My grandmothers were strong independent women far before Bey was singing about it. Ms. Ev, my paternal grandmother, raised my father alone while also helping to find safe homes and parents for orphans in Kingston, Jamaica. My maternal grandmother, also named Evelyn but went by Skippy, owned her own antique store in manhattan, restoring beautiful pieces and raising my mother on her own.
The woman I learned so much about the world from was not my maternal or paternal grandmothers. She was Skippy’s sister, best friend, and confidant, a world traveler, a holistic healer, and everyone’s go to for company and advice - Nellie Monk was the grandmother I grew up with. She loved me unconditionally and always made me feel wanted and included.
With Ms.Ev in Jamaica, and Skippy having passed in my mother’s teens, I was very blessed to grow up with Nellie in the room next to mine. We spent more time together than I think most kids spend with their grandparents. She was unlike any other person I’ve ever known.
As the baby of the family, hanging out with Nellie made me feel like a big person. It wasn’t just the appeal of hanging with an older wiser individual, rather she spoke to me how she spoke to everyone else. Whether it was my Uncle Toot (her son), the cashier, or her hair dresser we all got the same Nellie.
Nellie was a straight shooter. Everyone got the same version of her, no baby talk, no biting her tongue to soften a blow, just unfiltered honesty. Once you stop treating everyone differently based on age or social standing, you are able to talk about anything and everything.
That’s what Nellie did, and why everyone sought her out. The company she kept was diverse including people from every walk of life. We always had musicians old and new, more than a few aunts cousins and uncles, and neighbors she had met over the years coming in and out of the house. They all just wanted to spend time with her, have some laughs, and seek out a little of her sage unfiltered wisdom.
It was during our backgammon and Yahtzee games or as we split a pack of Reese’s cups that I got the chance to learn about the world from Nellie. We would play and talk for hours. She knew I could listen to her all day given the chance. So she taught me how to listen and deliver a sharp quip. Nellie told me stories about how terribly the canals smelled in Venice (and other anecdotes from abroad), of her adventures with Skippy in their youth and adulthood, and through these and many bits and pieces, about her life.
She spent her childhood working to help support herself and her siblings, traveled the world with her husband, raised two brilliant talented children, and in her seventies and eighties hosted hangs in the room next to mine.
Many a night I wandered in hoping to get my turn at the backgammon board. Invariably my turn would never come but I would stay to feast on all the good gossip. Something a little too juicy would spill and someone would remember me there “Nellie the baby is still in the room”. Just as my heart sank and I remembered I wasn’t one of the big people she would say “don’t worry she’s not even listening” giving me a sly glance.
She would never kick me out, and I was always listening.
Written by: Pannonica Val-Hackett