Monday, May 21, 2012

For Grandma Emma

When I was born, my parents faced an important question: how would they raise a child with both of them working?  Both worked busy jobs--jobs they realized, even at that point, would go a long way toward funding my education, as well as the education of any other eventual children...  Jobs that would allow them to give generously to their church and community... Jobs that would keep us clothed and fed.  Not that this was ever a worry for me or my siblings... but my father knew what it meant to grow up in dire financial need, so he and my mother resolved to keep working after they had kids.

I completely understand this decision, and I've since discovered that my parents both felt a certain measure of guilt in making this decision.  Here's the reality, though: I never felt abandoned or neglected.  I knew my parents loved me, and I know that they went to great pains to be there for myself, my brother and my sister in the evenings and on weekends.  The dinner-table was, for many years, an imperturbable sanctuary of family-time.  More than that, though, they left me, my brother and my sister in good hands.

You see, some kids whose parents work full-time spend their days at a daycare.  I had the coolest, best daycare of all: Grandma Emma.  Emma Margaret Gibson was 58 when I was born, a tall and lanky woman with large glasses and wavy hair that had at one time been red, but had by then faded to a shade of white that still bore hints of strawberry blonde.  People who knew Emma in other contexts might have described her as stern, quiet, and as valuing solitude.  This was not the Emma Gibson I knew: she was ceaselessly joyful, loving and caring, with a dash of earthy Dutch humor.  One of the ditties she would sing to her grandchildren while bouncing them on her knee was a semi-nonsensical Dutch rhyme about a baby peeing its pants.  If there's a culture that has a monopoly on bathroom humor, it is the Dutch.  

Grandma Emma was also reasonably athletic, which stood in contrast to most of my friends' grandparents, who seemed slow and feeble by comparison.  Grandma Emma seemed to spend a good portion of her time in physical activity: whether that was mowing the lawn, gardening, or vacuuming the floors of Lynden's First Christian Reformed Church, she was constantly moving.  Her breaks usually involved more movement: throwing around a ball or playing tag with myself, my siblings, our cousins.  

I always wondered what kind of athlete she would have been if she'd had the opportunity to play school sports.  As it was, her formal education ended in 8th grade.  My Great-Grandpa Pete, good man though he was, was also a victim of the rather limited prevailing gender views of his time.
"It's no use having Emma keep going in school," he'd said, and that was that. 

This lack of education manifested itself mostly in her speech habits, and I recall several occasions on which my mom reprimanded me for using the word "ain't".  
"But Grandma said it," I'd protest.
I didn't understand that her grammar was less than exemplary.  Despite this, Grandma Emma always gave off the impression of being thoughtful and bright.  What's more, her lack of education never once stopped her from reading: Eugene Peterson, Max Lucado, "The Banner", and odds and ends from Focus on the Family were but a cross-slice of her reading list.  Of course, above all else, she read the Bible.  This was clearly her favorite book, and as a child, I often wondered how she could stand to read the same book over and over again.  

I've no doubt that the Bible gave focus to her naturally caring spirit: for much of the time that I knew Grandma Emma, she was taking care of those around her.  Of course, she took care of her grandchildren, but even before that, she'd worked as a caretaker in the nursing home, and it was here that she developed knowledge and skills that equipped her to care for her own father in his last years.  This experience also equipped her to care for my grandpa, who was 12 years her senior, when his health started to decline more than a decade ago.

This caregiving, as much as anything else, filled Grandma Emma's life with meaning.  Her God-appointed calling in this world was to serve and to lovingly care for those around her--something that no high school diploma or college degree could ever have equipped her to do better than she did.  In hindsight, it's fitting (and also sad in that peculiar way that life can be) that Grandma Emma began her own slow decline after my Grandpa passed away in 2002.  I got my driver's license not long after that, and more often than not would drive my siblings straight home after school rather than taking the bus to Grandma's house for several hours while waiting for our mom to pick us up as we had done for so many years.  Grandma was wise enough to know that these are the patterns of life, and that children do grow up and spread their wings, but it removed her last outlet for caregiving.  When we would stop by, she would have snacks at the ready: cookies baked, custard made--as if she were making up for the times when we weren't around.  Still, her health worsened, and she began to take medications that all but eliminated her senses of smell and taste.  Her movements slowed, and she stopped mowing the lawn herself.  Her hearing, damaged by a combination of bad genetics and failure to use ear protection while mowing and vacuuming, diminished.  With these challenges came uncertainty, confusion, timidity. 

For my part, I had a difficult time seeing Grandma like this because it scared me: she seemed so different from the woman who had helped my parents raise me.  While her hearing was still decent, I had been dutiful about stopping by and visiting her regularly whenever I would come home from college, but the worse her hearing became, the less I stopped by to visit.  I was uncertain about what I would say, fearful that we would not be able to communicate.  I wish I had not viewed the relationship so much as how she could help me, what advice she could give me, how she could care for me as she had done for so long, but how I could return the favor in caring for her by simply keeping her company, regardless of whether or not our conversation would be deep or substantial.  What she'd been so faithful about in her life, I failed to do in mine.

This lesson to care deeply for others, even in their feebleness and weakness, is her final legacy to me, and it comes too late for me to tell her that I understand and I'm grateful, but not too late altogether.  As a recipient of such care and such love, from the time that I was a helpless infant, and through all of the temper tantrums, ignorance and surliness of childhood, I know just how deep this love runs and how vast its meaning spans.  This is the love of God in us, love that heals, love that restores and rebuilds.  For 84 years, Emma lived according to such selfless and caring love, and during those 84 years, she made the world a better place, especially for her parents, her siblings, her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.  I can do no better than to strive to pay this love forward in my own life.

Emma Margaret Gibson, you were, as it said on a sweatshirt that one of your grandkids gave you ages ago, a "Special Grandma", and I'm infinitely richer having grown up under your guidance, your patience, your kindness and your watchful eye.  Today, you aren't just reading about God's presence--you're in it!

Your Grandson Nathanael

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