I know she was real. I have pictures, words, and memories of her pressed into my soul. But even as I write these words she seems like a dream…
Born to a Baptist preacher on a sharecropping farm during the Great Depression, she was the oldest of 14 children and her grandparents were slaves. My grandmother. She was my second chance at having a mother and I was her opportunity to leave behind all the wisdom and love that wasn’t possible when she was a parent the first time around. When I arrived at her doorstep broken and marred by the crossfire of my parents’ pain, she had over 50 years of life in the kiln to assist me while I was yet a lump of clay forming on the potter’s wheel. Life hardened her and left her with a strong enough foundation for the both of us to stand on.
Our relationship was a delicate dance that forced our egos into submission. We tamed each other. Her hardness thickened my skin and my tender heart softened hers. I was her disciple and spent 15 years soaking at her feet. She taught me to love God and information. And how to find and express each of these things. She placed great importance on thinking and speaking…and learning the art of self-control. She taught me never to argue or yell to communicate a point because life and death each begin with words. Clear communication and confident presentation was enough to speak life and truth into every situation.
When I was teased and bullied at school, I looked for her to want revenge and to give me permission to hate but she never let me be the victim. “Always be sure of yourself even when you’re not and being liked is not important.” She said, “People will either like you or not like you but never let anyone make you less than who you are. Act in accordance with who you are. You are a child of God and that means something.” She re-created me. She said that there was value in everything and everybody and to never believe that I was above or beneath anyone.
She didn’t scream at me, use me as a punching bag, or throw things like my mom did. And she didn’t use substances and excuses to escape life like my dad. Everything was done for a purpose or with one, and it would all work together for good one day. There were no accidents or coincidences with my grandmother and you didn’t want to let her catch you slipping! You work hard for what you want even when you don’t feel like it. She didn’t feel like walking the miles and miles to school as a kid but she turned down the option to quit school for a life on the farm because she knew what she wanted. You paint a picture of what you want with your mind and you move toward it continually. She talked to me and helped me to understand the rules of life. “You don’t make it from the pit to the palace like Joseph did without a firm foundation.”
“Even if all we have is one good pair of pants, or if we don’t have a lot of food, we still have lots to be thankful for because we still have something…we have life!” I’d hear my friends tell stories of going to cabins or summer camp, and I’d eye the latest gadgets they brought to school after Christmas break, and every time I came home the least bit envious she’d remind me of how she grew up in the fields of Arkansas with even less than what we had. And she made it. We make it work and we do the best with what we have. The years we re-wrapped things around the house and placed them under the Christmas tree; the times when we’d travel to the brewery and fill up buckets of water so we could bathe; when she’d make my clothes; or when all we had for the week’s groceries was $20. She never missed a beat. She was everything that everyone needed her to be and she crucified her flesh well enough to hide it from me. She never let me complain and she showed me the importance of dignity and grace.
I marvelled at her strength and begged her to share her wisdom with me. How can she be happy, how can this be good enough, how is she not angry, how does she keep moving forward? My questions were always answered with scriptures and vivid images that painted a picture of servanthood. She helped me to understand the beauty in even the smallest things. She showed me that happiness did not come from things and that there was no price tag associated with a higher quality of life. We had lengthy debates about everything, and she let me shadow her on almost every church engagement and professional development opportunity she attended. She showed me how doing everything from scrubbing a toilet with a toothbrush to creating a Sunday School curriculum could all be done with a smile. She taught me to be grateful. “You are alive…and that is a good enough reason to be happy. Everyday and every moment is an opportunity to bless God and the world with your life!” When she died, all she had was a $5,000 insurance policy and a lifetime of memories…but to her she was rich because she lived well. “As long as we have faith, the size of a mustard seed”, she often exclaimed, “we can move mountains!”
This was the woman who raised me…