I am the daughter of Nancy Ellen Stewart, who is the daughter of Charlotte Antoinette Dennis, who is the daughter of Big Ma. Besides being told throughout my life that I inherited my breasts from Big Ma, her story is a mystery to me. Unfortunately, I was never blessed with the opportunity to know her. On days when my mind wonders, I think about her and about the generations of Liberian women she left to carry on her legacy. Her daughter Charlotte was my grandmother. The Charlotte Stewart I knew was a short caramel colored woman, with deep brown/black eyes, and a voice that could both take life and give life. She was beautiful. When my grandmother died, I wasn’t there; I never had the opportunity to say goodbye or thank you.
When I was younger, I lived with my grandmother and my mother in a small house in Long Island, NY. My mom worked every day and so my grandmother took care of me. Charlotte and I took long walks around our neighborhood, exploring everything Long Island had to offer. After emptying a 24 oz. container of teddy grahams, my grandmother decided that every time we went out we would pick up any change on the ground and put it away in the teddy jar. Religiously, for as long as I can remember, we collected coins. It was during these deeply personal and silent moments that I watched and learned from her. It was also during these moments that I realized that she had started forgetting. Though she may have forgotten what we did in the present she never forgot her past in Liberia.
It was in these moments that I learned that my grandmother owned one of the largest Grocery Stores in Monrovia called Charlotte’s Super Market. She was a businesswoman who cared about every and anyone, who thought women were as capable and strong as men. She had standard and expectations. You see, when the coup broke out in Liberia, they arrested her, and stripped her naked in a jail cell. They wanted to break her. But the woman who I was walking with, who was teaching me, was unbreakable in my eyes.
Charlotte’s husband was executed by a firing squad in Liberia. The man she loved, built with, created with, and care for was taken from her. Their love transcended space and time. As a bougie vibrant eighteen-year-old studying in France, my grandmother met my grandfather, Frank J Stewart. When I was a child, she would tell us that she and Frank fell in love the day the Eiffel Tower leaned. Apparently, the earth shook on their first date at the tower, the Eiffel leaned, she fell into his arms, they looked into each other’s eyes and knew they would be together forever. To this day, I’m not sure if this story is true or even possible but I am certain about the love she felt for Frank. Even at the worst points, Alzheimer’s never took her memory of her husband away. On the wall in her room hung a picture of my grandfather in his graduation gown. Even if she couldn’t remember who you were, if you walked in her room she would point at the black and white picture and ask you “do you know who this man is?” If you responded no, she would go on to tell their story. Sometimes, I would respond “No” just so I could see her eyes light up with happiness about being able to share. It was as if by sharing, she was able to keep him close and center herself.
Because of grandma, I understand my feminist genealogy. Through Charlotte, I gained a sense of the pain and love that generations of Liberian women have experienced. Her story is real, dynamic, and challenging but most importantly it’s herstory. Without her story, my story isn’t possible. Thank you, Grandma, because even in your absence, I find safety in remembering your voice, your smile, your laughter, and your love.