AS WE WALKED ACROSS the porch and opened Fannie Granton's front door, our noses smacked into the smells of cinnamon and onion. Her father, about 90 then, slow-talked stories he'd heard from his early days in the South while Fannie cooked beef in a cinnamon marinade and turkey with onions. The old man spun folk tales. telling how the Devil was outsmarting God, but that John, that nobile hero, was outsmarting the Devil. Fannie, wooden spoon in hand, laughed softly at the folklore. Her father was a "killer" and she knew it.
Older women sometimes cloak themselves in disguises that are hard for young people to penetrate. It's not so much that they're trying to be secretive as they're trying to protect themselves, probably because they've been around longer.
When Fannie Granton died last week at the age of 66, I was among the hundreds of people she knew, for she was the hub of black Washington's information network.
She'd been a constant in my life for ore than 15 years, but I never saw the day when the shield dropped, the day to ask what made her tick, the lessons she had learned, questions about failures and regrets.
Fannie Granton made her first foray into journalism when she was over 40, after working mostly as a social worker for several segregated agencies here. She probably studied social work because it spelled security for women in her generation. She rose to become a columnist for Jet Magazine, where she chronicled the events of the once-private world of Washington's black society. She later became deputy chief of the Johnson Publishing Company's bureau here.
She traveled to Africa with presidents and first ladies and covered the civil rights movement. Over time, I saw her become a better woman, her multiple interest and activities a reflection of the concerns that black women share.
She used what power she had to promote and encourage others, but she never expected payment in return. By chronicling black society, she made people feel they were somebody special.
In my early years in Washington in the 1960s, Fannie was a constant counsel. She connected me with people who could help me find housing when I came as a young reporter for The Washington Post. She talked down my fears about discrimination against blacks who worked for white newspapers, cheered my on when I was discouraged about people who balked at being interviewed.
She provided invitations to her home where she seemed most totally herself -- a little apart from social Washington and full of the congeniality and warmth people refer to as "down home."
In those early years she lived in Anacostia, and it seemed appropriate because Southeast was more like the South back then than part of a large city. To a Southern girl away from home, being entertained by Fannie was like going home to Mama.
But like a lot of young women, I was too busy learning the ropes, meeting new people, expanding my dreams. And the older friend was turned to less and less to answer questions or give advice.
So I watched Fannie take care of a father who lived to be over 100, a sister and a brother, but never learned how she really felt about never marrying. I never asked her why she willingly buried herself in her job, making everyone else's social life her social life.
So on the Sunday afternoons that we ate the cinnamon beef, we talked instead of black politicians' private lives and foibles, the civil rights movement and the progress of blacks in government.
She moved from Anacostia as her work grew more demanding. Occasionally I'd see her walking down Columbia Road headed for her roomy apartment on Lanier Place, wearing clothes so plain they escaped your notice, sensible flat shoes and, often, a nondescript hat.
Although she covered the White House, State Department and Embassy Row -- and she was known as the unofficial social adviser to the White House on blacks -- she was friends with many who'd never set foot in the White House, and she enjoyed being part of that circle. In turn, her friends loved and protected her -- willingly chauffeuring the reporter who never got a driver's license.
On May 20 last year, I joined several hundred Washingtonians who paid tribute to Fannie on her 65th birthday. She described herself then simply as a "plugger" and stopped the lofty trubutes by announcing that she planned to be around a long time. "So let's bring on the records now and rock." Even rocking, she look dignified.
When I spoke to her, she diverted attention from herself. "Bring the children by some time, they must be really big by now."
I promised I would, but never got around to it. Now I'm doubly sorry. That visit might have opened Fannie up, not only to me, but to yet another generation.