Day 85: Topie Johnson

My maternal grandmother grew up in Georgia with an extended family that included the famous author Carson McCullers (Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Member of the Wedding.) This fact has never gotten me laid.

I called my grandmother “Bopie” because she wanted me to call her “Topie” but I was young, rebellious and missing my front two teeth. Her name was Roberta, but in Georgia her family (including Carson) called her Topie. Why, I have no idea. It was probably just some southern silliness like pie with nuts in it, and slavery.

Despite having moved to Dayton Ohio in her 30’s, she maintained a thick southern accent which I imagined her practicing while petting a nice ripe peach. Southern people of her generation, despite not having lived through it, were still sorta pissed about the whole Civil War loss they suffered at the hands of the North. I tried everything I could to update her opinions. I even got her to watch “Boys in the Hood” with me. It completely backfired because it confirmed all of her thoughts about how black society worked, “Well, they just drink beer and shoot each other? That’s exactly what I thought they all did.”

I was in college at the time and thought I was smart so I tried to explain to her the social, economic, political and cultural climate that gave rise to hopelessness in the urban ghettos. It was like trying to teach a cat how to build a campfire. Only a stupid 20 year-old sociology major with a pharoh length goatee wearing a Free Mumia shirt would think they could explain racism to a 70 yr old Southern Belle by making her watch Boys in the Hood. Later perhaps I should have made her listen to some NWA just to further solidify her assumptions that African Americans are all homicidal lunatics. What I should have done was taken her to a Cornell West lecture. Unfortunately,  that would have required more effort than a trip to Blockbuster, and I was usually too high from the Darvocet I stole from her to do much of anything.

My mother was born in Georgia, and to my grandmother, that made my Mom southern, while my father and I were “Yankees.” That’s what she called us, “The Yankees.” not  the baseball team, but the winning side of the Civil war – The Union, the North, The Yankees. She was still fighting the fateful battle of Gettysburg in her head and my father and I were not to be trusted.

Some years later when I was in graduate school, my father and I got Topie to watch a few episodes of Ken Burn’s Civil War documentary. About an hour in she said, “Well that Techumseh Sherman, he’s worse than Hitler.” My Dad and I looked at each other, mouths agape trying to hold back a laugh like one of us farted in Algebra. It was one of those statements that’s so out there in cluelessville that you realize the person who said it has no idea what they’re talking about. It’s like a racist who gets all the stereotypes wrong. “Them Native Americans is stealin’ all our jobs and impregnatin’ all our  virgins robots!” You don’t need to be afraid of that guy because no one is going to listen to him – he’s just that far off the wall.

That’s when I gave up on changing my grandmother and started appreciating her for all the interesting things she had to say and all the great memories she had. She was teaching in Pearl Harbor when it was attacked and gave me a piece of shrapnel she had found and kept. We talked about her relationship with Carson and she gave me a signed first edition of “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.” Sometimes, I guess you just gotta let people be who they are and make sure you don’t turn the channel to BET.

I'm a contributing writer to Parents Magazine, GQ, Psychology Today and some others. My book, "This is Ridiculous. This is Amazing: Parenthood in 71 Lists" is available here Look for two more books in 2015: "Must. Push. Buttons (Bloomsbury Kids), and an as-of-yet untitled memoir I’ve appeared on Comedy Central’s “Live at Gotham” and “Nick Mom’s Night Out." I live in New Jersey with my wife and two sons and enjoy making them laugh more than anyone else.

4 comments On Day 85: Topie Johnson

  • It's about time y'all understood this!

  • I still argue with my almost 80 year old Grandma about clothes and how you can't tell people that they're fat or call people "colored". She's of the "I don't get older, I get bolder" variety and says whatever the hell she wants. Its kind of fascinating.

  • What a cool piece of history you have in your own family. I was just reading about Carson McCullers and it sounded like she had a pretty sad life. Glad you were able to accept your Bopie for who she is and have a good relationship with her!

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