The 24 To 30: #2 – Grandma Sallie

by Just Juan

As I continue to roll down this final stretch of The Road to October 24 towards 30, I’m finding myself reading through all volumes of Triumphs & Tribulations, from I in 2000 to XIV, which just finished up on Tuesday. And now that I’m writing a series on 24 people who helped me get to the age of 30, I’ve kinda been “all in my feelings”—in a good way—about the people who’ve had tremendous effects and impacts on my life. And that brings me to the 2nd post in this 24-part series on The 24 To 30. Today, it’s the story of my late great-grandmother, Sallie Mae Thomas.

THE BACKGROUND. My history with Grandma Sallie started when I made my grand appearance into the world…in October 1984. My mom lived with her in the Little Big Green House on 11th Place South for the first couple years of my life. Being that I never had the chance to meet my actual maternal grandmother as her death preceded my birth, Grandma Sallie was the next best thing. She was a disciplined woman. She had quite a routine and she didn’t deviate too far from it. She was also firm yet fair when it came to decisions within the household. My earliest memories with her take me back to the age of 3. She used to babysit me while my mom worked and my dad was away on his national trucking thing. Me and my little sister used to get into all kinds of stuff in the house. There was the one time we messed with the flour in the kitchen…that whipping still hurts now that I think about it. For about an hour in between her watching Matlock and WBRC Channel 6 News at 5, she let us watch Muppet Babies and Reading Rainbow to keep us calm for that last hour before my mom came to pick us up. When my mother decided to send us to Head Start, the days of hanging out in the Little Big Green House all day with Grandma Sallie came to a screeching halt. We still saw her every day as the school bus to Head Start stopped right across the street from her house to pick up us “Snoozy’s kids”. My grandmother was on the scene when my foot got ran over in November 1989. As I was sitting there on the sidewalk, screaming my lungs out in pain, she was consoling me and wiping away tears. She had the responding police officer take us to Children’s Hospital, where I got a cast on my left foot, which was broken in the incident. During my recovery from it, she didn’t let me wallow in it one bit. It was her who took the crutches away and she really restricted my use of that walker aid. She would hold my hand as I walked slowly in regaining my health from the incident. I guess you can say it was my first experience in rehabilitation from an injury. Whenever I was around Grandma Sallie, it felt as if I had a cloak of invincibility as it concerned my mother. I never got any whippings whenever she was around: she was like a safe haven of sorts. I always snuggled up under her long enough for my mother to forget. In the Fall of 1990, when my mom sent me to Glen Iris for elementary school, I ended up staying full-time with my great-grandmother. By that time, it was just me and her in the Little Big Green House. We developed a bit of a routine for that year it was just me and her. She’d wake me up and cook me breakfast…always grits and toast, at least. She’d walk me from house door to school door and back every day even though the school was literally across the street. I think the whole foot getting ran over incident freaked her out. After I got out of school and before we settled in to watch Channel 6 News, we walked across the street to Snoozy’s Bookstore to get the day’s edition of The Birmingham News. She always let me put the quarter into the newspaper rack and I thought it was the coolest thing ever. Grandma Sallie was somewhat well-known about the neighborhood. The people at Snoozy’s knew her by name and even the Middle Eastern guy at the convenience store around the corner called her Ms. Sallie when we’d stop in. Her legend was mostly because she went to many of the yard sales around the area and all of the bake sales at EPIC School. I always tagged along and I’d get a toy from the yard sales and some kind of pound cake from the bake sales. Grandma Sallie and I, on occasion, traveled into the city and I remember everybody always being so pleasant to her. It was during one of those trips into the city that she took me to the Birmingham Public Library, where I got my first-ever library card. After I moved back with my mother, the time I spent with her was when we’d come to her place for holidays and small family gatherings. We always convened at her place on Halloween for trick-or-treating as the Southside of Birmingham was fertile ground for free and quality candy. I always made sure I got Snickers and Butterfingers for her. As I grew older and started high school, I’d stop by her place on my way to school every morning. I did so by catching the earliest bus and walking through half of UAB just to spend an hour or so with her before I dashed off to school. It was during those morning talks that she gave me advice and pointers on life moving forward as I closed in on the latter half of my teens. The fact that I wear ties on every first date and that I take my seat at dinner tables after all women have sat down is a result of those morning talks. I think it hurt her a little bit when those morning visits stopped after I bought my first car and started leaving for school closer to 8AM rather than 6AM. I still stopped by though as she was one of the few people I actually hooked up with free food from Domino’s Pizza. Grandma Sallie died in August of 2004. Her death was the 2nd major death that rocked my year at 19. It was especially tough on me at her funeral because of all she meant to me concerning my personal development. Her presence was certainly missed throughout this decade I’ve spent in my 20s. My graduations from college, my first apartment, my 2nd and more serious baptism, my accomplishments…she missed them all. A few months before she passed, I did get a chance to visit with her in my military uniform, which brought a smile to her face. I spoke to her a couple of weeks before she passed and she seemed well. But, as I’ve realized, life turns suddenly and my great-grandmother passed on into a better place.

THE MOMENT OF IMPACT. There were a few moments of impact with Grandma Sallie but none had more effect than a conversation we had on March 9, 2002. I was deep into my junior year of high school and it was likely that I was gonna leave the state for college: either Ohio State or Oregon. In that talk with her, she said she’d really like to see me serve in the military. Though my heart was intently set on college life, I told her I’d think about and I did passively. The ensuing summer, that conversation re-entered my thoughts and I gave it serious consideration. I attempted to secure a nomination from my Congressman in order to gain admission into the United States Air Force Academy. All I needed was for Earl Hilliard to give me the nod and my academics and a slew of recommendation letters and assessments would’ve did the rest. I would’ve been able to honor her by serving but also keeping with my own plans for college life. Hilliard didn’t give me the nomination and it’s debatable whether he actually took a peek at my package at all. By the time I realized I wasn’t getting the nomination, I was into my senior year of high school and I already had the acceptance letter from The Ohio State University. I made the decision to enlist though…delayed entry. I would be able to do both, serve and do college.

HOW IT GOT ME TO 30. Though my great-grandmother passed when I was on the last leg of my teens, the lessons she left with me resonated deep into my 20s and they’ll likely still have impact at 30 and beyond. You look at some of my interactions with women and that’s her stamp. The fact that I still frequent libraries is because of her and the long-lasting effect of my very first trip to the Birmingham Public Library almost 25 years ago. Whenever I get the opportunity, I always visit retirement homes to help out with the elderly, giving me an opportunity to talk to them and get tidbits on life…something I did with her. I’ve never complained nor have I felt sorry for myself when I was injured…I just battled through it. Oh yeah, of the slew of ankle and Achilles injuries I’ve sustained, there have been only 2 other times I fetched crutches: my Achilles tear in high school and when I broke my ankle late last year. I always go for the pound cake at bake sales because of her. I look at that decision to serve and how it exposed me to the world…literally and figuratively. Had it not been for what she did for me as a younger version of myself and the deep respect I had for her, my entire life takes a different turn and there’s a possibility that I wouldn’t have met close to 90% of the people I know now. My late great-grandmother…she was the best.

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