long ago

Rashida A. Hodge with her grandmother Maria Estrill DeGraff in 2017.

Long ago, “the old people” would say. What they would say varied in color of language and volume of voice. But, they would say.

What they would say is not as central as the power and impact their words held. The “old people” held a sacred place in our hearts, captivating our ears as we sought out their thoughts on our lives, our communities, and even our politics.

Like many cultures, the vibrancy and magnetism of Virgin Islands culture have been best communicated and passed down orally. Through the stories, the rumors, and forewarnings, “the old people” created volumes of wisdom and knowledge where we formed our long-held traditions and even beliefs.

On March 14, 2019, my grandmother died at the wisdom-soaked age of 96. Her life easily showcased the best of her generation. Their willingness to be bold, outspoken and in your business.

So many of us will forever remember and miss Maria Estrill DeGraff’s ubiquitous presence in Savan, one of the oldest historical districts in St. Thomas. Perched on her porch, she functioned as a self-appointed mayor, greeting neighbors and friends, “punging melee” (non-Virgin Islander translation: gossiping), and serving hot helpings of unsolicited advice. Maria Estrill DeGraff was one of the elders that we esteemed and to whom we turned our ears.

Over the past years, my work at IBM has exposed me to many technological advancements. I have seen the best and brightest minds develop technologies and solutions for complex challenges. Yet, so often I would fly back to St. Thomas for the opportunity to glean knowledge and solutions from my grandmother and my family.

It wasn’t that I couldn’t easily do a Google search on a solution or speak to an industry expert. What I came to realize and deeply understand is the inexplicably powerful and unparalleled knowledge and understanding that comes from living a long, full life. My grandmother’s advice could not be duplicated.

And that has led me to a renewed focus with which I am living my life since my grandmother’s passing through these three lessons:

1. More connecting. Social media, texts, and technology-driven communication are great, but they are cheap substitutes for the richness of in-person, face-to-face connection. Although I would spend time with my grandmother when home, those visits often consisted of me working with my laptop between us. I was there, but I lessened our experience by not diving head-first into connecting with her. I’m learning to embrace tangible connections that are real, sometimes intense, maybe awkward, but in-person and undistracted.

2. More caring. I often called my grandmother out on her nosiness. However, I think a better spin on that was her deep care and concern for not only her family, but also her community at large. Even in advanced age, she remembered birthdays, quirky details, and insights from conversations. Her care for what I would consider the minor things challenges me to follow in-kind. I want to grow in caring for others, my colleagues, and my community by learning and better understanding their needs.

3. More cultivating. Living on the U.S. mainland, I have faced many people who struggled with understanding why I was so overcome with grief over my grandmother’s passing at the age of 96. To them, that seemed like a long, well-lived life. But, I believe the grief I experienced came from how well my grandmother cultivated a strong sense of identity to which so many of us felt connected. I too hope to cultivate a life with that level of impact. That even in advanced age, my presence and life still brings substantial meaning to my loved ones.

In death, we often have the desire to create picture-perfect memorials of those who are no longer with us. We highlight their positives in such bright hues that their challenges and weaknesses seem nonexistent.

And in this tribute, I hope not to do that. Like all people, even our elders, we all live our lives in tension between the best of who we are and the reality of our missteps. We hope our best outweighs our worst. But, we rely on the unconditional love of our loved ones to balance the scale. Through our good or bad, we are loved, and we offer love to others.

I am grateful for my grandmother, and I appreciate the lessons gleaned from the complexities of who she was. Though I had to reject and confront her on superficial notions of beauty steeped in colorism and colonialism, these three lessons she taught me on leading I will never forget.

Let’s lend our hearts and ears to the elders in our lives. Their wisdom and advice may also spark a renewed sense of purpose and focus for you as well. Or it may simply be the connection, care and cultivation that we all need.

Either way, we cannot negate the importance of face-to-face time spent with our living historians, culture bearers, and wisdom wells.

I know I wish I had more time with my grandmother and I encourage you to spend more time with your mother, father, siblings, grandparents, cousins or anyone that is special to you … the work and societal demands will be there tomorrow.

— Rashida A. Hodge lives in San Francisco, Calif.