I was twenty-one, penniless, separated from an unwell man, and my son was eleven months old. My soon to be, ex-sister-in-law helped me get a job. The pay was awful, the work menial, but it covered some of the bills. My family wasn't near, leaving me without much of a support system, let alone child care. I needed help.
Ms. Geraldine Wheeler–Nanna, as all the babies called her–ran a neighborhood daycare. I grew up next door to her and over the years, I watched batches of toddlers hover around her back yard barbeque. When I needed someone to watch my son while I worked, she came to the rescue.
She charged me a pittance. I paid half of what I should have and would have to any other provider. My son was fed things like brisket, peach cobbler, and hot water cornbread. Her firm southern advice was a constant that I grew to appreciate, although she was sometimes sharp with me, particularly if I were running late at pick-up.
I recall the first time she told me she'd spanked my son. I was shocked. I told her I don't believe in spanking and that it leads to violence. She firmly disagreed saying, "One day he's going to be much bigger than you and when that day comes, he needs to know who is boss. He needs to remember to respect you and he won't if you don't wear his ass out. Besides, why do you think the good Lord made his behind so fat?" Though I didn't fully agree with her, I did appreciate the logic.
The thing I neglected to mention–partly because it is irrelevant, also because it feels somewhat disingenuous to raise my hand on this topic–is that I'm white. My son is white. Nanna is black. All five of the other children she cared for were black. My son was the palest white kid and the only one in the group. Not one of the kids noticed or cared about their differences.
My bias those years ago made me wonder if my son would feel different being the only white child at daycare (yes, something that black people experience frequently). He never noticed. What I gained was a person who fed my son when I was struggling to put food on the table. I found a nagging mother, a grandmotherly type, and a woman who loved life to help propel me forward.
My son went to Nanna's daycare for two years, until we moved out of the area and closer to my work. Her many lessons and words of wisdom, her kicks when I was feeling sorry for myself, her eyes when she spoke of her lover, those days I didn't have to worry because Nanna had my baby, remain with me. I acknowledged Geraldine Wheeler at the start of my latest book, MY DIARY of DISASTER, and one of the characters, a jazz club owner, is a version of her I could easily imagine.
Nanna, wherever you are, know that your life mattered to me.