Mattie Mae Harris stands five feet five inches tall underneath a nearly seven feet tall house plant. The plant’s leaves are striped, some brush across the ceiling and hang downward, and some meet my grandmother face-to-face. It is bound together by rubber bands and broken broomsticks. The pot is a pale orange, round, and stained with greasy high-fives and paw prints. With wet dirt-packed to the brim, it could easily weigh 30-pounds. On Mother’s Day, I stand across the room, listening and watching. The way my grandmother cared for this plant in 2021 was the same way she cared for it in the 90s. This plant is older than me.
Due to my schedule and my priorities, I usually see my grandmother only on major holidays. The moment I walk through her 500-square foot apartment, I am overwhelmed with smells and sounds. Nostalgia cures all worries and anxieties. On the walls are high school graduation pictures from my father, aunts, and uncle in the 1980s up to my younger brother in 2020 posted in a carefully placed polygon. The same cookie jar from when I was younger, filled with windmill cookies from the Imperial Grocery Store around the corner sat in the same spot it’s always been: next to the refrigerator, beside the toaster. My shoulders lost their hunch stepping over the threshold. It would not be long before we began exchanging laughs and how are yous and remember whens.
My grandmother lives with Type-1 diabetes. She’s lived with it all of my life. When I would spend weekends and summers at her house, she would show me her small black bag filled with needles, strips, and a monitor. “This is going to read my blood sugar. And we don’t want it to go over 200, no no no.”
She would pull out the needle and ask me if I wanted to do the honors. “1…2…3…” I would poke the tiniest hole into her index finger and watch her squeeze it until a bubble of blood formed at the top. She dipped the strip in her blood, handed it to me and I would put it inside of the monitor. Most times, it read normal. Sometimes, I had to run and grab her a cup of orange juice. She never cried, just a gasp of air to push the moment past.
My grandmother is 72 years old and has lived a life of service and perseverance. The bulk of her career was spent working with the elderly in a assisted living facility north of Detroit. She sometimes worked long shifts, leaving just as the sun begins to peak and returning home when the stars shined. On some days, I would help her make her lunch: one bologna sandwich, fruit, and a few cookies from the cookie jar.
My aunts always took me to go and pick up my grandmother from work. She never had an issue telling me all of the ins and outs of her job. I was all ears. When she got in the car, she would complain of arthritis, backaches, and knee pains from bathing and lifting her patients throughout the day. She would share the things her patients said that made her laugh or required her to “get with them.” Though she seemed to stress, this job felt rewarding to her.
During one period of time, she grew more agitated. She had been working there for several years under less than ideal working conditions, and pay that was nothing to jump for joy about. Mattie Mae Harris did not quit. She did not even attempt to find another job. She recruited colleagues across departments to create the assisted living facility’s first union. #RealDetroitShit.
I remember the picket signs stacked on top of the kitchen table and the dollar tree bag of Sharpie markers. “We Want a Contract Now!” This was my introduction to activism.
My inquisitiveness mixed with a little bit of nosey brought me to ask my grandmother, “What are you doing with those?”
“We’re going to strike today. No more.” She fired back. Together, alongside her colleagues, they organized a walkout to alert the administration and owners that a new day has come.
From that day forward, I spent a lot of my time at her house listening and eavesdropping on my grandmother while she recapped the day’s events with the other union leaders. While she was on the phone, I would try to read the words in this 30-page contract. This was what she had been working for.
Her deep-rasp tone on the phone, let me know that this moment was high risk. She knew she was risking her job organizing this and most of all, her legacy. It was all on the line if this did not go well. She dodged shady offers by her administration who wanted to get this over with and co-workers who thought the work was taking too long. And on the days when she felt a little too riled up, at 12 years old I would go into her bedroom. I would pull open the drawer, and pull out the little black bag with the needs, strips, and the monitor.
After several months of negotiations, strikes, tears, and fluctuating blood sugar, the day came when the ride home was blasting with joy. She turned around and looked at me in the backseat and yelled, “We reached an agreement! We have a contract!” This included an increase in pay, better working conditions, and security for all employees. One year later, she retired. Her work was finished, this was indeed her legacy.
Every time I visit my grandmother, I am reminded of these times and I always become trapped in my thoughts. My grandmother is a Black woman in her 70s, retired, and living with Type-1 diabetes, she is all about rest. And as a 28-year old teacher and entrepreneur, I wonder the role I will play to ensure that she rests comfortably. It hurts to know that her rent has gone up twice and that she gets excited about a deal on strips to test her blood sugar from Amazon.
My mind runs in circles. IdontmakenoughIdontmakeenoughIdontmakeenough. I struggle seeing how capitalistic systems undervalue and underpay us until we retire. But she has shown me, even still in these struggles, we resist, we love and we find joy.
I remembered from writing this, money is not something my grandmother has requested to aid her in resting. She says she enjoying waking up when her internal alarm clock rings. She’s enjoying stretching, doing balancing techniques, and chair exercises on her own time. And finally, she’s enjoying taking care of the 7-foot plant and the green family that surrounds it.
As I prepare to leave on this Mother’s Day, my grandmother tells me that I must return soon. She cut a piece of the 7-foot plant years ago and has been nurturing it for me. For me. The 2-foot plant gets plenty of sun in a medium pot in front of my grandmother’s only window. She waters it once a week. And checks on it once a day. For me.
The legacy lives on.
This is dedicated to my grandmother, Mattie Mae Harris, standing five-feet five-inches tall underneath a nearly seven tall house plant. This is to applaud her work as a union organizer. To give a standing ovation to someone who is conquering the ups and downs of living with diabetes. To cheer on someone who modeled effectively how to reject the system. To hug and smile someone who reminds me that where and how we rest is determined by us. I am forever grateful for her.
Our legacy lives on.
This blog post is part of the #31DaysIBPOC Blog Series, a month-long movement to feature the voices of indigenous and teachers of color as writers and scholars. Please CLICK HERE to read yesterday’s blog post by Jessyca Matthews (and be sure to check out the link at the end of each post to catch up on the rest of the blog series).