We lived on the same block of the saddest nursing home in the area. It was not much more than a dumping ground for mentally ill patients they farmed in from the state hospital to fill the rooms. The harsh smells of urine and disinfectant mingled with the cries of the minds now vacant with dementia.
There were a few exceptions to the tragic realities that made thier home there, but Miss Irma King was one of them. There was also Harold. There's is a story on my site called, "There Once Was A Man" and that's his story. This is Miss King's story and what a story she was.
Miss King was in her late 80's when I met in around 1985, so she would have been born just before the turn of the century. It was a several times a week trip for me to walk to the nursing home to "visit." I would see her walking slowly down the halls of the nursing home, alone and the only lady of color or for that matter, person of color in that loud and disruptive place.
Quiet and unassuming, she walked like a queen...Back straight and filling up the air with her near 6 feet of slender frame. She wore her salt and pepper hair in a braided crown around her head, adding more to her stature and her air of dignity.
Years after we got to know one another, I told her she reminded me of African Royalty...and she did. She was everything I'd imagined in an African Queen from a far and distant shore, yet here she was, in a nursing home, alone. She was an independent woman, dignity and grace personified and deserved so much more.
I learned that she was there by choice. The town I lived in did not have a large black community. Back in the early 1900's, as the story goes, a young black man was accused of raping a white woman and of course, typical of that shameful day, was lynched without a trial. The black families who lived there were told to leave town. Most of them moved to a small town south of the city.
That's where Miss King lived until she moved into the nursing home. All of her family was gone, with the exception of a few distant kin. She had never had children and those she was close to had moved on to California. Fearing she was getting to old to care for herself, she made the decision to sell and give away her earthly possessions and move into the nursing home.
She told me that she'd been married twice...Both of them, in her words, "Scoundrels." She had no use nor need for a man after that. She did everything on her own. Miss King was a rarity for her generation. She was college educated. I was amazed at the depth of her wisdom and knowledge. She was one of the most intelligent women I have ever met.
We would sit for hours, as I listened to her tell the stories of "her day." As far as I was concerned, she was the very human face of a rich and fascinating history. She had lived through decades of harsh reality in a world filled with discrimination against her race and gender, yet she had survived and come out strong and sure of who she was. I admired her courage and tenacity and moreso, her strength.
Through the years, Miss King and I came to have a close relationship. She would walk the few yards to my house to "visit" now and then and of course, I went to see her several times a week. My children and husband came to love Miss King just as I did. My teenage girls would go visit her on their own and my toddler son thought she belonged to him and him alone.
Miss King attended my church on the same block where her nursing home was located. We sat together when I wasn't sitting with Harold, tending to his needs.
We were in her room one day, talking as usual and I told her how precious she had become to me. The conversation moved to my own grandmothers and I told her since both my maternal and paternal grandmothers were gone, she had taken up that empty space in my heart. I told her she had become like a grandmother to me and I hoped that didn't offend her in any way. Not in the least...She was honored to be my "Grandmother."
No matter that we were there, Miss King needed and wanted to be near her own family. Finally the day came that she made up her mind to leave and go to California, where some of her remaining relatives were. I cried like a baby when my "Grandmother" left. There she was, too elderly in my eyes to be traveling alone on a Greyhound, making her journey West to her new home.
As she promised, she made sure I would know where she was. A few days later, her postcard arrived in the mail, telling me she'd made her journey safely and giving me her new address and phone number. She'd checked herself into a high-rise home for the elderly and gotten involved in church, making herself right at home. Once again, she had her family near and she was content.
I never saw Miss King again and never will. I am sure by now, she has passed. She would be over 100 now. For years, I would call her now and then. She was always amazed..."Allison...Is this MY Allison from Oklahoma???" She went blind toward the end of her life, but she could "see" with her heart what we who have eyes to see cannot. She saw love and embraced it. She kept our family photo on her dresser. I'm sure whoever came to clean out her room after she was gone, wondered who that white family was...We were HER family and she was ours.
God saw a need. One of a white woman who needed a Grandmother and one a lovely African-American Queen who needed someone to love her without reservation; Someone with no eyes to see what color each was or was not. It never was a black and white issue. It was an issue of the heart and soul and ours will forever be connected. My Miss King made me a better person and I can only hope I gave as much back to her as she gave to me.
Now, you know the story of my Miss King...My Grandmother of the heart...My Grandmother, the African-American Queen.