Ma HajaCivil strife and unrest separated me from my grandparents. My parents’ courageous decision to leave their homeland of Liberia must have been a hard one to make. Most kids that I grew up with had their grandparents close by. The few times I was around my grandparents are some of my most cherished memories.

My paternal grandmother, Ma Haja, loved our frequent visits to the Dollar Store. She was fascinated with how cheap everything was. I can’t tell you how many times she asked my dad in delight while we shopped, “How much is this again?” It was like she won the lottery.

As an adult now, I realize that my grandparents seeking refuge at our home was  a temporary situation. Trips to the Dollar Store would only last a little while. Reality would set in and her time with us was inevitably cut short. Grandma would have to go back to the chaos of war.

Six months ago, my sweet grandmother, Ma Haja, passed away. I will remember her baritone voice and laugh. She nicknamed me ‘big sister’ because her older sister was my namesake. Her passing has allowed me time to reflect on the ways she impacted my life and how she was with me in spirit during major milestones.

She would send my favorite peanut butter and sugary treat called Kayan, when I was studying in my college dorms. She was unable to attend our wedding due to more political strife, but she sent a Lappa (long piece of fabric, traditionally worn as a skirt) with my aunty so we could have a piece of her there to celebrate. I was blessed that my boys were able to talk with their great grandmother in Liberia from time to time.

Liberian family and traditionShe would have been 90 years old this month. Two weeks ago, our family and friends in the U.S gathered to celebrate her life. Most of her grand and great-grandchildren wore her favorite color green, and her children wore all white.

It was a beautiful, traditional Liberian event. In honor of her religion, we had local Imams recite the Quran and all the women had special Hijabs during the service. We danced, reflected with old photographs, shared stories, and reconnected with each other.

My grandmother was a strong and determined woman. Many people in our home country loved her. She built several mosques throughout Liberia. She built a bus shelter in her hometown so people wouldn’t have to wait in the rain for transportation. She was married to my Episcopalian grandfather for 61 years. Although they were married and practicing two different faiths, they respected one another. She didn’t have a formal education, but she expected all of her children and grandchildren to get an education.

She was a respected mother. She had 13 children of her own and raised more children without hesitation, taking in friends and family who needed support. Every day dozens of people filled her front porch and yard ready to listen to her speak her truth. They would follow her everywhere she went with praise. She was grounded in her faith. She was unapologetically headstrong.

I didn’t have my grandmother physically around me all the time. But, I can attest that our bond was very strong. Our few shared memories and her legacy of strength, compassion and wisdom will always beat strong in my heart.