Editor’s note: Sonya Jackson first told this story on stage at the Des Moines Storytellers Project’s “Family.” The Des Moines Storytellers Project is a series of storytelling events in which community members work with Register journalists to tell true, first-person stories live on stage. An edited version appears below.
I grew up in Des Moines, and from the time I was 8 years old, I wanted to leave. I fantasized about escaping to a new life outside of a town that sometimes left a petite, sickly caramel colored kid feeling lonely and out of place.
I had no intention of escaping Iowa as a cartoon version of myself, with my belongings wrapped in a handkerchief tied to stick that was slung over my shoulder. In my escape dreams, I look like my grandmother, Virginia — my dad’s mom — whose nickname was Jean.
Well, actually, a younger version of her memorialized in a dog-eared, old black and white photograph having the time of her life at the Club DeLisa, a long-ago shuttered honky tonk nightclub on the Southside of Chicago.
I would dress smart for my imagined exit, usually wearing a 1940’s-style A-line dress to accentuate my hour-glass figure, (even though I hadn’t yet developed). A black mink stole held together by a single crystal button would gently caress my shoulders hanging just below my collar bones, and a small black pocketbook would dangle just above my white-gloved hand from a thin, yet sturdy, black patent leather strap.
My overly soft “dumb baby hair” curls would fall in wisps around my face and neck from underneath a black veiled velvet halo pill box hat, and my lips would have a light smear of ruby red lipstick. My ensemble was complete only after a meandering stroll through a spritz of powdery and spicy Estee Lauder Youth Dew.
My grandma always wore that perfume, and I loved the way she smelled.
There were probably many reasons I envisioned the Iowa escaping me as my grandma. Grandma had escaped from Iowa after growing up in Gravity, a small farming community just over 80 miles southwest of Des Moines. She was a tall sturdy woman who called herself “big-boned,” and I was a short child with oversized bone rimmed frames and thick glasses that resembled the bottom of coke bottles. But I saw myself in her.
She was my blueprint for shaking the dust off my shoes and leaving small town life.
After relocating to Chicago, Grandma dated gamblers, wrote policy — the numbers game that was the precursor to the lottery, and carried a small pearl handled pistol that she would use to in her words, “bust somebody,” if they got out of line.
Grandma loved telling me I was “special.” She said I was doubly hers because I was her granddaughter and her goddaughter.
Grandma often took me the Des Moines airport — we could park on the tarmac back then — and as we’d eat her freshly made sandwiches jammed with lunch meat or ham salad on white bread and wash them down with ice-cold orange soda, we’d watch airplanes push back, taxi and soar into the clear blue sky.
Sitting on top of her late model forest green Chevy Impala, Grandma would ask, “Where are you going today?” as if I had already boarded one of those planes. I’d quickly pick a destination and she would follow up with, “What will you do when you get there?”
Grandma and I had those dates often, and my imagination grew with each airport visit. I started researching faraway places and the activities to do there, so that I always was prepared with a good tale about my impending trips.
It was the perfect game for a bookish girl who preferred adults over children. My grandmother understood me and gave me license to dream.
At 8, Grandma taught me to play poker. She said, “If you’re going to peep hold cards, you need to have a high ball.” Then she made me my first drink. Southern Comfort and Coke. The drink was hot and medicinal, and burned going down. I felt like a grown-up and occasionally took puffs of an imaginary cigarette in a long, black holder.
Grandma’s older sister, Aunt Lulu, also had a significant impact on my life. I loved how Aunt Lulu protected grandma, who like me, was the baby of the family. Their deep love for each other was palpable, and they were alike — and very different.
Grandma loved the nightlife, and sometimes skirted the edge of conventionality. Aunt Lulu loved fun, but she was an academic. She was the first African-American woman in the state of Iowa to receive a Ph.D.
Aunt Lulu retired after years of being Dean of Women at Cheyney University in Pennsylvania. She lived on the inlet to the Atlantic Ocean in a tony community in Millsboro, Delaware. She loved to entertain and often cooked feasts of oversized crab cakes and other food straight from the sea.
My favorite was her steaming, fragrant pan-fried trout that she served with corn fritters jammed with mind-blowingly sweet silver queen corn.
Aunt Lulu knew I loved books and words. If things were too quiet, she would say, “Grab the dictionary, Doll,” and tell me to randomly select any word. Every time, no matter the word, she would recite the definition verbatim.
I’d sit on her bed atop a colorful crocheted blanket in her dimly lit bedroom wondering whether I was had by a clever party trick. I didn’t yet understand that I was sitting at the feet of a scholar, an activist, and a pioneer, who, like my grandmother, had chosen to dream big.
Like grandma, Aunt Lulu also loved poker. It didn’t go unnoticed that I took to the game very well, especially given my frequent winning streaks.
As a kid, I never had to be told to go to bed. I’d start powering down around 7 p.m., and by 8 p.m., I’d give a trite, “that’s it for me folks,” offer a hearty peace out, and off I’d go to bed.
During one of my winning streaks, I tried to make a polite exit, but Aunt Lulu wasn’t having it. I had won far too many of her pennies to be allowed to take rest for the night.
She tried to make me stay up and continue to play, and even dealt a face-up “suicide round.” But I fell asleep at the card table in a face plant on top of my winnings.
I finally escaped Iowa after graduating from the University of Iowa. I ended up leading global corporate departments and guiding the social conscious of Fortune 500 companies. My career took me all over the world, and I still love to travel.
Every time I travel, Grandma is with me, frank and deep in my heart.
And, like my great aunt, Dr. Lulu Merle Johnson, I ended up being a pioneer. During my corporate career, as a senior executive, I was usually the only person of color and often the only woman in typically male environments.
Aunt Lulu’s courage and accomplishments taught me to pursue what I wanted in life. I quickly learned though, that sometimes it’s necessary to have sharp elbows when you follow your dreams.
Once, when I was making a presentation in a board meeting, a more senior colleague stopped me mid-sentence and asked whether a word I had just used was “too big” for me. His comment was intended to make me the butt of his joke.
Without missing a beat, I replied, “No, is it too big of a word for you?” His face turned crimson red and I continued my presentation. Aunt Lulu’s lessons about words, and the grace I learned from how she handled difficult situations, helped me diffuse his comment and successfully complete the presentation.
When the pandemic started in 2020, my world was turned upside down. I had lived away from Iowa for more than 30 years, mostly in Chicago.
It was never on my bingo card to return to Des Moines.
Illinois was the second state to completely go on lockdown, and fear and isolation got the better of me. I thought the world was ending, and I had become anti-social, paranoid, and agoraphobic. I decided I wanted to be near my octogenarian parents during those uncertain times.
I escaped from Iowa, which also meant I had spent a lifetime away from them.
So, I loaded my SUV with as many belongings as I could fit, donned a black N95 mask and thick blue latex gloves, and thanked God for having given me the presence of mind to buy a hybrid vehicle. I did not need to stop for gas to drive from my high-rise condo building in Chicago to my parent’s house in Des Moines.
Now that I’m back in Des Moines, at times it is unfathomable how long I managed to stay away.
Aunt Lulu received her doctorate from the University of Iowa in 1941, and never returned after her escape. Grandma escaped and spent a lifetime in Chicago and returned to take on yet another battle with cancer, a battle that eventually took her life.
Both grandma and Aunt Lulu taught me to dream big. Grandma taught me with our trips to the airport, and Aunt Lulu taught me about overcoming obstacles. Family makes us who we are while teaching us who we need to be.
I’m back in Des Moines with my family because of love — and love is a great equalizer.
ABOUT THE STORYTELLER: Sonya Jackson, a self-described executive producer of ideas that matter, is a culture curator. She is an accomplished writer, producer, playwright and activist, and uses storytelling, media, technology and lived experiences as a force for good. She is a former senior corporate executive with more than 25 years of experience in communications, reputation management, giving and social impact. She is producer and impact producer of “Punch 9 for Harold Washington,” the first feature-length film about Chicago’s first African-American mayor.
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