When I was small my grandma was old. She was five foot eight when she had my mom. By the time I was around she had bent over to barely five foot even.
Most of my cousins were half-raised by my grandma, but I was the youngest and when I was small, she was old. My babysitters were mostly high school girls. When my grandma did baby-sit me, I remember she was tough. Tougher than the other babysitters. Tougher than my dad. Tougher than my mom.
She limited my cartoon watching. As revenge, I gave her the silent treatment barricading myself in my room. I slipped a note under the door telling her she was “the meenest babysitter ever.”
I come from a long line of teachers. Four generations. Aunts, cousins, great parents and my grandma. After I slipped that note under my door she broke out her red pen, slipped it back under with my spelling corrected.
By the time I went to college, my grandma was still tough. Cracking jokes and standing her ground. She was still the center of the family. Even after she couldn’t get around well enough to cook, she’d pull up a chair in the kitchen, watch my aunts form the Thanksgiving meal around her.
I was a sophomore at Western when my grandma had a series of strokes. Dementia set in fast. My aunts and uncles drove hours every week to visit her. Held her hand and talked to her.
When she passed away, my mom called me and I didn’t really react. I didn’t know her all that well. I had heard stories about her and she always gave me butterscotch and saltines.
When we got to the church I was steady. I hadn’t been there since I was small, when my mom took me to see my grandma sing in the choir. Through my mom’s eulogy I was steady. I was proud of my mom (who wasn’t a public speaker). Through the first hymn I was steady. I remember it was one of the tough ones too—It is Well or something like that. But still I was steady.
Funerals when you’re not very emotional are boring. As the second hymn started, my eyes wandered through the pews on its way back to the clock. There were bloodshot eyes and tears everywhere. Still I was steady.
Right up to the last hymn, I was steady. When we started to sing How Great Though Art, I remembered seeing my grandma sing in the choir. When that last verse rolled through and we sang “When Christ shall come. . .” I started to leak. The eyes and the nose just let lose their fury. Something about music cuts straight through my defenses and knocks the wind out of me. All that stuff about heaven sunk down to my belly and I sang with a quiver in my voice. I pictured my grandma in the choir, and I saw her singing with us. And I was more than proud of her.
I want to be clear on the theology here. This isn’t some Obi Wan Kenobi thing I just pulled out of thin air. This is orthodox. As a Christian I believe my grandma was singing. I believe she is singing. And I believe when I sing in church my grandma with all the saints before her sing with me. This isn’t a sedative we Christians use to numb the pain of grief; it is the hope we use to transform it.
Within a few years cousins, Aunts and Uncles moved out of Sultan, the town my mom grew up in, and out to Arizona and up to Skagit County. Family isn’t static. This last Thanksgiving, there were no butterscotch candies or saltine crackers. But there were new babies at the table. Aunts and uncles were grandmas and grandpas. The turkey still made me sleepy, and my mom still made her potato casserole.
I don’t think about my grandma too often. I’ve got term papers, credit card bills and a fantasy football team to think about. But I can’t help but wonder if she held that note against me. And as I’m writing this, I wish I could go back, take that note back and slip this under the door. If for no other reason than to get my spelling and grammar corrected.