TESTIMONY: AIESHA TURMAN
Aiesha was born and raised in Albany, New York. The married mother of one daughter was close to her maternal grandmother Rebekah Louise Middleton (August 25, 1909/1911-) aka Nana. Rebekah was born in Jacksonville, Florida to Ida and Frank Gardner. She was “the glue” that held her family together. Aiesha explained, “You know how we have like you know BC and AD. It was like before Nana, while Nana was here, and after Nana. My family dynamics have completely changed once my grandmother passed because she was the glue that held everything together. Like we would be there for Thanksgiving. I mean she kept people in check too like that kind of thing, she kept people in check and there was no matriarchal presence that was able to do that after she passed away.”
Aiesha most associates love with her grandmother. “She not only loved me, she took care of me, she took care of people, she took care of the community. She just loved me. Just like I just I feel love when I even think about her. She was just so wonderful. I mean whatever you think of when you think of grandmother she was it. So, from the cooking, to the discipline, to the putting starch in your underwear because she was born so long ago that she had these habits—its just love.” I imagine it is that love that was the key ingredient to keeping her family connected around ritual and focused on what mattered most—each other.
Rebekah’s love ethos was obvious in the time she made for her granddaughter. Aiesha relished spending time with her Nana. During her visits to them when her mother was in college Rebekah would fry them chicken. Aiesha attended church with her grandmother and spent time putting “her hair in rollers for her at night. Or if we were just in the house and she would let me put her hair in two really long braids.” She loved learning about what life was like for her grandmother as she came of age in Jacksonville, Florida. Aiesha remembered the moment she learned that her grandfather wasn’t her grandmother’s first husband, “I was like, “What? She was like, “Yeah I left him. I left him.”
When Aiesha said that Rebekah’s love extended beyond the home front to encompass the community, she wasn’t exaggerating. “When I was like three and four she would go once a week, there was this community center in Albany called Auburn Hills Community Center and I think it was like on a Tuesday or Wednesday she would go cook lunch for the folks that were there. And it was you know elders and while she would be cooking I would hang out with them and play checkers that she taught me how to play because she was like a good checker player. She was like, “I will blow your man.” I’m like, “I am little what are you doing? Stop your winning!” Aiesha recalled being “a novelty to the elders because I could read and I was so little. I would read them the large print Reader’s Digest. So, she would be in the kitchen cooking and I would be in the front hanging out with the other elders, just reading, playing games and having a good time.”
Rebekah survived the Depression and Jim Crow segregation. Because of the former, reuse was important to her. “She was recycling before the word was invented.” One of the things that she recycled was a treasure to her granddaughter’s burgeoning creativity. “Because I liked to draw and write she would save you know back in the day stockings would have those white cardboards in them They were rectangle shaped, but they had like oval edges. She would save those for me and she had a drawer full. So, like if she was ironing because I would always be up under her because that was my job and she would be ironing or doing whatever she was doing and she would give me pencils and pens so I could write stories and draw.” “She came through the Depression. She migrated north. She met my grandfather. So, she worked. She worked at New York General Electric my mom actually has her work ID. It’s a button with her picture on it, General Electric and her employee number. She worked in the factories during World War II so it’s just yeah you know?”
Because of the latter [Jim Crow segregation], Aiesha says, “I see a woman that did what she needed to do. …. her name was spelled, R-E-B E-K-A-H. When she was at school and when she being taught by white people they were like, ‘No, you can’t spell your name like that.’ So, on the school records, they changed it to the double “C.” “She owned her own house, like she owned her own house, like her mortgage was like five dollars a month I was like, “What?” But she owned her own house a long time ago and she was like [to ex-husband], “I’m done. I’m leaving you. Peace out. It’s over.” And moved across the river like that’s the story, she moved across the river and came to New York State with her sisters, her sisters and cousins.”
“So, for her to like not have an “education” past the eighth grade she was able to manage her household. She actually went to the Sandy Farmer School of Beauty. She was a caterer. She started her own business. Like there is so much, there is so much about my Nana … She did the hair of all of the wives of all of the prominent black preachers in Albany so she did their hair. So, she did that. They would come and get their hair done by Rebekah…. So, when my mom was in school my grandmother went to school one night a week and my grandmother got her the diploma like she got her diploma. She was born in 1909. So, this is the 60s she goes and gets her diploma. She was a caterer. She did hair. She was an amazing.”
Rebekah prioritized her family and community, her own growth and development, and her relationship with God. She shared this with others too. “Her father used to go around and travel and set up AME churches throughout the South. So, that’s my religious background as being African Methodist Episcopal because that’s what hers was and that’s what we did. So, was my grandfather’s. She had a deep spirituality, but she was very rooted in the spiritual world outside of church. So, people could come to see her for other things. My mother has plenty of stories about hiding under the kitchen table and listening when people who would come consult with my grandmother. So, she knew all about the roots as my grandfather used say.”
Using her senses, Aiesha most associates the following with her grandmother:
Smell: She used to wear this scented face powder that she used to buy from Woolworth. Oh my goodness. So, it was like this blue shiny circular like box almost and you took the top off and then you had to take like the cellophane thing off the top and then it had the powder puff in it and it had a scent to it. So, if I smell it and I have smelled it randomly it comes floating back, that’s the scent. Because she wasn’t a perfume wearer or anything like that, it was that scented face powder. Taste: Potato salad. She made the best potato salad ever. There is even a story about one time I was less than a year old and she had me propped up on the kitchen table while she was making potato salad and the next thing you know I was inside of that potato salad. My mother loves to remind me of that all the time. She used the Hellman’s mayonnaise, that relish, that paprika, like I can taste it right now. Touch: The touch, like soft, very soft hugs. Like she was soft. Like I mean she was an imposing woman, but when it came to us the hugs, the kisses, just soft, just soft and loving. Sound: Humming, she would hum as she cooked or as she was ironing. Whenever she was doing something that needed her focus she would hum. Of course, they were like Negro spirituals, but she would hum. Sight: The color yellow. It was her favorite color and I didn’t know this as a child. But to think about it now, I am like the kitchen was yellow, like all these things in the house were yellow. My mom told me, “you know your Nana’s favorite color was yellow” and I was like, “oh, I didn’t know that.” Because I have this yellow scarf and I went and purposely bought a yellow scarf and I am not a yellow wearing person and I was like, “I really need this yellow scarf” and I said, “It just makes me feel so good.” And she was like, “ You know that’s your Nana’s favorite color?” So, yellow.
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