My grandmother marched on Washington for every good cause of my childhood. I remember she almost fainted, when she marched for queer rights at the height of the AIDS epidemic. “That was my last march,” she said, sitting on the curb, while my aunts plied her with water and cool cloths. But she still writes letters, she still pays attention, she still loves longer than she has to, because she can.
Now when I walk through Liberty Plaza, I’m not the oldest person there by a long shot—but sometimes the youthful enthusiasm in the air gets a little exhausting. I feel like a mother to 200—they’ve eaten food I cooked with my own two hands, they are mine—and I don’t know how I can possibly love them long enough, hard enough, for what lies ahead. And then I remember the picture of the raging grannies getting handcuffed, and I am reminded that there are generations of women who have made it this far and farther, and I am heartened.
The night before the threatened cleaning, I brought hot vegetables and squash risotto to the park. I walked around the piles of black plastic bags and held my son close to keep him warm and safe from the gathering dark. An older woman—older than me, anyway—walked past us wearing the bright green cap of the Legal Observers.
“Thank you for coming,” I said, stopping my son with a hand. She paused in her appointed rounds and smiled in bemusement as I reached out with awkward words, “Thank you for keeping an eye on them.” She nodded and started to move on. I leaned forward, urgently, “I feel like they’re my kids, you know?”
Now she leaned forward, “Yes. I do, too.”
I was grateful for that connection, that reassurance that others were looking after them when I could not. My first duty is to my children’s physical welfare, and my son’s rough cough needed to get indoors that night. But she sailed on, observing and guarding, because she could.
I was a human mic at the Sankofa Day celebration at the plaza a few days later. It felt so good to embody the words of the protestors from the Bronx—I knew I wasn’t “giving voice to the voiceless” a self-congratulatory piece of patronizing crap if ever I read one. I was listening to the words of the speakers and I shouted them to those behind me—no one within ten feet of me could claim that there was anyone voiceless on those stairs. They shouted as loud as they could, it was my privilege to make their voices travel further, riding on the wave of my own.
Afterwards, I stood in line for the march to the African Burial Ground, ready to raise my pale arm in solidarity towards the tourist buses. A grandmotherly woman, who had watched it all from the stairs, grabbed my wrist.
“I saw you down there,” she said. I was surprised, in a way. I don’t expect to be seen—I expect to be looked over as neither dangerous nor vulnerable enough to be of interest to anyone else. But I heard all sorts of meanings in that sentence, because grandmothers have a way with words—they add a weight to words—that the rest of us have not yet earned.
I shrugged, shyly, “Might as well use my privilege. …I mean, I’m not afraid to shout…” She didn’t say anything more, just held my wrist, hard. The march ahead of me moved on, and I slowly followed, but she held on, longer than she had to.
Later that night, I stood at the bottom of the stairs by the McDonald’s bathroom, the same arm raised above my head. One after another, the young men in line there copied the National Lawyer Guild’s number from my forearm to their own, usually with my marker since they hadn’t thought to bring their own.
I laughed, thinking that instead of being a soccer mom I was a protest mom. Instead of, “Have you got your cleats?” I asked them, “Have you got bail money?” But it’s that same concern for the details, the same practical worry about their bodies that they are too busy and excited to attend to themselves, that moves me.
It felt good; for a moment, I was a modern Mother Liberty.
But I keep thinking about the grandmothers. I keep thinking about them marching and getting arrested and guarding us all.
Thank you for seeing us, grandmothers. Thank you for paying attention. Thank you for loving us as long as you have. I wish we didn't need you to, but I'm grateful that you can.