My Yiayia (Grandmother in Greek) was a phenomenal woman with the personality of a firecracker and a simplistic approach to problem solving, reflective of her old Southern rearing. Nannie Lou (center) was born in the latter 19-teens during the height of the Jim Crow black spot on contemporary history. A family of farmers, the Satterwhites were literally a southern dynasty of military men and strong women dating back all the way to the 1650s; I didn’t truly understand how this made my Yiayia the woman she was, but I knew that it played a significant role in her migration north.
Welcomed by family members who had moved to Harlem years before, she left Silver Street (which is about the length of five long avenues), South Carolina for better opportunities and personal freedoms Black women could claim and own in New York City. It was the start of World War II and they needed women in the country to aid the war effort, so she signed up at one of the factories and began building munitions for the troops abroad. Until recently this is all I had known about my Yiayia before she’d gotten married and started expanding her family.
One of my first memories (besides my sisters birth) is when my mother definitively made clear her name was not in fact mom; the high pitched inflection of outright frustration and exhaustion from two little human beings pulling on her all day contributed highly to her voice-crackling reaction of identification. From that moment on I knew for a fact that my mother’s name was not mom, but even as an adult it didn’t strike me that Yiayia was a woman before she was a mother, before she was a grandmother, and certainly before she was a great-grandmother.
Ever since she passed in August I’d been searching dramatically to reclaim her soul in this living world; a minor case of denial that ultimately led me on a personal quest to discover who this woman was. Yiayia had lived and I wanted to know how far she’d come before her timely end at the age of 98, so I started in her birthplace: Silver Street, South Carolina. A tiny rural town in the South Carolina Midlands, leading to the North Carolina Highlands, whose town-center is literally a half hour to forty-five minute drive; this was the country.
The tingling on the back of your biceps, as if a cat has grazed your arm, the eerily still trees in the distance that seem to watch you, and the slight lightheaded nausea that consumes your lungs when you’re staring at old photos of long-gone ancestors; this is how you know you are back from whence your bloodline came. It was as if I was being watched by all of my ancestors and they knew the blood pumping through my veins was theirs as well. There is something truly mystifying about being in the middle of dense forest as a city girl, enveloped by nature and literally walking on the same ground that your ancestors called home.
Yiayia’s strength was born in segregated snake country where few education opportunities beyond primary school existed, even as a light skinned woman with red hair, it was a dangerous place to be. Yiayia was not an educated woman but she was intelligent and able bodied; and now understood are her tears when I shaved my sister’s head. I truly love Silver Street and the isolation from the rest of the world, it is also a different place now, but still one where it is safe for no one (regardless of ethnicity or sex/gender) to go walking down the road.
Moving north in order to provide for her family and herself, Yiayia craved more opportunities than farm work and opting out of having to sleep with a shotgun behind the front door. Her and my Aunt Maudie took the town by storm too, enjoying life and having new experiences that had previously not been accessible. WWII really was a revolutionary time for women, particularly in the United States, but the backlash to women’s empowerment and employment came after the return of the veterans. Women left the factories and shops, returning home and allowing the men to reclaim their ‘place’ in the workplace: the precursor to repressive 1950s rhetoric and Cold War hysteria.
My Yiayia being the enigmatic spirit she was found many suitors on her heels and wound up in not a happy marriage, but a marriage that contained happiness. Propaganda for the white picket fence lifestyle reigned supreme, a symptom of not only communist fear but an attempt at recapturing a time reminiscent of pre-war sustainability. Not wanting to return to the domesticated existence she fled in the south, they decided to remain in New York City; moving to one of the many housing developments that were originally built for WWII veterans and later converted to housing projects, in the Eastchester section of The Bronx.
A delightful suburb of urban flair, the entire neighborhood was a thriving community of Italians, Jews, and African-Americans all recovering from the effects of WWII. The wives shared recipes, husbands worked government jobs, and the children played together. It was a Cold War poster board that had manifested in real life and despite its benefits, it came along with its negatives: restlessness, alcoholism, and eventually abuse. This was a time when PTSD was not discussed and the post-war methodology unfortunately trapped a lot of women in the virtual schemas they’d been released from for six years.
My Yiayia was one of those women but she loved her children fiercely and loved her husband as well; it was that love which pushed through trying periods of emotional duress and strengthened her self-reliance. In the search to discover the woman behind grandma, I found an embedded resilience and determination for life and survival; she was an amazing woman with the golden touch. Her summer houseplants bloomed in the winter and she even had a five inch goldfish that lived a decade (true story…Turquoise is infamously known in my family). She raised well-read, beautiful daughters and provided a safe and loving environment even for those who were not her children.
In a journey that literally took me to the bowels of South Carolinian midlands, dust-filled library archives, and late night wine-fueled reminiscing with my aunts I was able to find out how truly amazing Nannie Lou was.