Daisy Marie Taylor: Keeping the faith
By Vanee’ M. Vines
The photograph, snapped in 1968 at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, is one of my favorites. There’s my grandmother with glossy black hair – all cute and confident in her nurse’s dress with its cinched waist and short, cuffed sleeves. She and a patient embrace shoulder to shoulder, with one of his arms draped over her petite but sturdy frame. His other hand rests on a piece of furniture or equipment. He looks weak, out of it. But they both beam for the camera. Survivors who endured a storm together; overjoyed that the worst of it has passed.
The photo is so “Mama,” or how she was for most of her life – nurturing and eager to help a “fellow traveler” on or off the job. She was that special person who listened to folks cry the blues for hours. Who prayed with the downtrodden or encouraged some corner boys to try Jesus. My grandmother, Daisy Marie Taylor, is now 80, long retired and suffering from dementia. These days, she can’t do much for herself, let alone others.
She and my grandfather, Fountain Jr., were working-class parents of five in Washington, D.C. They labored their way from ghetto rentals to home ownership to investments in several properties. The Middle Class. “Da,” also retired, was a sergeant major in the Army and production manager in the dietary department at Howard University Hospital. Mama eventually pursued a nursing career after toiling at a local dry cleaners.
She never forgot what it was like to be broke. She wrote the checks and scrutinized their cash flow. Years ago as we walked outside one day, she stopped to pick up a penny. It’s still money, she pointed out. More than anything, though, I think it was her faith that resonated with people. Even now, with limited self-sufficiency and a mind gutted by illness, she is one of the most grateful people I know.
“Ma, would you like some coffee?”
“That sounds good. Thank the Lord.”
“Ma, let me get a towel for you to dry off.”
“OK. No problem. …Thanks to God.”
Flashes of humor emerge from time to time. They, too, can have a religious flavor.
“Ma, follow the lady. She’s gonna do your hair. Do you want some curls? How do you want it done?”
“Lord only knows.”
I am a Christian, but I used to chuckle whenever she’d pair some seemingly mundane task with praises to the Heavenly Father. Then, her approach – mindset, perhaps – grew on me. She doesn’t know what year it is or that America has its first black president (she’d be shocked, to say the least). She sometimes calls me Velma, my mother’s name. An hour after eating a hearty meal, she’ll swear that she hasn’t eaten all day. Still, her faith in God seems unwavering. Somehow Mama, through the fog of sickness, sees in everyday routines divine grace and mercy. She’s thankful for a soft chair, warm coat, a bowl of butter pecan ice cream.
And that’s how I want to be: always appreciative of the fact that I’m here, above ground, with “flesh on my bones,” as she used to say. It strikes me as the kind of resilience that no recession, foreclosure, divorce or pink slip can erase.
To this day, Mama’s favorite song is “Higher Ground,” penned more than a century ago. She occasionally sings it at my grandparents’ church, First New Hope Baptist. It’s stuck in my own brain because she and I sing it over and over and over whenever I prepare her to take a shower, my way of shifting the focus from what, to her, can seem like a huge violation of privacy or loss of control.
The first verse says it all:
I’m pressing on the upward way
New heights I’m gaining every day
Still praying as I’m onward bound
Lord, plant my feet on higher ground
A testimony for the ages.
Vanee’ M. Vines is a freelance writer based in Bowie, Md.