Tuesday, September 19, 2006

That's What My Grandmother Taught Me

Today we buried my 87-year-old grandmother. My mother and her two (surviving sisters), their husbands, my seven cousins with our combined twenty-one children, and countless relatives and family friends gathered in the church that has become, over the years, our family's "chapel" as we bade grandma farewell. It was an emotionally dense day, and I am tired tonight. While I did not officiate at the service (thankfully the three sisters chose another pastor to do the honors), I was asked to eulogize her. Here is a synopsis of what I said:

Thank you for gathering here with our family to mourn our loss. I was her first grandchild, born on her 45th birthday. You may not know know it, by my grandmother was born on her grandmother's birthday as well. So June 9th has become a memorable day for five generations in our family. As the oldest grandchild, I probably spent more time with grandma than anyone else in my early years; she was "daycare" for me. Some of my fondest memories as a child are learning from grandma's ways. She taught me to make homemade donuts the old-fashioned way ... from the dough, to the rising and the cutting and the cooking in deep fat. And she taught me how to pull taffy, a lost art on post-World War II generations. In fact, I spent so much time with grandma in the kitchen that my grandfather occasionally called me "sis." He resented, I think, my desire to cook versus trudging with him through the woods to hunt or cut down trees.

I had the opportunity to witness their very unique relationship. My grandfather was a Republican; my grandmother a Democrat. My grandfather was a chauvinist; my grandmother was a feminist. My grandfather's mother was a prim, proper woman from Illinois; my grandmother unsophisticated and plain. On the several trips I took to Illinois with them to visit my grandfather's family, I still remember the looks they exchanged with one another as my grandfather silently reminded my grandmother that his mother's pie would always be better than hers. In those years I spent a lot of time with grandma (and some with grandpa, although less because he worked out of town during the week, and we would see him only on weekends). I'm sure my cousins and sister resented at times the unique corner on the market I had, but I know without a doubt that I was not the only grandchild in my grandmother's mind. She often spoke about her other grandchildren, especially those who were miles away and who she saw only on occasional weekends or for longer periods of time during the summer. My grandmother taught me, without my ever realizing it, some important values. I suspect they stem from her own inauspicious origins.

Grandma was born June 9, 1919, and within a few days her father died suddenly and unexpectedly, her mother left with three small children and meager resources. During the early years of her life grandma lived with uncles and other relatives, who would "take in" the family for a period of time. She never said much about those years or her memories of them, but I believe they formed two of her most important traits, values that continually inform my life.

The first thing my grandmother taught me about was matriarchy. She was a matriarch, and we are a matriarchal family. The women are strong decision-makers, and the men either listen or they leave. Certainly this had a great deal to do with her early experiences in life, and there was no room in the family for deprecation due to gender. The girls, especially, were seen as valuable and as having a future. Her three daughters all completed high school and were encouraged to continue to further their lives. One of my most vivid memories in the 1980s is the time period during which my aunt Margaret (the oldest of grandma's girls) was struck with a brain aneurysm. We had learned the news via telephone, my grandmother called to talk to my mother who wasn't there at the time, and I answered the phone. In grim tones grandma told me that "things don't look good." Within a short time we headed to the Twin Cities with grandma. It was then that I discovered the deep pain that comes when a parent buries her child. I continue to maintain in my ministry that one of the greatest unfairnesses of life is when a parent must bury a child. It's not meant to be that way. In all those moments my grandmother, the matriarch, was strong and vital, although it is only in retrospect as one now in my 40s that I see just how deep her life was.

I've always been a bit troubled, frankly, by the lack of regard for institutional religion in my family. I grew up in Sunday School and learned the values of formal religion, but it wasn't a value for most in my family. I have come to discover in the past few years that my grandmother's grandfather was something of a critic of formal religion. He didn't have much time for it, and earned himself the reputation of being the village atheist. I have come to understand in my life that God's grace works in unusual ways, and that God is not limited to formal systems of religious faith. Although grandma spoke little of faith in institutional terms, the values she lived spoke deeply to an internal stream that could only be watered by a loving God, whether clearly recognized by her or not.

One of the most important values my grandmother exemplified was inclusion. In her eyes there were no "step"-children or -grandchildren in our family; there were only children for whom she would be a grandmother. There were none in or out ... we were all in, regardless of our origins or complicated histories. Her early years, I think, formed in her a deep sense to welcome and to include others. I think this is largely why it was been possible for Claudia and me to adopt ten children. As a family we are caucasian, Hispanic and bi-racial. But these identifiers never were a topic of conversation with grandma or those who talked with her. In her eyes we were simply the parents of ten special children, all of whom she knew by name (although she saw rather infrequently) and cared for by need. As recently as the week before her death she was asking about Mike, who she knew had been in a Department of Corrections work program, wondering how he was doing. Instilled in me before I had reason to know or to ask, I am the beneficiary of a legacy of inclusion, a legacy I intend to continue through the lives of my children.

As I think about it, whether she should be blamed or thanked, it is probably my grandmother's influence that pushed me in the direction of being a United Methodist pastor. Although raised in The Wesleyan Church (a more conservative version of Mehtodism) and ordained in that tradition, thirteen years ago I began the journey toward United Methodism. Just today I realized the connecting link in all of that was probably my grandmother. When grandma did choose to go to church (and it wasn't that frequently), she would pick me up from Sunday School at The Wesleyan Church and shuttle me across town to the United Methodist Church. I don't remember much about it, but I do remember that the Methodists were a little fancier than the Wesleyans. The Methodists had colors ("paraments" I later learned they were called) on the altar and the services were a bit more structured. Now, all these years later, I wonder at the ways these early forays into a different worship community engaged my young mind, resulting in my current vocational lifestyle.

In my grandmother's eighty-seven years she lived in two townships in the same county. She was born in Crow Wing County, and she died in Crow Wing County, less than seven miles from the place in which she was born. There are not many who will remember my grandmother outside of our small community, but we who knew and loved her have been forever formed with strong values that reflect her vitality, her strength and her love.

My grandmother taught me many things, but the two values I prize most are my deep appreciation for strong females and my passionate quest to include others in my life and in the community of faith. Thank you, grandma, for the seeds you have planted in my life. They are not dead; they are alive!

Today we buried my grandmother. Her earthly remains were planted in the ground. But the seeds of her life continue to grow. She is not dead; she is alive!

That's what my grandmother taught me.

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