Today, I gather with family, friends and students to celebrate the life of my grandmother, Marie Christmas Rhone. She was a woman like no other. She had an intensity about her that would hit you to the core of your being. For some, that blow was to fear and insecurity. For most, it was to strength, will and determination that she not only believed in you, but she believed in an even better version of you. It was up to you to rise to meet your destiny.
I am in awe of all of the lives my grandmother has touched. With an almost 60-year career in education, she retired at the age of 89-89! She saw my sister, my cousin, my niece and me through Hunter College Elementary School, as well as countless others. Whether in her classroom or not, she was an advocate for education first, and the welfare and success of African-American students.
My grandmother’s passion for education influenced and fostered many educators as well, most significantly my mother. My mother attributes her 40-plus year career in education and literacy to my grandmother’s pointed insights and support. It is their collective passions that set me on a course to be the fourth generation to graduate from the University of Pennsylvania–and to not take it for granted. Thank you.
In fact, my mother attributes much of her success outside of the classroom to my grandmother, too. So for Easter 2011, my mother invited my grandmother, aunt and cousin over to the house for dinner to celebrate our accomplishments. As the food curator (a.k.a. the Food Police) of my family, I was in charge of the meal and experience.
The menu needed to be light, elegant and refined and had to include lamb chops! My grandmother loved petite lollipop lamb chops. So I bought the best I could find and diligently marinated them the night before in a paste of herbs, green onion, garlic, lemon zest and olive oil, making them ready to be gently grilled the next day. They would be accompanied by a red quinoa and feta salad and haricot vert. Dessert was blood orange and mango sorbet with thin almond butter cookies. I hoped my grandmother would like it.
I arrived at my mother’s house to get everything ready. The pressure was on, as I knew everything had to be just so, if even just in my head. This manifested in anxiety and a dispute with my mother about my table design. I thought my mother’s crystal menagerie was a resourceful understated centerpiece that my grandmother would appreciate. Glad I fought for it.
The day, the visit and the meal were joyous. My grandmother loved the menu and the table, and she even took some lamb chops and almond cookies home. I was happy. For me, this was one of those moments I can look back on and realize that without saying a word, my grandmother forced the best out of me. She never made it about the accolades or a pat on the back from others; it was about you knowing you did the best you could do.
While I am sad she is no longer with us, I am grateful for silver linings, and I don’t think I have ever had one so great. Being there with my grandmother in her final months of life proved to be a life-defining moment for me–she remains the consummate teacher. What was an occasional check-in phone call that ended, what seemed like moments later, with her saying, “OK dear, thanks for calling,” would be hours spent at her bedside with family.
During one evening visit to the hospital, as we watched “Jeopardy,” my grandmother had a visitor. It was a woman I’d never met before. We introduced ourselves to each other. She immediately regaled me with my life’s accomplishments–college, living in Los Angeles, travel, food entrepreneur–all regaled to her by my grandmother. My soul smiled big!
The woman went on to tell how my grandmother, who taught her brother in the elementary school downstairs, would call the then-teenage girl down from the high school upstairs, ostensibly to help my grandmother in the classroom. My grandmother’s real motive was to tell her how her brother was doing and to check on her progress in school. This now top executive at a major bank still recalls the lunches, the expensive corduroy pants and sparkly shoes my grandmother bought for her when her family couldn’t. My grandmother.
Marie Christmas Rhone, “Mommy,” “Mother,” “Rie,” “Nana,” “Aunt Marie,” “Ms. Rhone.” You are a treasure to so many. Thank you for everything you have done for us–spoken and unspoken, known and unknown. We will continue to do our best always. We love you now and forever.
Donations can be made in memory of Marie Rhone to the Thurgood Marshall College Fund at www.thurgoodmarshallfund.net.
Kysha Harris is a food writer, culinary producer, consultant and owner of SCHOP!, a personalized food service offering weekly and in-home entertaining packages. Questions? Comments? Requests? Feedback? Invitations! Email her at kysha@iSCHOP.com, follow her on Twitter and Instagram @SCHOPgirl, on Facebook www.facebook.com/SCHOPnyc or chat with her on Instant Messenger at AskSCHOP, Monday-Friday, 6-8 p.m. For even more recipes, tips and food musings subscribe to her blog at www.talkingSCHOP.wordpress.com.