A little over a year ago, my Nanny died. I studied philosophy in college and have a seminary degree. I get paid to write about faith. Nanny never went to college. She cast a suspicious eye toward the church. One of her gifts to the world was an irreverent wit. And my maternal grandmother taught me as much as about God as anyone.
When I was a freshman in college, Nanny replied to my letter asking questions about her beliefs, urging her to trust Jesus. Matriarch to six children, 11 grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren, rising 4 feet, 11 inches off the floor, Nanny had command over some of the best life had to offer: kind blue eyes, a cabinet full of sugary cereals, terrific back rubs, and hand-breaded chicken cutlets fried in butter. Yet I had something she needed: Jesus.
“The difference between being old and young is the young are idealists and the old are realists,” she’d written to me. “I was there, once. Life, if you pay attention, changes you. If it doesn’t, then you haven’t grown. I know you think I’m probably going to hell for the way I feel. It’s OK for you to feel the way you do. It’s also OK for me to feel the way I do.”
“Why should I believe in the Son when the Father directs and guides me?” she wrote. “God is there, so is Santa Claus, so is love. God to me means I love you, I will never hurt you, I will always help you, I will always be there for you. I love you dearly, Jesse, and would never want to cause you concern. Please accept that I’m very happy in my faith, even though it may seem different from yours. I have no intentions of going to hell, even though I like the heat. And, Jess, another thing: You could never offend me by being honest, but closed-minded is something else. … Yours is not the only religion, and yours is not the only way of life. Open up your heart and accept all. Just accept. It doesn’t have to change you or them. God made all of us. He has his reasons. In our lifetime, we may never understand what they are. But we do know he made all of us, he gave us different thoughts and different religions. None of us knows his plan. So just accept. I love you, Numero Uno. — Nanny.”
I’d never heard such complicated theological ideas from Nanny before. I counted on her for instant apple-cinnamon oatmeal packets and Marshmallow Fluff. Was there something to this? Could it be that the differences between people, even religious differences, were somehow grounded in Creation, God’s stamping on us his own image?
Leading up to Thanksgiving 2011, the feisty little woman fought for months to stay at her condo in Florida, but the family finally forced her to move here to North Carolina, where Mom could take care of her and Poppy. They were surrounded by us five of her grandkids, two granddaughters-in-law, and three great-granddaughters. We hope Nanny felt loved in her last days.
Nanny’s imminent death had Mom thinking about the Great Sadness of her family, another death, when my 20-year-old uncle just went to bed one night and never woke up. I was still a baby. Mom had just left the Catholic church and “gotten saved,” and she was worried about her family’s eternal destiny. Just before her brother died, she’d asked him if he knew he’d go to heaven one day.
“It’s OK,” he said. “I’m still Catholic, and I believe in Jesus, just like you.”
“You do?” she’d said. “Oh, I’m so happy to hear you say that.”
“That meant everything to me after he died,” Mom had told me, with Nanny on her deathbed, “to know that he’d be in heaven. But now, with my mother, I don’t think that way anymore. I just leave it in God’s hands.”
Tell mom how I feel, Nanny had written on the outside of the envelope, with that letter she’d sent me 18 years ago.
“Remember that letter I sent you, Nan, trying to convert you?” I said to her a few months before her death.
“Everyone was always trying to convert me,” she said. “You were so intense about religion. I worried about you.”
No one was trying to convert her anymore. We’d seen good and bad, divinity and sin, love and bitterness in her, just like in everyone else. We hope her salvation doesn’t depend on anything she did or didn’t do, believed or didn’t believe, but only on a Creator who loves her. Maybe this is what it means to follow the Slain Lamb, the Suffering Servant: We give up the power to try and change even our 80-pound grandmothers, and we simply love. We leave the saving to Jesus, and we love. That alone is a calling beyond our capability. The best we can do is to reflect what grace we’ve been given, little moons for the Sun.
Jesse James DeConto is a writer and musician living in Durham, N.C.. This column is adapted from his memoir, This Littler Light: Some Thoughts on NOT Changing the World, Cascade Books, 2013. He’s releasing a series of excerpts like this one, paired with songs that help to narrate his journey with God.