I went to my bookshelf tonight in search of an old copy of Phillips’ New Testament in Modern English. I opened its pages and, gently flipping through, was stopped by some neat, cramped handwriting I knew to be my grandmother’s. Turning to the front to confirm, there was the sticker, in the old-fashioned use of a husband’s name we too easily scoff at today: Mrs. Gerald E. Willhoft.
Over the past few years I have become the inheritor of books from both sets of my grandparents. Growing old, paring down, they have made stacks and filled boxes and it has become known that I will take them. Almost all of them. Just this week my grandfather sent me a book from 1830, not knowing what else to do with it, but wanting it to be appreciated. Box after box of earthly goods have passed through my parents’ house, and I have sat many hours with my mother and sorted through it all. Kitchen goods and sewing items, furniture, antiques, pictures, gifts once given – now returned. It tells the story of their lives, and says something about life in its reminder that at the end we keep none of it. Much of it has continued on, gone to garage sales; but the books – I have a hard time letting the books go. I love their worn fabric covers and yellowing pages, their smell and their fragility. But most of all I love that they belonged to my grandparents. That before I was born, before my parents were born, they were read and treasured. Perhaps my grandfather pulled this one off the shelf to prepare a sermon one Saturday night. Perhaps one of my grandmothers stole a quiet moment away with this one, scribbling some words in the margin, reminding herself of the truth that is the same truth I receive. The only thing that doesn’t get old. Maybe these books cause me to grasp at something timeless, the fact that in a world with almost no other similarities to mine, my grandmother underlined these words in Timothy, in her characteristic one-word-at-a-time underlining, and that I hold that same confidence.
I stood there, staring at the small scripture references in the margin in my grandmother’s handwriting, and I wept. It was the first time, really. The first time that I cried for her since she passed away on Dec 20. Not because I felt nothing, or because I was experiencing denial, but simply because the mind that read these words, that rejoiced in them, that wrote a whole page, still tucked in this Bible, about the reason for suffering – we lost that part of her years ago. We had already grieved, for years, in that uniquely painful way of long illness and slow decline when the mind is first to go. But tonight I remembered not the years at the end, but the years before that.
She was the kind of proper I’m afraid hardly exists anymore, or at least not at any level of society I will ever dwell at. With her pleated trousers and pantyhose, every condiment on the table in a serving dish with a serving spoon, her world was one in which families still sat down together for meals. Three times a day. She tipped her bowl away from her, not toward, to scoop up the last few spoonfuls of milk, and no one could ever be excused without asking. But when I pulled the board out from under the couch in the family room and retrieved the bag of jacks from the closet, she would sit on the floor to play, somehow still graceful, and her eyes would twinkle with laughter. She gave me my first Barbie long before my mother wanted me to have one, and a treasured American Girl doll a few years later. She traveled the world with my grandfather – I remember pictures of her beaming smile from across Europe, Africa, Hong Kong – clearly relishing every moment. And she read. She read to me, and clearly she read for herself. History, classic fiction, but mostly books about the Christian life. The growing pile in my bedroom with her handwriting in the margins give evidence to this.
The memories are precious, but snapshots really. Already dimming by my own memory. How I wish I could watch the whole film! The older I get, the more this history matters to me. These men and women that are tied to me, but born in the 20s, in a world unfathomably different from mine. They are as far back as I will ever get to encounter, and I feel like I am only now beginning to discover their influence in my life. Who was my grandmother at 28? Do I carry any of her along with me into who I will become? I wish I had known to ask for her stories while she was still able to tell them. But I wasn’t yet able to hear.
This I know, though: she loved Jesus. I knew this as a child, but I think I am only now coming to understand it as an adult. As a child visiting my grandparents I fell asleep on an air mattress that filled the whole pantry closet, underneath pictures of missionaries and sticky notes in that same tilted handwriting: prayer requests for each of her children and grandchildren. It was her prayer closet. Now I understand what that meant, and how far I have been carried on those prayers. We were never allowed to leave the table at breakfast until she had read the day’s devotion from the “Daily Bread” booklets. I was often restless. Now I know why that mattered, and just how important the everyday is for a lifetime of faith. She knew all the words to all the old hymns. In fact, once towards the end of her time living in her home, when her memory was clinging by only shreds, my mom and I were in the kitchen cleaning up a meal and singing hymns together. Slowly Nana shuffled out from the back room, moving with difficulty, and found a chair at the table near us. I will never forget looking over to see her gently rocking and humming along, a tear sliding down her cheek. It was as if she couldn’t remember why, but she knew she loved those words. She knew she still needed them.
Maybe more than anything I am afraid that there is something in her, something in time past, that I desperately want to remain true, and it is in danger of slipping away forever. So I cling all the tighter to it in the only way I can really keep anything of my grandmother: by that which I carry with me in who I am, and who I want to be. As Bebo Norman’s haunting song says it,
“All that grows is her story told, as life unfolds here before us.
The peace I’ve found in this broken ground,
I can see her in the harvest…of all that I have sown.”
I want words of hymns, words of scripture, words of truth, to be so deeply ingrained in my heart that even the unfairness of memory can’t tear them from me.
I want my children and grandchildren, should the Lord bless me with them, to see daily dependence lived before their eyes. I want my friends and family to know, and feel, my prayers.
I want my home to be somewhere significant, with memory and meaning, with traditions and character. I want my table to be a place where people gather, sit, and give each other the gift of time.
I want to be able to write, then live, words like the ones of hers I found tucked in Phillips’ translation tonight:“We must regard our sufferings as a gracious way to sanctify us.
We must look to Christ as the supreme example.”
Sometimes I don’t know how her sufferings at the end were gracious, or how they were sanctifying her. As my other grandmother slips also into the grip of dementia, I’m not always able to see it as very gracious, or see how it is sanctifying her. But their suffering has, and continues to, sanctify me. And so it is gracious. A severe mercy, perhaps.
But only now, in the presence of the one she always lived for, does it make sense, is His graciousness really understood. And all things, somehow even the end, are redeemed. I rejoice knowing she sees that in a way I cannot here. For she sees Jesus.
Until I join her there, I hope I am sowing stories, as hers, that, whether anyone on this earth ever knows them, are worth being told.