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Sun Tea


Photo courtesy of Michael K. Woods

I slowed down to watch two little girls run through the sprinklers. They laughed and screamed with each time they passed through under the watchful eye of their father. Twenty-five years ago, I was those little girls, running through the sprinklers just a few houses from where my car now sat in the middle of the street.


The kids in my family didn’t go to summer camp, we went to Grandma’s house. Every morning, my mother and my Aunt Dee Dee would drop their kids off for my grandmother to look after while they worked. It started with me, then Aunt Dee Dee had Charles Jr. and Keisha, my mother had Evan a few years later and finally, Aunt Dee had Daniel.


We ran through the sprinklers just like those little girls until we were old enough to run through the streets with the other kids in the neighborhood. But we always stopped to have cups of my grandmother’s sun tea. The taste of her special brew was on my lips when I parked in front of her house.


There was no question where she was on a hot summer day like today. I bypassed the front door and walked the driveway until I reached the back porch. I spent most summer Saturdays of my youth sitting on this back porch with my grandmother. She would sit in her rocking chair snapping peas, shucking corn, braiding my hair, or just staring into the years she left behind. 


There were two things you could set your life by; her bible would be on the stool she kept next to her and a pitcher of sun tea would be brewing in the sun. My grandmother’s sun tea was legendary in our family and in her neighborhood. No one could figure out her secret ingredients, so they figured $4 a jar would save them the trouble of falling short on taste. The Walkers would have her make two or three pitchers each week all summer. 


Sure enough, her bible was open to Proverbs. If you made it through a conversation without her reciting a proverb, you didn’t talk long at all. It didn’t matter what you were talking about, she would find a way to throw one into the conversation.


If not for the humming, I would’ve sworn that my grandmother was sleeping as she rocked peacefully. The bead of sweat making its way down her left cheek let me know just how hot it was at 11:30 am. It was “Amazing Grace”, it was always “Amazing Grace”. I’m not sure if she knew any other song. It was the only song she sang along with in church. The song she sang while she cooked dinner. The song she sang whenever she finished talking about leaving Bessemer. 


She looked much older today than the last time I saw it. It was only what two, three weeks ago? No, it was last month. I spent my birthday with her and my mother before I went on my annual birthday trip. I can’t believe I allowed that much time to pass without seeing her. 


She seemed a little thinner today.


She talked a lot about my grandfather on my birthday. More than I’ve heard her talk about him in the year since he’s been gone. She told us three times that day that she’s tired. If you know old Black women, hearing them say they’re tired hits your soul. For me, hearing my grandmother say she was tired meant she was tired of taking eight pills a day, going to the doctor three times a week, tired of living in her house alone, tired of living without my grandfather. 


Tired of living.


She stopped humming and stared at me with mock surprise. It was her way of reminding me that it’s been too long since I’ve been to see her. The smile that followed let me know that I wasn’t in too much trouble, but she noticed my absence.


“I just run your mama away from here. On that phone fussing with your Aunt Dee Dee.”


The way she shook her head let me know that she was also tired of the sibling rivalry between my mama and Aunt Donna, also known as “Dee Dee”. They were two years apart in age, but miles apart in compatibility. Aunt Dee Dee says my mother bossed her around while she was in my grandmother’s womb and my mother says Aunt Dee Dee never cared about anyone but herself.


This fight could only be about one of three things: Aunt Dee Dee not spending enough time with Grandma, my mother said something about one of Aunt Dee Dee’s kids or Aunt Dee Dee mentioned Jimmy. Jimmy is my mother’s ex-husband. My father. If you let Aunt Dee tell it my mother came back into town and stole Jimmy right out of her bed. 

My father never dated my aunt, I doubt he knew she existed, but she had her eye on him. My mother met him a week after she returned from college and the rest is me. He was gone before I was born, and my mother remarried when I was six to a man named Robert, that’s the man I call Daddy.


“They got to arguing about your father and she messed up my sun tea. I told her to go on home to your daddy and not come back a second before she had it together.”


My mother was 51 and still being scolded by her mother. Then again, I just turned 29 and my mother scolded me into canceling my hair appointment to spend the day with my grandmother. I typically came on Sundays and sometimes Friday after work, but here I was on a hot Saturday afternoon, watching sun tea brew.


“Wait about twenty minutes and then cut three lemons in quarters, drizzle some honey on ‘em and drop ‘em in the pitcher.”


She recited her secret recipe for me as if I hadn’t spent years tugging at her apron. Making Grandma’s sun tea was a rite of passage in our family. You learned to make her sun tea and the correct measurements of vinegar for Granddaddy’s BBQ sauce before you learned most things.


“Put a little more sugar in there too. Your mama only put two. She knows I use four drops.”


There are no true measurements for any of this. A drop here, a drizzle there. Four tea bags this week, six next. The beauty of it is that however my grandmother felt is what went into the tea. It didn’t matter, it was always delicious.


There was sweat forming at my edges when I sat down. I looked over at Grandma and she was smiling. 


“You ain't changed none bit. You hated being in the sun as a baby and look at you now. “

“I don’t hate the sun. I just can’t stand when it gets really humid out. Today is nasty.”

“I didn’t even notice.”


I glanced at the puddle near her left temple.


“How’s my baby doing?”


Four words and my eyes flooded with tears. I couldn’t find the words to tell my grandmother that the world was burning around me. I wanted to lie, but I cried instead. I felt her hand on mine and a sense of calm ran through me. That simple touch seemed to ease the anxiety I’ve carried for weeks.


“Malcolm’s up for a promotion at work and if he gets it, he’ll have to move to Atlanta.”


I turned to search her face for some sort of recognition of what I just said but she just kept rocking. I looked at her hand still resting on mine. I studied the wrinkles, recalled all the times that hand extended itself to pick me up. All the times it found its way to my cheek. All the times it braided my hair. I recalled that hand stirring cake batter. Being raised to God. Holding my grandfather’s hand.


I felt foolish. Selfish. I was complaining about my boyfriend possibly moving to a woman that lost her husband after 52 years of marriage. I wanted to apologize, I wanted to change the subject, but she finally answered.


“Don’t you go borrowing from tomorrow’s worries when you still have one foot in yesterday.”


The look on my face must have formed a question.


“Child, if you love that man and he loves you, y’all have got to finish today out. You worried about what may or may not happen when you have got to get a handle on what’s happening now. You should not be worried about your friend getting a job and leaving you.”


There it was, friend. Unless you were married, your significant other was your friend. Aunt Dee Dee had two kids with Uncle Charles before they married, and he was still her “friend”. C.J. has brought the same girlfriend to Thanksgiving for seven years and she’s still his “friend”. Malcolm and I have been together for nearly five years and she still considered him my “friend”.


 “I do love him, Grandma. And I know he loves me too. This is a great opportunity for him, but I don’t know if I want to pack up and leave with him.”

“Then why you with him?”

“I love him.”


She made it all seem so simple. I had my own career to consider. My family, my friends, my entire life was here. I couldn’t pack my life up and leave just like that. Not just because I loved him.


“Child talking about love. Love don’t want you to stay in a place and let a man leave. I was barely a woman when your granddaddy said we had to leave Bessemer if we wanted a chance to live. A chance to love. I told him he better not think of me leaving my family as his friend. You love each other today. He gets that job, you talk tomorrow.”

She waved the hand that didn’t hold mine. She was done with the conversation. She told me what I had to do, if I did it or not, was up to me. I returned to studying that hand. The hand that held my grandfather’s as they left Alabama. The hand that stirred sun tea. The hand that held mine when I needed an answer and I smiled.


An hour later, I retrieved the tea from its place in the sun and put it in the refrigerator next to a nearly full pitcher. I poured two glasses from that pitcher and returned to my seat on the porch. I handed a glass to her smiling face.


"Always remember, ‘Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.’ That’s Proverbs 4:23."

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