Last Sunday, we held a burial for my grandmother, which it is important to contextualize this given the pandemic. She passed away at the beginning of the year, and the family decided that they would wait to hold a burial until the weather improved given that the ceremony would be outside. Her burial got pushed back to now and was only attended by fifteen family members. I offered to provide some words at the ceremony. The text below is a modified version of my comments, as I’ve removed personal identifiers and a couple stories in order to protect all family member’s privacy. Apologies as this may make it somewhat difficult to read as everyone is just referred to as a “grandmother” or “brother” etc.
I have moved a lot in my life. By the time I graduated high school, I had lived in seven different houses. In college—four years as opposed to 18—I also lived in seven different places. Since graduating, I have lived in six different places. I have had 20 different permanent addresses. In my 32 years of my existence (and for 15 years prior to that) Grandma had one.
If some asked me to close my eyes and recite what picture comes to mind when someone says “family,” it would likely be an image of my grandpa and grandma’s.
For me, that house meant holidays. It meant celebration, roots, adventure, creativity, exploration, thrill. It is and was my life. Seeing Grandma and her house leave means saying goodbye to the only tangible asset, outside of a teddy bear, that has been there throughout my entire existence. It was home as much as anything else was a home.
I had a really special opportunity in my life that few kids ever get. My parents purchased a home in the same neighborhood as my grandparents and moved us boys, myself and Aaron, my brother, there in 1997. I got to live in the same neighborhood as my grandparents for about three years.
We took the bus to school. Bus #61. The bus was the country route, which meant it was an hour-long bus ride to-and-from school as the bus would weave up and down various paved-and-unpaved roads making its way into town to drop off students at three different schools: the high school and two different middle schools. Now we were not quite old enough yet to stay home by ourselves after school, so while we were picked up at our house, we would be dropped off at Grandpa and Grandma’s. And every day, like clockwork, as we would make our way around to turn onto their street, Grandma would be standing there waiting for us.
Aaron and I would head inside and Grandma would have already prepared an after school snack for us: a sliced apple or some ginger snap cookies which was always paired with some caffeine-free beverage: ginger ale, grape soda, root beer. Aaron and I would sit there, eat our snack, complete our homework, and then we would watch shows with Grandma or play some game. We would play simple card games or Rummi Cube, which was her favorite game to play with with the Golden Sagers, her seniors group at St. John’s, her church, or we would watch Jeopardy or Where in the World is Carmen San Diego or Hollywood Squares. Whatever midday game show was on at that point in time. Whatever we were doing it was a game and it was fun. And eventually Grandpa would make it home for work and we would head out to the shop to tinker, but it was never lost on me how much Grandma was the one taking care of us. A couple hours of day, five days weeks, for multiple years. Very few people get that opportunity. And nobody–outside of immediate family–got that with Grandma.
When Grandpa passed, it was my assumption that it was next to impossible that Grandma would stay on that property. How on Earth would she be able to keep up with the acreage plus the lot next door? And the shop? No chance. In fact, I remember even touring a nearby retirement home with my mom and Grandma. It was nice. They had a big community area. They went on trips around the state and were friendly. But she was having none of it. And up until the last months of her life, she was out in the yard doing what she could. Gardening or weed eating or mowing. Now—granted—we indulged her a bit. There’s likely not a single person that knew her that didn’t help with some yard project. Everyone, from family to neighbors, has mowed or cleaned up storm damage and kept the yard going. And to those who were willing to help, thank you. It meant a lot to her that you’d help. But even still, even when her health deteriorated to the point where she no longer felt like going to the store, she was hopping up on a mower and wielding a weed eater. The house was her possession and she gave everything that she had to keep it maintained to the best of her ability.
Looking back, it’s a miracle she did it for as long as she did. As I’ve spent the last two months quarantined with my family, I have reflected multiple times on the fact that she lived in near full isolation for 20 years. Her only constant companion being a Pomeranian which she named Foxy Lady. After wanting to go absolutely insane in quarantine myself, it has put into perspective how lonely, even if self-imposed, she probably was.
But maybe not. It is my belief that God has a plan for each one of our lives so much so that he literally places us in very specific places at specific times. It is not by accident that I’ve had 20 addresses any more than for 40 years, Grandma having one.
If you know her history, having one house makes a lot of sense. Now, if you know much of her personal history, you were likely really close to her as she wasn’t one to talk much about her childhood. I’ll provide what sounds like a short summary but in actuality is about the entirety of anybody’s knowledge.
Janet was born in 1940 in Turner, Maine. Her mother ran a boarding house of which her father, an active US army private, was staying. Mostly left to fend for herself, my Grandma was raised by her oldest sister. At the time, shared custody didn’t exist, and for the adoption to take place her father had to be married. Her father married and adopted little Janet when she was three. Unfortunately for her, her mother-in-law wasn’t keen to kids, and the couple decided that she would be raised in an orphanage and attend and live at Catholic boarding schools.
Despite being fairly geographically close to home, she would only return on an occasional weekend or holiday even though most of the kids at the school went home every weekend. Later in life she was asked if wished she would have spent more time at home given the rather strict nature of the schools nuns and their propensity toward physical discipline, to which she replied that, “the alternative wouldn’t have been better.”
She enjoyed school and her friends. She graduated from high school in 1958 and, in a note to her, a classmate wrote, “Janet, A quiet but very friendly girl who has made lots of friends [here]. Because of your wonderful personality and manners, I am sure you will succeed in all your future undertakings.”
After graduation, she opted to move to a local YWCA instead of moving home. She loved activities in her local community such as ice skating and bowling, and it was one night at a bowling alley that she met a young man named Jerry. Jerry, whom she would later marry, was a young airman from Oklahoma stationed in Caribou, Maine, and he fell for her fast. On his monthly phone call back home to his parents in Oklahoma, he told them he had just met the most beautiful girl. At the time, Jerry had a long-term girlfriend back home, who he would write to say, “Don’t wait for me.” He had fallen for someone whose beauty he couldn’t stop talking about.
I’m not sure Grandma’s self-perception ever allowed her to fully realize how beautiful she really was. My aunt told me a story once where her mom came home and said, “Do you think I’m pretty?” My aunt had always thought her mom was pretty. She told her so and questioned why she asked. She said that while she was driving she overheard a trucker on the CB radio commenting about the pretty lady in the red Lebaron. “Shirley,” Grandma thought, “this couldn’t have been me.” But it was.
My grandfather didn’t come from much. Grandpa was a six-and-half foot tall farm boy from west Oklahoma. After he had graduated, he moved to Kansas to farm. There, he found the armed forces as his opportunity to receive an education. He knew that if he served the GI bill would provide him college tuition—a ticket out of the farming and the near poverty life he grew up with.
What he did have was a large, loving family. His mother was one of 13, and he was the eldest of five. A loving family was the antithesis of what my grandmother knew, and he knew that. As I knew him, Grandpa was never hesitant to help; often spending his free time performing community service or helping a neighbor in need. I think one piece that brought my grandparents together was the opportunity for him to take care of her and she was attracted to that stability—but even more important, he was also be able to show her something so simple that she had never quite deeply experienced: love.
There are few people who are able to offer insight into what those first years of my grandparents relationship was like. Growing up, I was only privy to little details like that she was raised in Maine (motifs of Maine architecture were scattered throughout their house) and, at one point in time, spoke French. Despite her sheepness about describing her childhood, she was a very proud Mainer who was often thrilled to go to Red Lobster and get a mediocre, middle America version of seafood pasta in efforts to have the slimmest reminder of the childhood food. One question I wish I would have asked when I had the chance was, “What was it like for you when you first came to Oklahoma?”
I asked my grandfather’s only living sibling to provide her recollections, and she was able to provide this interesting story about my grandparents moving to Oklahoma. They had already had their first two children and were now back in Oklahoma when my grandfather was requested to serve out of state. Due to concern for his wife and the kids safety, he had moved them into his parent’s basement in his hometown: a town whose population peaked in 1930 with a whole 266 residents. It was here that my grandma got the full initiation into Oklahoma-style living. Seafood was swapped out for beans and cornbread and my great grandma’s famous biscuits and chocolate gravy, which Grandma was having none of. One of my grandfather’s younger brothers who was known to be a heat-seeking missile on easy targets, he picked on her for small size. In addition, his family was Protestant and didn’t know quite what to think of this young, little Catholic girl with her rosary. But she quickly won over my great grandfather and learned how to defend herself enough against her new brother-in-law.
Now, we all know that Grandma loved animals. One story shared was how Grandma would faithfully write a letter to her husband every day and walk it to the post office, and like Snow White, she would be heading there, a pack of farm animals (dogs, cats, pigs) followed her to-and-from which locals would say, “There goes the girls with the animals; headed to the post office again.”
The 1960s marked an era where my grandparents raised their family on their on foundation of discipline. My grandpa’s experience in the armed forces plus my grandma’s years in Catholic schools meant that discipline and appearance was prioritized over nearly everything else. The decade brought two more daughters, the first unfortunately passed away within weeks and my mother.
It also brought the decision to enter back into civilian life in Oklahoma. In 1970, my grandfather got the education he had longed for and was a part of the very first class of graduates from OSU-OKC, a technical school. In 1972, they moved into the house what I will always know as “grandpa and grandma’s.” Relatively bored with country living, Grandma decided she would further her education at the recently opened Canadian Valley Area Vo-Tech to become a nurse.
Nursing gave Grandma a career where she worked in orthopedics at a nearby hospital. Despite her stern ways of raising her family, she became well known for being a fantastic caregiver.
This transitioned over to her family as well. When my great grandmother’s second husband fell ill, Grandma moved him in to one of the bedrooms so she could care for him until he passed away. When Grandpa was diagnosed for kidney cancer in 2001, he spent the entirety of his post-surgery life in the living room. Later, when his brother was also diagnosed with cancer, Grandma let him stay at the house when he came into town for treatments. Many times over the years, Grandma’s house would shapeshift into a hospital of sorts.
Caregiving was Grandma’s way of showing love when words may have not been possible.
Grandma was a woman of her faith, and while I, myself, am neither Catholic nor here to provide a sermon, I want to offer a passage of Scripture that crosses both of our faiths and that I think is appropriate for both remembering and honoring Grandma by reading from the book of Romans in which Paul is writing a letter to early Christians.
Paul’s letter to Rome is a really interesting one. At the time of his letter, Christians in Rome are divided into two factions: there were Jews who had converted to Christianity, who believed that while they were to profess Christ they would keep the law of Tora, and then there were Gentiles (non-Jews) who had converted as to Christianity. The belief from Jewish-Christians was that the Gentiles were not worthy of equal privileges.
Paul’s letter begins with saying that there is no difference between the two in God’s eyes. He says that Christians shouldn’t fight over the small differences of belief that they have, but rather care about the major beliefs, what I’ve often heard referred to as the “non-negoitables.” Rather, Christians should seek forgiveness for others and embrace our differences knowing that all who believe will receive the righteousness of God.
22 There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.
After leveling the playing field in the first three chapters, Paul utilizes the rest of his letter to lay out a guide for how–now united–Christians should live and work together. And here is where I want to focus for speaking about Grandma. As we know, she was incredibly devout in her faith. And a shared belief that our faiths have is, for those who believe, the Holy Spirit works inside of us in order to achieve God’s ultimate goal of glorifying himself despite ourselves and our shortcomings, our upbringings, and despite our differences in opinion. The Holy Spirit is a funny thing in that it’s going to work through us even when try to stand in the way. To me, how God moved in Grandma’s life is very clear.
4 For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, 5 so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. 6 We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your faith; 7 if it is serving, then serve; if it is teaching, then teach; 8 if it is to encourage, then give encouragement; if it is giving, then give generously; if it is to lead, do it diligently; if it is to show mercy, do it cheerfully.
When I reread those gifts that Paul lays out: prophesying, serving, teaching, encouraging, giving, leading, and showing mercy. I know Grandma’s gift. It was the gift of serving.
As God does, He made Grandma a husband, and their relationship gave her a lifelong partner and an escape hatch from a tragic upbringing. He brought them to Oklahoma where, ultimately, they were provided an acreage where they would literally build their home, and from their she would care for her family and a number of other family members who Grandma would bring in. God not only provided a home for them but he provided them with enough wealth to purchase multiple houses. What were originally intended as rental property investments served a bigger need by providing shelter for her children and her grandchildren. The majority of her tenants turned out to be us.
Now I don’t want to ignore that these arrangements were far from perfect. As willing as Grandma was to open up her home, you knew that even visiting her came with a consequence. There were many rules: come through this door, remove your shoes, stay in Grandma’s sight, sit in this chair—not that one. I remember telling my mom how frustrating it became to visit her in recent years. I wanted to go see her, but I didn’t exactly feel welcome. But as I’ve come to understand her past—again, something she literally locked away—within the full context I’ve come to realize that it’s easier to take the girl out of the boarding school than it is the boarding school out of the girl. And it didn’t mean she didn’t want us there or didn’t love us. Her sternness was her cross to bear.
The last couple of months of her life, I visited her a handful of times. I went with my daughters to visit her the weekend after Thanksgiving to bring her some leftovers. It was much clearer to Grandma than it was to me that she was about to go. I don’t remember how we got on the subject but we started talking about her dad, and as she talked I could visibly see that all emotions were now heightened. I don’t want to speak on her behalf, but I believe that she, first, deeply loved her father, and always regretted that, for the last decade of his life, they didn’t see each other. Once she moved to Oklahoma for a second time, she never returned to Maine until his funeral.
She told me a story, one that’s she had been hanging on to for 50 years now. She told me, “My dad said that I’d probably live to see 2020, but I don’t know if I’ll make it.” Now this is on December 1st. I’m telling her, I’m like “Grandma, surely you will.” But it’s clear now. She didn’t want another day of pain on Earth. She much more preferred to be in Heaven reunited with her dad.
These last few months have been tough and I want to give my thanks to those who have been involved with wrapping up Grandma’s affairs and the house. My mom, who has inherited her mother’s gift of serving, spent the last weeks of Grandma’s life serving her how she does best. She got her groceries, took her to the doctor, and cared for her. Grandma told me how thankful she was and told me, “Your mom is my angel.”
I hope that as we celebrate and reflect on the life of Grandma it is not lost on anybody what this family has endured to get where we are. Grandma’s story isn’t necessarily a pretty one, but I admire so much her resilience. Her story is one in a larger set stories of our family that includes surviving the Dust Bowl, wars, surviving the bombing, and many other stories. As another generation of our family fades away, hold tight to these stories as they become all you have of the ones we’ve lost. The way that the memory of Grandma survives is that we continue to tell the stories of who we are and where we come from; rather than boxing them up and keeping them to ourselves.
On January 1, 2020, I called her to say, “You did it, Grandma! You made it to 2020.” Barely able to speak she confirmed that it was true. Three days later, Grandma passed.
I miss Grandma. Grandma was a hard person to love, but I loved her very much, and I know she loved me too. I know she loved all of us even though at times she struggled to show it. I know that she was always thinking about me because, just like her letters to her husband that she faithfully wrote as a girl, I always got a birthday card.
I want to finish by reading a little further in Romans 12
9 Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. 10 Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. 11 Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. 12 Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. 13 Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.
Grandma—thank you so much for practicing hospitality for us for so long. Thank you for giving us your home(s) and taking care of us. All I can imagine now is that you have been reunited with your daughter; that you and your dad are in Heaven together, walking hand and hand, and the farm animals are following close behind. I’m not trying to purposely leave out Grandpa here: all I can imagine is that he is probably already in trouble. I love you.