My Grandmother Had Two Birthdays

“That in so many ways all our lives are entangled with the past — its manipulations and, fearful of its grasp, ignoring or dismissing or distorting it to suit ourselves, but always unable to erase it. When finally I understood the nature of a haunting — how it is both what we yearn for and what we fear, I was able to see the traces of a ghostly presence, the residue of a repressed past in certain concrete but also allusive detail. Footprints particularly. That disappear and return only to disappear again.” ~ Toni Morrison, The Source of Self- Regard

My grandmother had two birthdays.

When I found out my nine year old brain couldn’t wrap my head around it. Was she secretly a twin? A time traveler? Could she split herself in two?

January 19th was the date I’ve always known. It was serendipitous because my father also shared this date as his day of birth. If you let my mother tell it, she knew “it was meant to be” when the guy she’d been crushing on told her that he had the same birthday as her mom. January 19th was a day of much celebration in my home. Though true to their nature, neither my father nor grandmother ever wanted a fuss made over them about their birthdays. During any celebration, my father would sit in the corner alone playing card games while my grandmother sat quietly in the kitchen, smiling politely, as we made noise all around her. We’d laugh way too loudly, sharing memories of the past year, spooning out dishes of her favorite dessert — pound cake with vanilla ice cream. Both would say their birthday was no big deal but my grandmother always wore a gold necklace with a round pendant that said ‘Capricorn’ on it.

Once I discovered that my father and my mother’s mother shared the same birthday, I began to look for similarities between the two. Both were born down south. Both loved my mama. Both were amazing cooks. They both were so easy for me to talk to and both were my best friends. In private spaces, we laughed and joked and would have a good time but both were shockingly quiet in public. Both were meticulous to detail. This was most evident in my grandmother’s home.

When she was twenty years old, my grandmother married and moved from her small town in Georgia with her new husband to Newark, New Jersey. They moved into public housing, which would later be known as the housing projects. This term meant nothing to me as my grandmother’s apartment was filled with treasure. Her home was “as clean as the board of health” my mother would say. To this day, the smell of bleach and mothballs are comforting and familiar scents. All of my grandmother’s furniture was covered in plastic and I don’t remember a time we actually sat on the couches. They were purely for decor and we all knew it. All congregations happened in the kitchen. It was better in there, anyway. Warmer, full of light, and it seemed she always had a plate of fried chicken ready for you.

The pièce de résistance of my grandmother’s home was her cable TV. I would beg my mother to spend the night so I could have the treat of watching Nickelodeon like the other kids in my class. If she could decipher the truth of my covert intentions, she didn’t let on. She allowed me to go and my grandmother would pampered me like a queen. After bathing, my grandmother would take out this special bin where she kept this fine, delicately scented powder that she applied with a huge soft puff. “Arms out”, she’d say and then proceeded to pat me down. I felt luxurious. If this was an impromptu visit, she’d let me wear one of her old silky nightgowns that was much too big, but I didn’t care. I loved feeling so grown up. Sometimes I’d say I forgot my pajamas on purpose just so I could sneak and put on one of hers. As a special treat, my grandmother would let me apply a spritz of perfume to my wrists. “Just one spray!” she’d say. I was scrupulous about my selection. Eyes and nose level with the large wooden dresser, I’d examine each bottle’s color, shape, and size for a hint of the fragrance that might be inside. After several minutes, I’d point to one and wait as the reward of my careful consideration filled my nostrils. Then came the moment, I’d be waiting for - cable TV! I got to crawl into her huge bed and watch Are You Afraid of The Dark until I fell asleep.

I loved spending time with my grandmother and went to visit her often. My grandmother’s meticulous Capricorn nature was never more apparent than when she was food shopping. We always went to the same Pathmark in the Ironbound section of Newark (nicknamed Down Neck), yet it was as if she entered the store for the very first time each week. Whichever one of us in my family had the honor of accompanying her on this trip, braced themselves for at least a two hour adventure. My grandmother would walk up and down each aisle, staring at the product and the price and back to the product and the price again. Oftentimes, her cart would be preventing other customers from passing by and I’d mouth a silent “sorry” as I would embarrassingly move the cart to the side out of their way, unbeknownst to my grandmother who would still be surveying two cans of corn, knowing full well, she always picks the Green Giant Mexicorn brand. Going food shopping with grandma was a test of our love for her and we proved it by trailing along behind her in that store as she went up … and down…. and up…. and down each lane, including the pet aisle! My grandmother had no pets. Stomach growling and weary, my cousins and I would emerge from the shopping trip victorious! We survived another one. We’d often joke that when we were all grown up and found a potential mate, we’d put them through the “shopping trip test” to see if they were truly worthy of being added to the family.

It was during one of these grocery trips that I discovered my grandmother’s second birthday.

Grandma was at the grocery store pharmacy picking up a prescription. My grandmother took way too much medication. Plastic orange vials lined the kitchen counter in her home as she just took whatever the doctor prescribed her without question. Later in my life, I’d be sure that’s what contributed to her death but today I was nine years old and didn’t know I’d ever exist in a time without her. We were picking up a new medication or refilling an old one, I’m not sure which. I was staring at some cheap kid’s toy near the register wondering how I could convince her to buy it for me, when my thoughts were interrupted by the pharmacy assistant’s voice. The young woman asked my grandmother to verify her information so that she could retrieve the prescription.

“Name please.”

“Virginia Mitchell.”

“Date of birth?”

“January 9th”

I looked up at my grandmother in shock. Did my ears play tricks on me?

“Grandma, she asked for your birthday”, I said.

“Yes. January 9th.”

“But, Grandma your birthday is January 19th!”

It was then that my grandmother hit me on the arm in a way that let me know I’d better stop talking right now. I stood there hurt and confused, knowing I was right. I had heard the story of how my father and grandmother shared a birthday enough to know that date instantaneously. There’s no way I could have had it wrong … or could I? I wasn’t sure any more.

We left the pharmacy in a rush, as Grandma hurriedly pushed the cart out the door. We finished the rest of the trip in silence. Later, while we were riding back home, I asked her why she told the lady at the pharmacy the wrong date for her birthday.

My grandmother sighed. She explained that growing up in Cuthbert, Georgia, Black people were not allowed to be birthed in hospitals. Therefore, they were not issued birth certificates. Instead, the new mothers would write their children’s names and dates of birth in a bible. Later when the women were well enough and had time, they would go down to the courthouse to register their child’s birth to obtain all the proper documents. The white courthouse attendant was either lazy or purposefully inattentive or both. The forms often had errors that Black people weren’t allowed to dispute. In my grandmother’s case, they registered her birthday as January 9th instead of January 19th. My grandmother and her family knew her proper birthday but for the rest of her life, whenever filling out paperwork she had to write down a day she knew she wasn’t born because she wasn’t afforded the right as a Black person in America to contradict the word of a white person.

I listened to this story in awe. I just couldn’t understand why she never corrected the forms and had her birthday changed. I was a child and the truth was a big deal to me. I didn’t know yet about history and how it really is just a story. Who tells your story is far more important than the actual events that happened. Despite the manipulation of the past and what was written in the legal books, the truth still remained unheard. Our family celebrated the truth. It was never forgotten, yet in moments like what happened at the pharmacy, there always lingered a constant haunting of this attempt at erasure.

Coincidentally, on January 19th, twenty six years after my grandmother was born, a woman named Beatrice Lang would go to a hospital in Gainesville, Florida in labor with her third child. The hospital would turn her away saying they didn’t birth Black babies. She was told that she was not allowed to have a room but she was more than welcome to give birth on the hallway floor. This woman refused and went back to the house where they called on the town’s Black doctor. The doctor delivered a baby boy but cut the umbilical cord incorrectly which resulted in the newborn having a hernia. The child would grow up with health conditions resulting from this error and require a surgery when he was older. This child was my father. My father was not allowed to be born in a hospital in this country because he was Black. My father is only 67 years old.

These were the stories of my childhood. On visits to my grandparents, I would tell them about school and show off my fancy straight A report card. They would look at it with pride and tell me stories about how they were never able to attend school in the ways I did. None of my grandparents finished high school. My grandfather only had a third grade education. They would say with dignity and sadness how they left the south, the life they knew, and their parents behind, to come north so that their children and their children’s children could experience educational moments like this. The stories of my grandparents shaped so much of who I was as a student. The privilege I was afforded due to their sacrifice was never lost on me. I packed these lessons in my pocket and I took them with me as I moved up through the grades.

The key moments of learning in my life happened long before the essence of my life existed. Whatever lessons I learned in school are infinitely less important than any of the lessons I’ve learned at home. I am full of the stories of my family and they’ve shaped my identity in ways school never could. I am my grandfather’s love of music. I am the intellectual curiosity of my father. I am the love of children given to me by my mother. I am a voracious reader like my aunts. I am the activist spirit of my grandmother.

I know with certainty that I became a teacher to give the type of education my grandparents were denied and that my parents never had. An education in which all the biographical lessons that children and adults bring with them, have importance and meaning in my classroom spaces. As I walk forward on my path to liberatory education, I see the footprints of my familial history behind me and in front of me; both sets of footprints are leading my way.

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