Monday, December 15, 2008

Thoughts About the Death of My Grandmother (Dialogue Column 12.9.08)

The Dialogue is the newsletter of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in St. Joseph, MO. Often, I'll post here on the blog my columns for the weekly newsletter. I mention it just so that folks who read the snail-mail version can skip this post if they've already read it.

As I write these words, I have only been back in St. Joseph for a few hours from attending my grandmother’s burial in Sugar Grove, Arkansas. Although I’m still a bit winded from my trip, I’ve been thinking about the significance of the death of my last living grandparent. Family is a mysterious thing sometimes and there is blessedness in the mystery.

Don’t look for Sugar Grove on the map; I don’t think you’ll find it. It’s little more than a crossroads now with a church, a cemetery and a boarded up store tucked in a valley in the Boston Mountains. It was one of those small communities that served the people in the surrounding countryside but has faded in the age of strip malls and the internet. Up a dirt road near Sugar Grove, at the top of a small mountain, you’ll find the land where my grandmother was born and eventually my mother and her siblings. The land passed out of my family a long time ago but the cemetery there is filled with her family members. I come from that place even though I had never seen it before my grandmother’s funeral.

I grew up only seeing my grandparents a couple of times a year at most. My memories of my grandmother are largely a child’s memories, because after we moved from Missouri when I was in high school, I saw her less and less. Later, the demands of adult life left me with little time to travel to Arkansas. By the time, I moved back to the Midwest Alzheimer’s disease had claimed my grandmother’s mind and so I arrived too late to know her in her nineties. She remains in my mind a smiling presence with a firm hug often found in the kitchen or the garden. She was matter of fact, practical and smarter than she gave herself credit for. She had an eighth grade education from a one room schoolhouse, but she figured out a lot about life on her own. She had grown up attending small Pentecostal churches and listening to preachers on the radio, but later on in life through her own reading of scripture, she came to question some of what she had been taught. She ended up claiming her own faith in God rather than accepting what was given to her. I can’t recall talking with her about God.

At the graveside, my mother and her siblings shared memories of my grandmother. My mother described her singing hymns as she milked the family cow and sneezing so loud that the neighbors on the next farm would wonder at the noise. I can only wonder at what my grandmother saw in her 94 years. My mother showed me a picture of my grandmother as a teenager. She was squinting because of sunlight and she was not smiling (a fact which surprised me, because I always remember her smiling at me). She wore a plain dress and wore her hair down almost to her waist. I wonder what dreams that teenager held.

My sister and I drove down together and talked about our memories of grandmother. My sister described loving her but not feeling especially close to her, at least not in the way our parents are close with their grandchildren.. I pondered why I felt close to her even though we had not spent very much time together and only occasionally saw each other after I became an adult. Perhaps the person whom I loved was more of my idea of who grandmother was than who she was in reality, I can’t say. As I child, I accepted that grandparents were important people in my life, because they were family. I was taught to love them and so I did without reservation. I felt loved by my grandmother in return. Somewhere between my experience of my grandmother and her experience of me, love existed, no matter how much or little we really knew of each other. That love remains a mystery and somehow it exists by grace.

My grandmother requested that Psalm 116:15 be read at her graveside. It reads:

“Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his saints.”

In this great mystery of love, I believe God held my grandmother to be precious throughout her life and her death and beyond. Now she is with God and I await the day when she and I will know each other better.

Grace and Peace,


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