, or that dinosaur word octogenarian isn’t about to drop from your brain and waltz across those pearly whites you don’t want to lose.”
Aren’t you tired of getting up early daily and dealing with ungrateful teenagers, unreasonable coworkers, and a rude principal? That is what I was thinking…but I smiled and just asked where she wanted to go for lunch. I knew she had just turned 89, but she still looked forty years young and got around better than some of her children and, on some days me. Who was I to assume she needed to slow down? She has outlived all her siblings, two of four husbands, and half of her thirteen children.
Her youngest daughter overheard our conversation, laughed at me, and told me that she had been trying to get Grandma to retire for ten years, but we were preaching to the choir. Aunt Buck explained: “I think Mom is afraid that if she slows down, death will catch up to her. After Gramps and husbands two and three were forced to retire, they died within a month.”
At her 90th birthday party…
Grandma declared she wasn’t going back to PS-57 again!
They told her she couldn’t teach knitting anymore during the school day…
Guys who wanted to learn to cook were interested in something other than knitting or crocheting. I believe the school district or board members panicked when two boys played with their knitting needles like swords, and one got poked in the eye. So, knitting needles were added to the banned weapons lists. That was when females could only take Home-Economics or Secretarial classes.
I asked Grandma what she planned to do….
That is when I realized how vital empowering women was to Grams. She said:
“I enjoy teaching! Those girls need a trade or call it a skill. I’m tired of seeing beautiful, articulate women only being able to get work as cooks, maids, nannies, or secretaries. YES, I teach all those skills and more. Maybe I teach what scares those in charge. I teach young people to be confident and how to speak their minds with assertive tones. I love seeing wallflowers bloom. They may have stopped me from teaching in a school setting, but no one can control what I do here at 1640 Riverside Court; I will teach anyone who wants to learn to Crochet or Knit anytime. I will only charge for the knitting needles, crochet hook, and four skeins of yarn. That’s enough yarn to hook the serious knitter or those who crochet or frustrate those struggling and wanting to give up.” My sister circle and I will welcome anyone who would love to embrace our love for yarn crafting. We will take them under our wings and share whatever they want help with, if only yarn, then just yarn. Some need refuge in times of turmoil but don’t have any place to turn or know how to seek help. I once needed help, and a good Samaritan helped me and only asked me to pay it forward once I could. My second husband was a hitter, and my grandmother used to say: ‘When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.”
You can know someone forever and never know everything. I knew Grandma as the crochet and knitting queen but didn’t know she had lived in slavery or had published a cookbook after she married her second husband. I never met Grandpa John or husbands two or three either. I knew she had taught Home Economics in the high school I attended; well, the school had been renamed, it was the same building and classroom, and I think it still had the same tables as desks from when she was a student; I swear I saw “Rainey was here” carved into the table I sat at from nine to eleven forty-five every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday morning for the first period during my Junior and Senior years. A dedication plaque on the back wall in the kitchen commemorated forty years of outstanding service in education.
Sitting next to her rocking chair, listening like the tape player, I drug around recording every lesson, hoping to become half as good as she was. When she passed on her 100th birthday peacefully, I was one of those frustrated ones that had given up on knitting. My cousin Lisa mastered knitting, and I do okay in crocheting but still can’t knit.
I have a newfound respect for Grandma because I now understand the two bedrooms in the basement that always had temporary occupants who never came to meals. My uncle nicknamed Grandma Harriet T.
This story should have preceded Back to Square One.