I've been thinking about my grandmother recently. Maybe it started because last week one day, I decided I wanted to wear a ring that had been hers (which took some time to find…), but maybe I'd been thinking about her before that, too. So here's kind of a belated Mother's Day tribute to my grandma...
My grandmother died in October 2003, during my second year of studying for an M.A. in English at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville. Her decline was long and gradual. At first, we thought she was just goofy sometimes, assuming the UFOs she claimed to see were planes landing at CVG, not too far from the retirement home where my grandparents lived. That was in the midst of watching the man she had loved since she was 8 years old lose a long, painful battle with cancer. Her grip on reality gradually loosened after that. The family laughed about it, most days.
Many folks share important life lessons they learned from their grandparents. The lessons I remember my grandma teaching my sisters and me seem perhaps less deep and inspired than lots of people's, but no less important. My grandma taught us how to play cards and cross stitch. And how to do everything properly. Everything. One summer, while we stayed with Grandma and Grandpa for an extended period of time, Grandma read Emily Post's Miss Manners to us every night before we went to sleep. We slept impressively well that summer...We joke about how Grandma always wanted things "as nice as they possibly can be," but I don't believe for a minute that we've ever stopped trying to make that happen!
I don't know what Grandma Betz would think if she learned I'm a pastor now. We never talked about such things, that I recall. I knew her political leanings--most people who knew her knew that! I knew about her prejudices and could tell you how much she was a product of her era. Despite being a whiz at math, she never held aspirations of a career that would put her brainpower to the kind of use we'd expect of a woman today. That was not what women did. She asked me one time if my sorority encouraged its members to diet--that was a fun conversation...
I wish I could say I knew much about her faith. I don't know exactly what she believed, except that she hated the hymn "Amazing Grace": apparently, she did not appreciate calling herself "a wretch." I do know what she did, though--how she practiced her faith. She went to church. She and Grandpa were always active in church, no matter where they lived. They sang in the choir. They participated in many ways. I remember attending some VBS during a summer when we stayed with them for a while. I can still picture the table my twin sister and I sat at, can vaguely see the face of the woman--a close friend of Grandma's--who taught us to memorize the 23rd psalm. I know Grandma and Grandpa prayed The Lord's Prayer every night before going to sleep. Did they recite the 23rd psalm, too? I can't remember. Maybe sometimes going to church was just the proper thing to do for them, but I know I don't think of my grandparents without also knowing how important church was to them.
I don’t recall many other life lessons my grandmother taught me on purpose. What I did learn from her, as I watched her grow older, as I saw her struggle with losing her health and her loved ones, as I heard about my uncle carefully watching over her and helping her narrowly miss being scammed by mail solicitations and telemarketers, as I saw her memory slip away from her, is how to be a pastor to people who are dying. I was never her pastor. I didn't even admit I was called to ministry until shortly before her death. What I learned from her, from how my family cared for her, from how she left us over a period of years, was what it is to watch life and death happening at the same time. There was grace in the way she handled herself, even when things were the most difficult. There was love from family and friends, even when she was most difficult. And there was laughter, even when "memories" were hard to find.
I'm rounding out 6 years of pastoral ministry now. I feel like I've watched my grandmother die again at least a dozen times, in the faces of older church members, some of whom I've gotten to know a little bit, and some of whom I arrived a little too late on the scene to really develop a relationship with. Here is the time of sitting with, of asking questions, of hearing stories, of appreciating reminiscences of lifetimes and struggles and victories I can hardly imagine. Here is the going along with whatever crazy stories come up this day, no matter how little reality is part of them. Here is the repeating a dozen times in 30 minutes who I am, vital information about me, why I'm here. And here is the waiting, the gradual slipping away, the transition so long in coming (most of which I actually missed with my grandma, as she was in Cincinnati and I was in Knoxville--phone calls from my mom sufficed for that part of the journey).
When I was in divinity school, during my summer internship, a man told me he didn't want me to go sit with his mother while she was dying because I was too young to have to deal with that sort of thing. He was so heartbroken that he couldn't bear to go there, himself. When I got to the nursing home, she had already passed. It wouldn't have been too hard for me...it was the part of my grandma's passing I hadn't been there for--the actual end of it. This woman was a lovely woman--I knew that after only 8 weeks of being an intern there; I wish I had been there, but I know it must have been a beautiful moment when she reached the end of this earthly journey. I never really thought I'd deal with that sort of thing so much when I started the process to be ordained, but I have. A lot. Counting the words I shared about that woman who died during my summer internship, I've officiated at or participated as clergy in 37 funeral services. I know my grandma never planned to teach me anything about dealing with people who were dying, but I am so thankful that she did. I wasn’t there for much of the “heavy lifting” with her, but I experienced it through my older sister, my mom, and my dad, in the stories they shared. I learned how to deal with the dying while my grandma lived, and I am so thankful. She was a little bit kooky, sometimes. She wore way too much perfume (she had lost her sense of smell), and she talked to every inanimate object, it seemed. And she was proper—so very proper. And she loved us all, in her own proper way. And we loved her, too.
Thanks, Grandma. I miss you.