Grandma as Grace

Grandma as Grace
This post was inspired by Tiny Sunbirds, Far Away by Christie Watson. I received a copy of this book by virtue of my membership in This is not intended to be a review of the book but merely my inspiration about grandmothers from having read the book.

To help the young soul, add energy, inspire hope and blow the coals
into a useful flame . . . that is the work of divine (women).

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Grandma, the Grace Note
If we wanted to, we could define grace as delight in another that comes unearned, undeserved and unexpected. Bertha Neuffer Marshall Whitmer, my maternal grandmother, provided this grace note in my chaotic, abusive, neglectful childhood. In the too few years we shared, her smile perpetually broadcast the irrefutable truth that I deserved love.

In adulthood, I discovered the following Frederick Buechner quote concerning God’s grace. I knew at the bone marrow level of my life that this encompassed the kind of grace I received from Grandma.

Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you. Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. It’s for you I created the universe. I love you. There’s only one catch. Like any other gift, the gift of grace can be yours only if you’ll reach out and take it. There’s nothing you have to do. There’s nothing you have to do. There’s nothing you have to do. Maybe being able to reach out and take it is a gift too.

Grandma personified God’s grace.

Grandma’s upbeat nature rarely wavered in spite of a life of physically hard work, two alcoholic husbands and poverty. She cared little for outward appearance. She often just pulled her thin grey hair back in a rubber band. She could make her malleable face hilarious or scary with monster looks and wickedly funny sounds to entertain the nearest grandchild. No child’s question ever met with an unwelcome response---I once asked for the recipe for mashed potatoes---she chuckled, insisted there wasn’t one but showed me how to make them just right. No behavior ventured beyond her love. I once burned my midriff while walking, with iron in hand, to eavesdrop on her phone conversation. My scar faded; the memory of her care did not.

Grandma taught us to recycle before recycling meant cool. The city garbage dump served as her favorite flea market and our Fifties version of Toys-R-Us. Grandma’s enthusiasm ambushed any thoughts I had of turning up my nose at the odor or being concerned that shopping at the dump might not be quite right. Discoveries, often items I didn’t know I needed or wanted, morphed into treasures seen through Grandma’s eyes. Old purses were my personal fave; trinkets for house or garden appealed to Grandma and a special rock to place around the fish pond delighted all of us---no found object lacked possibility.

Many springs, Grandma escorted me around her yard reciting the names of every flower in bloom. While not particularly interested in horticulture lessons, my gut told me time with Grandma cultivated a perennial blossom of love that I desperately needed. Decades later, I experience lingering grace notes when flower names pop into my mind from some ancient, cobwebby index. Pansies, creeping phlox, hydrangeas, geraniums---I walk down any street, identify each bloom and my heart smiles in memory.

In contrast, a day in the blackberry patch with Grandma pushed me to the edge of my comfort zone. I don’t like to sweat. I don’t like being stabbed by brambles. I don’t like chigger bites. With a bucket full of blackberries and enough sassafras to boil for tea, we finally would call it a day. While rubbing Grandma’s gnarly feet that evening---after the almost-worth-it cobbler and tea---a tick walked boldly down her forehead. I screamed! She carefully removed the tick. She instructed me about burning ticks instead of squashing the life out of them. Grandma’s exposition on the death of the tick commanded equal time as did conveying the benefits of sassafras to the next generation---neither got rushed. Moisturizing those old diabetic feet never lasted too long when the minutes were filled with stories and wisdom----and grace.

Sometimes grace needed dispensation in the middle of the night. If Mom got scared for no earthly reason---or some reason she refused to reveal to the kids---she loaded us up and off we went to Grandma’s---in a taxi. Normal families in our town didn’t use taxis during the day, much less in the middle of the night. Dressed in her ragged chenille bathrobe, Grandma greeted us, paid the taxi and we immediately felt secure. We were ushered to pallets on the floor; Mom received comfort about her fear du jour.

Several moves to California did not ameliorate the need and hunger for Grandma’s grace. It just got more expensive than taxi fare to access. Mom, who could romanticize most any circumstance, taught us to love the train ride Home---home being wherever Grandma lived. We especially liked the Grand Canyon Line because its route through the states that divided us provided excitement and beauty. Putting together the pennies necessary to transport a mother and five kids on the train never got easy. I plead guilty to helping Mom once convince my younger sisters that they had already had lunch when sack lunches were gone as well as all money. Finally, the conductor walked through yelling, “St. Louis! St. Louis! Everybody off for St. Louis!” we couldn’t wait to tell Grandma about assuring the kids they had been fed and the delay out west that caused the train line to provide one free meal in The Dining Car---a first class experience for a band of ragamuffins.

Grandma’s trailer (we never heard the term mobile home) at fifteen feet long, represented the smallest in the park, so she and step-grandpa Whit agreed to rent the shortened lot adjacent the above-ground septic system. She claimed she never once smelled what others assiduously avoided. I tried not to smell it just to be in sync with Grandma but that odor crept into my nostrils within minutes of our arrival and didn’t wash out until days after leaving there.

With Mom and five kids sleeping in this tiny trailer, Grandpa said “This is wall-to-wall people!” when he tried to leave for work and routinely stepped on someone. However, neither cramped quarters, train rides without lunch nor smelly septic pipes kept us away from our abundant source of amazing grace.      

In adulthood, I realize my perception of Grandma constituted naiveté. The halo effect of her love outshined the fact that she married two alcoholics, remained uneducated, uninformed and wildly co-dependent before I knew what that word connotes about crippled relationships. This knowledge does nothing to change my memory that she signified beauty without pretense, adventure without fear, creativity without restraint, security without a price tag---and the very essence of grace.

Her dispensation of unconditional love shined in high relief against my contrasting self-doubt, instability and turmoil. While I found other sources of support outside the family, Grandma’s bottomless well of affirmation inside my family gave me the message that I was a person of value, deserving of love, time and attention. Psychologists now confirm that children from poor and/or dysfunctional homes can survive and thrive if a message of worth comes from a single source---a compassionate witness to their lives---someone to hold up the mirror and show them they are a person of worth. Those researchers must have studied my grandma.

updated: 6 years ago

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