A grandmother’s love, I have been told, is one of life’s gifts. I wouldn’t know. Both of my grandmothers died before I was born. Which probably explains why for much of my life I have suffered from grandmother-hunger. I can not get enough of old black women. That is one of the things I cherish about the black church, despite its many warts. Where else but in the black church do you get to see old black women in significant numbers on a regular basis? Women are invisible after they reach a certain age.
What was unthinkable a century ago is commonplace today: a young woman can live out her 20s and 30s, those delicate decades, without any female kin over fifty years old in a 200 hundred mile radius of where she lives. No woman she’s bound to by blood who can get to her at a moment’s notice when she’s in trouble. No woman nearby to remind her what women in her family look like as they age. No woman nearby who has the right to correct her when she’s wrong. No mother on hand to tell her the story of her beginnings. No grandmother to tell her what she thinks whether the younger woman wants to hear it or not. No aunt nearby to interpret her dreams. No old woman around to pat her hand and assure her, ”Baby, The Lord will make a way somehow.”
Watching this video of Maya Angelou who, the Lord willing, turns 80 years old this spring, I understand what the Bible means when it says, “The glory of the young is their strength, but gray hair is the splendor of the old” (Proverbs 16:31).
Only the godless disrepects his or her elders.
Every society has some hallowed image of the old wise woman, the crone, the female sage of the village. In the world’s mythologies, wisdom is feminine. Wisdom is usually an attribute of a goddess or woman in whom wisdom has become a conscious part of her psyche. Wisdom is a woman, a crone, a goddess, a feminine archetype. In Greek mythology, she is Athena, goddess of wisdom and military victory, the patron goddess of the city Athens. In the Bible, she is Sophia, Lady Wisdom crying out in the streets. She is the Divine Mother, the Sacred Feminine, Mother of God, Mother Earth. Her name is Mary, Aphrodite, Venus, Kwan Yin, Tara, Gaia, Maat, Isis, Saraswati, the Shekinah, to name a few. To experience her is to catch a whiff of the Divine.
Sadly, the image of the female sage has been in recent years reduced in our community to a commodity to poke fun at. She is the loud, boisterous, overweight, sexless, middle-aged woman played by a male actor in drag. No woman wants to admit to being old in our youth crazed culture. Fifty-five is the new thirty-five.
Until we hear Maya Angelou speak. Or see Cecily Tyson on screen. Or catch Dorothy Height in one of her hats. Or eavesdrop on Ruby Dee reminiscing about her career in theatre. Or listen to Marian Wright Edelman talk about children. Or experience Nikki Giovanni read a poem. Or watch Mother Hambrick step into my church on Sunday morning and take her favorite seat. They serve as role models for us of a possible aged self. Unbought. Unbossed. Wise. Old. Settled in the skin you’re in.
She captivates us and embarrasses us, this old wise woman does. As much as we sit on edge when she comes in the room, wondering what in God’s name will come out her toothless mouth this time, she continues to be the object of our secret longing. Watching her sit there–old, but regal, doddering but undefeated, withered, but wise–she reminds us of all the un-mothered/ under-mothered places within. Places within each of us that still long for a (grand)mother’s touch, a (grand)mother’s voice, a (grand)mother’s guidance, a (grand)mother’s protection, a (grand)mother’s breast, a (grand)mother’s wisdom.