The headstone

Ode to a Matriarch

In January of this year, my grandmother passed away. Because I live in Australia and was 3 days into a new job, I was not able to attend her funeral at such short notice. I was devastated. Instead, I wrote her eulogy – which was read at the service by my sister, Nikki. I post the eulogy now, because I’m currently lineage tracking down in Florida as a distraction from other stressful circumstances, and it Grave of the matriarchal overlordwill be referenced throughout several new posts coming up very shortly. I can’t help but think about her when I’m here, especially since I was able to visit her headstone yesterday for the first time.

There’s not much left to say about it right now except that I miss her…But I will soon.


The last time I saw our grandmother was in July of last year. She had grey cornrows and wore a large red t-shirt and leggings. She was thinner than I had ever seen her, but still robust in all the ways that counted. When she first saw me, she actually mistook me for her mother, the indomitable Ethel Graham (from whom we have all inherited sassy backtalk and scathing side eye). Even though I felt awkward, I played along with this dynamic, because I wasn’t sure how many more times she would have the opportunity to have a moment where she genuinely believed that she was interacting with her mother; and perception is very much so reality. I told her that she looked good, and that I loved her – things that everyone wants to hear from their mother, at any age.

It was a fleeting moment of clarity because then, she quickly changed tactics and we went on a series of disconnected conversations. We discussed robbing a casino in Vegas; where we would hide the money (in the ceiling vents…of course); what we would do with the money (gamble it away again in Vegas); and who gets the biggest share (we fought over this and, in true Mary Edith fashion, she threatened to whoop my butt).

Even though Alzheimer’s had taken much of her memory, it had not affected her spirit or her humor…the very essence of who she was. She was still very much so our grandmother, the woman whose life we are celebrating today.

We all know that Mary Edith Wolfe was born on May 9th, 1928. We all know that she was the youngest of her siblings. We all know that she had 5 children: Edward Florence, Jr., Sandra Lisbon, Irene Toney, Natalie Spearman and our father, Mario Neal. But really, we all have very different understandings of the experiences that made her who she was. Some of us knew her as a mother. Some of us knew her as a friend. Some of us knew her as a grandmother, an in-law, an employee or just somebody you never messed with. I knew her as the woman who always had crayons and clean paper because she knew a little girl loved to draw when she visited her house. I knew her as the best person ever to watch trashy television with, especially Jerry Springer. I knew her as the kind of woman who would crochet a blanket in garnet and gold for when someone left home to attend Florida State University.

I knew her as the kind of woman who would cook all day until smells of collard greens, fried chicken, corn bread and black eyed peas became the foundation of my memory of her. To her, food and love were synonymous, and I can think of no more loving way to nurture and provide for a family than to ensure that they are never hungry. I knew her as the kind of person who did not love with pretense, bias or agenda.

We all knew her as someone who loved to stir the pot, laugh loudly, cuss expertly and love unconditionally.

But the truth is that each of us shares an important piece of her collective memory. And it is up to us to hold it closely to our hearts because these pieces don’t only keep her close to us, but they help us to preserve the history that will soon fall to the responsibility of scholars and teachers to tell on our behalf. We cannot allow that to happen. Mary was a product not just of her loving parents, but of also enduring very difficult times that many of us do not have to relive. Mary lived through one of the worst periods in American history, and she did so sometimes working three jobs at once in order to give her family food, shelter and a sense of identity and dignity. There is no word in the English language that can overstate the importance of this kind of love – and we must repeat it to ourselves, and to each other…often. That is how her love endures.

The primary definition of a matriarch is “a woman who is the head of a family or tribe”; but I think the secondary definition is more appropriate – “an older woman who is powerful within a family or an organization.”

Our grandmother, Mary Edith Wolfe, was a powerful woman. She was powerful in her fearlessness, strength, determination and commitment to her family – whom she valued above all else. We witness this in not only the life she lived, but in the legacy that she leaves behind. Her power [and her humor] lives on in a new generation of policy makers, artists, dancers, teachers, law enforcement officers, bankers and travellers. Her power lives on in the mothers and fathers in this room, and the babies whose gifts are as yet unrevealed. We honor her by giving ourselves the opportunity to make use of our gifts and validate her decades of sacrifice. And then we do better, and we keep doing better. That is true power, and we all have it thanks to her.

Mary Edith: Matriarch, survivor, comedian, renaissance woman and the one true creator of the world’s most delicious 5-flavor pound cake. Rest in POWER.

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