FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
Growing up, many of us had a friend or relative who clued us in about life. For writer Jewell Parker Rhodes, that person was her grandmother Ernestine.
Ms. JEWELL PARKER RHODES (Author): Prejudice is sinful. All blood flows red. And the most harmful and foolish kind of prejudice is prejudice against yourself. Every woman is your sister, and every woman needs her sisters. So try to give other women the courtesy of your compassion, respect and forgiveness. Love yourself despite and because of your flaws.
CHIDEYA: That was Jewell Parker Rhodes with a few lessons she learned growing up. Rhodes shares more stories and grandmother's wisdom in her latest book, Porch Stories.
Ms. RHODES: She's been dead for 30 years, but without her I wouldn't have the life that I have today. She saved me. She gave me my profession - telling stories - and she also gave me my values. So, grandmother, this is a praise song to you. And I feel your spirit every single day.
CHIDEYA: Tell me more about how you grew up and what role she played in your life.
Ms. RHODES: My mother had abandoned the family, so grandmother raised me. And she was instrumental in that she taught me that the world is a glorious place. She taught me to embrace humanity. And she'd say, there's never an excuse for joy. And to be thankful. And I think instead of being bitter or just being the hurt, wounded child because my mother wasn't around - instead she gave me the strength to be somebody. And she also said, Jewell, educate yourself. Dream big.
And when I was with Grandmother, after I had spent a time with my mother and father, they had tried to renegotiate their marriage. But I finally had to leave home again and go to my grandmother's home. And grandmother then took me down to Mellon Bank(ph), and Mellon Bank said, you know, well, you want to buy clothes for this girl, you want to send her to school? Well, what's your collateral for a loan? And my grandmother said, she's my collateral. And this loan officer said, hmm, a smart girl. That's very good.
So we got $500. I started Allegheny Community College, and my grandmother took me to Lerner's to get me my winter coat. So she really just was so instrumental and changed my life.
CHIDEYA: I also had a grandmother - I still have her. Even though she's passed away, I feel very close to her. And I even did a little segment about her and with her voice here on NPR. What do you think it is that sometimes allows grandmothers to impart wisdom in ways that parents can't?
Ms. RHODES: I think it's always natural for children to rebel against their parents and establish their own identity. And also, I think parents get invested in, you know, doing the right thing? And so their anxiety about being good parents might in a way affect a relationship negatively.
A grandparent can be simply affirming. A grandparent has been there, done that child-raising stuff and has the wisdom of experience. And so in some ways, they're free to love without the anxiety of being the actual parents. They're free to give.
And I think children are so desperate for love and so desperate for the embrace - so having a grandparent, an elder, an aunt, to say yes to them is really what they need in order to be whole.
CHIDEYA: What did your grandmother Ernestine look like, smell like, sound like?
Ms. RHODES: Ooh, grandmother - they actually say I look like Grandmother Ernestine. She was taller, though, and I, of course, thought she was gorgeous. I don't think I'm gorgeous, but my grandmother, to me, she was special because of her smile - special because of her glimmer in her eyes, and she always smelled of a combination of starch - from when she was doing the laundry. Remember when you would boil starch, Argo starch? And she would smell of chicken, and she would smell of cinnamon spices and nutmeg.
So she cooked and she cleaned and she had this way of holding you and just snuggling you up against her bosom that made you just feel as though I could stay here forever.
CHIDEYA: If you had to pick one lesson that she taught that is the sort of cornerstone of your life, what would it be?
Ms. RHODES: That the world is a joyful place, all of us are mixed-blood stew and prejudice is sinful. So when I go out into the world crossing cultures, ethnicities, I know that I am related to everybody. The whole world is filled with my family.
And I think in a way when bad things happen, when I do experience discrimination or when life gets tough, my fundamental belief is that all blood bleeds red and we are all one. So there's no bitterness. Grandmother really taught me how to keep love at the corner of my existence, and that has saved me over and over again.
CHIDEYA: You know, you have written so many fiction and nonfiction books -Voodoo Dreams, Magic City, Douglass' Women, "The African-American Guide to Writing and Publishing Non-Fiction." You say that your grandmother taught you to be a storyteller. What do you mean by that?
Ms. RHODES: Well, on the porch she would tell stories. She never said, you know, Jewell, you know, do such and such. Instead, she would tell me a long story. So, for example, about love. She'd tell me about Mr. and Mrs. Abby. Everybody thought they were poor and life was tough and Mr. Abby, when he died, was leaving Mrs. Abby alone. And what the community didn't know is that the two of them were so rich because they had such a great love for one another.
So then from that story I would know, well, how do you know how a man loves you? By the little things, by the care and that the love from a man might be the most important thing. The love from your family is the most important thing. Not what you buy, not what you have.
So she didn't say that. She told me the story, and I deduced that. And so that's what I do in my fiction. So in Douglass' Women, there actually is a line: how do I know if a man loves me? Little things. Little cares, little concerns. How do I make the world know that it's good to be human, it's good to celebrate life and that prejudice is sinful? Well, you write about a race riot in Magic City and you show people cross color lines, cross genders, coming together to make the world a better place.
And then Grandmother would tell me about Aunt Hattie who came back from the dead. And that would...
Ms. RHODES: Well, there is a ritual. Yes, I got to admit. There is a ritual that grandmother told me about bringing spirits back from the dead. And it's based on the belief in the African-American community that every goodbye ain't gone. That the dead are always with you. And I witnessed grandmother herself one day getting a phone call, right. But the phone hadn't rung, but Grandmother got up out of bed, went down the stairs, picked up the telephone. Said, yes? Yes? Then Grandmother came back upstairs, started getting dressed. And Grandpa was going, woman, what's wrong with you? And us kids, grandma, grandma. It was like she was sleepwalking. And then the phone rang, and it was a relative calling to tell us Aunt Hattie had died.
So the rest of us are barefoot in our pajamas, and what is Grandmother doing? She's ready to walk out the door. And she said, Aunt Hattie had called her. And the thing about that is I would go down to the telephone, and I'd lift the receiver and I would expect the dead to call me.
But from that story, I learned that even though it's been 30 years, Grandma, I can still talk to you. You know, she can come and talk to me when, you know, I need to have her grace. So, yes, things like that happen.
They talk about magical realism, you know? In the African-American community, it's not magical realism. It's a fact of life. The dead are still with us, and they are still accessible and you just need to call them.
CHIDEYA: I might have to put in a phone call to my own grandmother.
Ms. RHODES: Oh, please do. You have to do that.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CHIDEYA: I could use some advice right now. Well, Jewell Parker Rhodes, thank you so much.
Ms. RHODES: Oh, thank you.
CHIDEYA: Jewell Parker Rhodes is the author of Porch Stories: A Grandmother's Guide to Happiness. She also teaches creative writing and American literature at Arizona State University. You can hear Jewell read an excerpt from her book at our Web site, npr.org.
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CHIDEYA: That's our show for today. Thanks for sharing your time with us. To listen to the show, visit npr.org. NEWS & NOTES was created by NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium.
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CHIDEYA: I'm Farai Chideya. This is NEWS & NOTES.
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