My cellphone rang late Monday afternoon and the iPhone screen said "Ann Cooper" was calling. But I knew it could not be her. Despite 107-plus years of good health, her circumstances had taken a turn for the worse in recent months. It was my mother on the line, calling from my grandmother's house in Atlanta. She gave me the sad news that the now-famous "106-year-old Atlanta woman" whom Barack Obama mentioned in his election-night victory speech had died earlier that day.
Like any such loss, her passing weighs heavily on family and friends, perhaps especially on my mother, Joyce Nixon Cooper Bobo, her only surviving child. When President-elect Obama singled out Ann Nixon Cooper's life as the lens through which to view his rise to office, he could not have appreciated just how special a person she was. The CNN story that brought her to the attention of the nation and to candidate Obama captured some, but only a bit, of what made her such a special person. To be sure, it made for a "good news" story to feature a 106-year-old black woman heading out to vote for the man about to become the first African-American president of the United States. But personally, it made even deeper sense to bring the remarkable life of Ann Nixon Cooper to a larger stage.
Others can talk about her public involvements and social service. I knew her as a loving grandmother and fountainhead of a family. And it is that side of her to which I want to pay tribute.
I grew up in Los Angeles, far from the Atlanta manse where my grandmother lived and raised her family since the 1930s. Over the course of my life, I made fewer trips to Atlanta than I would have liked, but the connection to Grandmomma ran deep and strong from my earliest moments of consciousness. Of course, I was too young and unaware to recall our first meeting. But to this day, one of my most cherished possessions is a photo taken when I was about 2 years old, with all my aunts and uncles standing around a long sofa with my grandmother seated at the center and grandchildren of all ages fanning out on either side, including my newborn brother, slumped against the arm of the sofa for support.
Over the years we made trips to Atlanta that deepened the connection to Grandmomma and the Atlanta- and Tallahassee-based wings of the family. Two sentiments are soldered deep into my soul as a result of these visits. First and foremost, I appreciated and loved my grandmother as the wellspring of a sense of rootedness, connection, solidity and utter and completely support in a chaotic world. Her voice, her touch and her smile made me feel I had a sure and safe place. She provided the place and the spirit to bring together a small army of cousins who reveled in each other's company and friendship. Second, and almost inseparable from the first, Ann Nixon Cooper was a woman of rare equanimity, poise, grace and love of life. Anyone who met her was instantly taken by her smile, the joy of her easy laughter and the heartfelt warmth of her touch.
I recall traveling to Atlanta in 1967 for the sad time of my grandfather's death. A driven, hardworking and proud man, he was taken from us all-but especially from her-far too soon. She deeply felt the loss of her husband and soul mate but carried on. And I recall how she and the family were touched by the arrival of a telegram from Coretta Scott and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. offering condolences and regrets that, due to travel in India, they would not be able to attend the funeral.
I recall her at very happy moments as well. I attended her 85th birthday party. She, my mother and my aunt all wore the most stunning Senegalese gowns and danced, as always, the Electric Slide with abandon. I also attended her 100th and 104th birthday parties. By the time of the second, many in Atlanta had simply started to refer to her as "104." And the party attracted such local luminaries as former U.N. ambassador Andrew Young and Congressman John Lewis. To this day my wife marvels at Grandmomma walking down the stairs of her house, on the way to the 104th party, wearing pumps, elegant and happy, and looking forward to the night's festivities. She also attended our wedding in 1997, which would have been far less memorable had Grandmomma not been there to dance, once again and always, the Electric Slide.
My wife and I visited Atlanta in 2005 to give lectures at Emory University. We made a point of staying an extra day to see Grandmomma. Though she was getting over a cold, she spent a long afternoon with us, recounting the many gatherings and events she had attended, usually on the arm of Andy Young. She was a great, engaging talker. After nearly two hours of uninterrupted storytelling, she paused and said, "Well, enough about me. Two university professors, young people like you all, you must lead much more interesting lives than little old me." My wife and I tried to say something we thought might be interesting, but, I must confess, we were no competition for her as raconteur. After a few minutes of our stumbling, she just starting talking again, which was simply wonderful!
I have two regrets now that she is gone. She always prized reading, learning and education. The imprint she made on my mother was handed down directly to me as well. When I completed my PhD, I rushed from Ann Arbor to a job at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Like many headstrong new PhDs at the time, I cared little for the pomp and circumstance of graduation rites and did not take part in the hooding ceremony. As it turns out, both my mother and
Grandmomma had been looking forward to attending my graduation. For that oversight, I am sorry. But in the main, I regret not having spent more time sitting in the den talking with her, listening to the clock chime and drinking the always splendid ice tea she kept on hand. I love you, Grandmomma. We will keep your memory alive and cherish our time together always.
Lawrence D. Bobo is the W.E.B. DuBois Professor of the Social Sciences at Harvard University.