September 3, 2020
While it was expected, the news of TuTu’s death was loud and sudden. The hours after however felt oddly silent. Like the audible nothingness following a tornado or an explosion. It sounded as though had I dropped something, it would echo infinitely when it hit the ground. I found myself walking circles around my house, then driving aimlessly around town, as if I couldn’t figure out where I was or how to get home.
TuTu was the last of my living grandparents to go into the life to come. To have lived most of my life, adult life even, with all of my grandparents is a rare gift not lost on me. On my mom’s side, my grandfather and namesake Donald (or Dabo) was a polymath and my grandmother Mama 2 a fashionista. On Dad’s side, my grandfather TaTa was the quintessential American working man. And then there was TuTu.
I have been trying to think of the best phrase or word to describe her, Ohna Jo Jordan—known though to most children and adults as TuTu for at least the last forty years—since she went home on hospice several weeks ago. I’ve noticed over the last few days that the word I landed on in the knowledge that this very moment was coming is being used regularly by many others to describe her.
TuTu, my last grandparent, was a firecracker. She was a short, red, singing, smiling, blonde firecracker.
She was a firecracker at church, the only person I’ve ever known to be a full-time, go-to Sunday School substitute teacher after she “retired” from actually leading Sunday School programs and all kinds of other groups. When she was caring for my granddad in his last days, she would faithfully drive up to First Baptist with her tithe check in hand every single Monday, marching in and dropping it off, talking to her multiple friends in the office, then studying the prayer board while taking notes before she left.
And know this: if she added you to her prayer list, it wasn’t an act of southern kindness or religious best practice. It was in fact a very real and personal call to arms for her. In a passing chat, I would tell her about a friend going through hard times or waiting on significant news, asking her to pray for them if she thought about it. A year later she would call me specifically for the purpose of getting an update on how that person or family was, and how she needed to pray for them moving forward.
She told a story of being around 5 or 6 with some kind of degenerative eye issue that was rendering her blind and had resulted in doctors telling her she would live her life without sight. One evening in the 1930s she decided that a certain prayer at a certain place on that certain night would bring her sight back even though the Great Depression offered little expendable income to get the gas needed for her scraping-by family to drive her out of town for that to happen. Sure enough, someone had a car and was willing to drive her and my great-grandmother a few hours to the church she insisted on going to for prayer that very night. She explained why she was there and was prayed for.
Her sight returned in that moment as she tells the story. She would go on to describe staring at the brilliance of the car’s dome light as my cousin Paul remembers after insisting it stay on the whole way home, and eye doctors continued to tell her throughout her adult life they couldn’t believe she could see with all the scarring in her eyes. They didn’t know she was a firecracker, though. She was determined and no doubt had an impact on the people who took up her challenge to pray for that certain thing at that certain church that certain evening.
It seems apparent that this experience, one among many, shaped her view of what was possible in prayer as well as what determination and speaking up for what you wanted could bring to your own life and the life of others. It and her telling of it seemed to make both God and imaginative possibility remarkably real.
In flipping through her contact book a few days ago, I noticed she’s added several of these friends I’d once asked her to pray for with their phone numbers and email addresses to its pages. No doubt she followed up with them in case my update answer wasn’t generous enough with the information she needed for her war. She often shared a whole friendship for years with these friends of mine, adopting them as her own grandchildren and keeping pictures of all of us framed on her walls or desk. Their Christmas cards lined her tv cabinet year-round.
Just like those of her grandkids.
Soon after she was married at age 16, my grandfather told her she should drop out of high school and take on her new role as a housewife. In 1947, the firecracker was not having it. Absolutely not. Likely with a red face yet gentle tone, she let him know that would not be the case. She finished high school and went on to take college courses all the way into her final decade of this life.
I suspect that decades of the marriage filled with love they shared following this early incident also shaped what my grandfather TaTa knew she could do when she decided she was worth it and determined, whatever she was told by others. Firecracker. Perhaps this is why, in his final days, my uncle Tony says my granddad asked that she, not a preacher or deacon, himself, or anyone else, pray for him. He was wise to her ways and her firepower.
She loved Lifeline Blood Center, where she worked many years as a secretary for two different Executive Directors, and she would often let me come to work with her. Having set up an enormous desk for me (I’ve learned just today tfrom my cousin Amy who is clearly more intelligent and shared this same experience on her own, that this was merely the conference room and conference table) with Lifeline posters of blood cell cartoon characters and markers, making me feel like I was saving the world by spending hours coloring these posters in this office of hers (that I believed she ran… and in some ways she likely did) where she always made clear magic was happening every day.
In this way, she clearly shaped how I began imagining the meaning of a “job” at an early age. And those with whom she worked there continued to check in on and share life with her for the rest of her life… long after her retirement and everyone’s moving on to other things. She had adopted them as her own children and grandchildren, so they were sure that they were the most talented and important people in the world.
She helped open the doors at the very beginning of ComeUnity Café in downtown Jackson several years ago, then in her 80s. She would greet each visitor at the front door and explain the novel concept of a real restaurant offering healthy, fresh, delicious meals to all regardless of one’s ability to pay, and where labor counted as dignified and respectable cash in exchange for delicious and gourmet food.
She did this in between volunteering nearly full-time for several years at Area Relief Ministries answering phones and doing data entry in Excel spreadsheets to ensure Room in the Inn, a program that facilitates hospitality and generosity between local churches and those who are homeless in the community over a hot meal and warm bed, could continue. The staff at both of these incredible organizations adopted TuTu and she adopted them. “My girls” she would often say about Andrea, Nichole, Nicolé, Lisa, Brandi, and Annie. She talked to my friends in León, Nicaragua and Cape Town, South Africa without my knowledge or presence on multiple occasions. All were adopted as grandchildren, so they were from then on treated as such.
Volunteering at ComeUnity Café and ARM was likely ‘retirement’ number five or six for her. Before this iteration, and after she happily worked fulltime as de facto home health for her husband in his last days during her late sixties and her seventies, she had already audited college courses on the New Testament with undergraduates, complaining only that she couldn’t take the test (after reading the textbook the first time before class ever started). She ultimately adopted all the students in those classes with her—and often the professors—as her own grandchildren. She participated in other Geriatric Social Work classes as a requested participant to share her thoughts on the course material. (“It doesn’t feel as sad or lonely as they say it should,” she once confided to me about the stages of development covered in the course). These students—and their professors—were also adopted as grandchildren. So she saw them all as the most important people around doing the most important work imaginable.
When I was teaching university classes, she managed somehow to adopt nearly every student I’ve ever had in class, following them on Facebook and sharing—I’ve only learned in this last month––regular and private words of encouragement, prayer, wisdom, and support for them as their lives developed. Later on as her health started to deteriorate, at her request, I would hold blown up, life-size pictures of her face next to mine at graduations for students to see as they walked by since she couldn’t be there.
She would record inspiring videos for them for me to share before finals week (where she also sent multiple, huge boxes of chocolate for them), but I did not know of her ongoing communication with them until just the last month or so.
In reality, this has ultimately resulted in a decade of students moving into careers of human service and social justice adopted as grandchildren to whom she was secretly generous and faithful and present for critical years. And I’ve only just found this out.
These newly added grandchildren of hers have been sending messages of grief and stories of hope and impact from the work she did in their lives over the span of years. I’m learning why she would refer to Facebook as “work” when saying she “had to get back to work” these last several years before standing at her laptop on the kitchen counter to talk to her Facebook friends.
It’s true that whatever roles she played over her 89 years, the largest and primary role I ever knew was that of grandmother. She would sign Valentine’s Day, Birthday, Christmas, St. Patrick’s, Easter, Boxing Day—any holiday she knew of—Hallmark cards mailed like clockwork with a crisp five-dollar bill in each signed, “I Love you, TuTu. Your GRANDmother!” with all the letters of ‘grand’ capitalized and often underlined. I keep them in an easy-access drawer in the kitchen.
She made sure I had no question of her love and support for me, that I was her GRANDson as she would also write, and she my GRANDmother. I’m learning only now that she made sure a host of other people knew this to be true also. I’m learning her impact on me was true of most of her grandchildren, born to her or adopted by her.
There’s not enough time for the stories I’d like to tell. Like so many good Southern Baptists, she would go along with the pretense that alcohol was evil when she was in public. So when I would sneak over to her house while she was at her weekly beauty parlor appointment, hide a frozen Daiquiri or Piña Colada in her freezer, then call later telling her to check the freezer and pray… She. Loved. It. While I don’t think she ever actually drank any of them, she loved that they were sneaky and funny and she loved being in on the joke. “Somebody has been bad in my freezer,” she would say randomly, months later, making a sneaky grin followed by an innocent, ignorant, questioning face. Then that burst of red-faced laughter.
Another time we drove up north to see my youngest cousin Casey play the phantom on stage, and later that evening at a hilarious (as usual) family dinner with my family and my uncle and his family, TuTu ordered a glass of white wine, drank two sips over the multiple hours we were there, and then sincerely asked the server for a to-go cup so she could take it back to her hotel room.
I could go on and on and on about her laughter, her singing, her insistence on growing in knowledge, moving aggressively toward thoughtful racial and social justice, comments on the meanness at the heart of the current president’s policies, actions, and comments, making fun of until she finally cleaned my dirty garage, threatening another of her grandsons if he was mean to her great-granddaughter…but there’s no time as we would never be able to leave here today.
So know this: TuTu was a firecracker.
And know this too: truth be told, today is very hard for me. I grew up sitting on our “family pew” at First Baptist Church in between these four grandparents every single week for over a decade. One by one they have moved on and up into the next life, leaving a sharp absence and deep shadow in their assigned seats on that pew. First, the American working man moved on, then the polymath, then the fashionista, and now this week, my TuTu. The firecracker.
In those silent moments after I received the news of her death from my dad earlier this week—the moments after the tornado, the explosion—the imposing and thick silence felt particularly lonely. It felt as though I was now sitting starkly alone on this once-full pew as the last of my incredible grandparents had gone to whatever is next, all leaving incredible legacies, rich histories, and unfillable shoes. It felt like I was alone on this obviously empty pew, and that if I were to drop something it would echo infinitely when it hit the ground.
But in the hours and days that have followed that loud silence, it wasn’t quiet for long and hasn’t been at all since then. As I’ve been forced in my aimless wandering to look around and listen, read emails and texts, receive flowers and letters and cards and chicken salad and coke zeros, the pew I felt so suddenly alone on has become quite overwhelmingly crowded. The whole section is now full and it continues to spill over.
There’s been a growing swell of loud chatter on and around this pew I’ve come to realize is actually filled with all of her children and grandchildren, those few dozen born to her and those hundreds adopted by her. She is still very much here, still very much inspiring, igniting, booming, and encouraging as the firecracker she has always been in the lives of people her own age all the way down to her year-old great-grandbabies and the loved GRANDchildren raising them. Her presence is so deeply missed, but it is also incredibly, deeply felt.
The firecracker is still here and among us.
Because of her life and the way she lived it with great prayer, gratitude, musicality, laughter, spark, and determination, in her honor and memory, may her children, her grandchildren, and her great-great-great-grandchildren live in peace and hope into the beloved community of the kingdom of heaven.
Cheers to you, TuTu.