Grandma’s Story


Des Moines, Iowa

It’s Mother’s Day. What they say is true. The loss is felt long after the burial. My mother died a week before Christmas seven years ago. Time doesn’t make it easier. I’ve been thinking of my mother’s story lately while considering a different approach to the “Justice Diary”.

A year ago, with one class left in my graduate studies at Eastern Mennonite University, I made a promise to Howard Zehr that I would blog for a year. In exchange, he said I would earn three hours of credit. It sounded like a good deal and I have to say I’ve enjoyed it for the most part. Howard told me last week that, as far as he’s concerned, I’ve blogged enough. And the folks at EMU say I get to graduate. But to some extent I’ve not done what I set out to do.

I was talking recently with a friend, a fellow introvert. We were discussing why it is that introverts frequently have a need to write. We considered various reasons. Then it struck me. We introverts write to finish our sentences. Extroverts, wonderful people that they are, wouldn’t understand this. They rarely have trouble getting in the last word. But as an introvert, I can attest to the innumerable times when I didn’t start a sentence knowing there was little chance of a successful conclusion.

I think that’s why what I’d hoped to do with blogging didn’t happen. What I wanted to do was to explore justice through the stories of others. I wanted to learn about justice as James Baldwin exhorted in “No Name In The Street”:

“If one really wishes to know how justice is administered in a country, one does not question the policemen, the lawyers, the judges, or the protected members of the middle class. One goes to the unprotected — those who need the law’s protection most — and listens to their testimony. ”

I haven’t done that, I suppose, because I had some things to say. I had some sentences I needed to finish. But I’m in recovery now and ready to learn from others. I’m not sure what it will look like. I need to take a few weeks off to think about it. I know there are questions I want to ask of the unprotected. I know it’s their testimony that is more important than mine.

In the meantime, I’ll catch up on some reading. I’ll mow the lawn and take my grandson on bike rides. And I’ll give serious thought to those who need the law’s protection most.

With Mother’s Day nearly over, I’m still thinking of my own mother’s story. She knew some things about justice and injustice, quite a bit actually. At her funeral service I attempted to tell her story for the benefit of her grandchildren. What I shared with them is some of what they now know as “Grandma’s Story”:

“It’s customary at services like these for people to pay tribute to a loved one. My mom wasn’t one for tributes. She thought they were boring and she would have said she didn’t deserve one. Instead, I think my mom would have wanted someone to tell her story. She would have wanted those she cared about to understand her for her accomplishments and her failures. She would have wanted her story told to her grandchildren who she loved more than anything in the world.

To the extent anyone can tell another’s story, I want to do that for my mother’s grandchildren so when they are asked someday by their children what their grandmother was like, they will have something to add to what they already know.

So this story is for you, her twenty grandchildren.

More than anything, your grandma was a complicated woman. Her mother and her father studied at Iowa State University. Her father was an electrical engineer and her mother an accountant. Her grandfather, the Dutch one, was a lawyer and for a while was the City Attorney for Des Moines. Her German grandfather helped run the family brewery in Dubuque. Your grandma also had a sister, the obedient one.

Your grandma grew up in a home where there were a lot of rules and very little love. Because of that she became a rebel of sorts. Your grandma was also very smart, smart enough to skip two grades at Visitation Elementary School.

When it came time to attend high school she was offered a full scholarship to the Academy, the all girls Catholic High School on the other side of town. She refused to go. She couldn’t understand why anyone would want to go to a school with no boys. She went to East High School instead and, by all accounts, was the one you’d want to have at your party. She was funny, witty, and knew everyone. Your grandma was also a good athlete and loved to swim. She won a lot of races until she was stricken with polio.

When it came time to go to college your grandma again was offered scholarships. But she refused to go. She said she was going to marry her high school sweetheart, the wrestling star who was also the life of the party. Your grandma did what she said she would do, perhaps out of love and perhaps to spite her parents.

Like most girls, your grandma wasn’t ready to be married at eighteen. She also wasn’t ready to be a mom at nineteen, at twenty-one, at twenty-three, at twenty-five, and at twenty-eight. She was a strong woman, but not strong enough to be the mother of five children at such a young age. Your grandma had been strong enough to overcome the disease of polio. She was not strong enough to overcome another disease, depression, which crippled her more than polio ever did. And when she divorced your grandpa at the age of thirty, the disease paralyzed her.

Your grandma was smart, but she didn’t have the skills to take care of herself and her five children. She had never known poverty but found herself having to maneuver the welfare system, waiting for the monthly check, waiting for the food stamps to come, waiting in long lines to get government peanut butter and cheese, waiting to see if she could get help so she and her kids wouldn’t get evicted. Ultimately, your grandma’s disease left her unable to parent.

When the authorities came and took her five children away she had to be taken away too. At that time, the disease of depression was not well understood. People thought the best way to fix your grandma was with hospitals and electrical shock treatments. They were wrong. The best way would have been to give her the love and support she needed so badly. That never happened and your grandma never got her children back – except one.

For a long time, your grandma was bitter at the system that never came to her aid. But she was smart and she was also courageous. She woke up one day and said she was going to fix herself. She started taking college classes while working as a store clerk. She quit her job when Judge Harrison hired her to work at the county substance abuse center. It turns out your grandma had a gift for helping people who had been laid low by life. It also turned out that your grandma’s bitterness against a system that never came to her aid blossomed into a compassion for those caught up in that same system.

Your grandma’s compassion enabled her to get up in the middle of many nights when the calls would come from the alcoholic or the heroin addict or the crack head. She would always respond. It didn’t take long for the authorities to say your grandma should be in charge of the county programs for helping people with substance abuse problems. She was the best person for the job and did it well.

Then the authorities called. They said she was the best person to run the county’s General Relief Program – the program that helped moms and kids who were getting evicted, who had run out of food stamps, or who were having their electricity turned off. Your grandma took that job and helped a lot of people there too.

Your grandma wasn’t perfect. She sometimes got in trouble for breaking the rules. She couldn’t understand why there would be a rule that said a mom couldn’t get help just because she had gotten help nine months before. But they couldn’t fire your grandma because she helped too many people, and she was the best person for the job.

But the authorities called your grandma again. They said she was the best person to run the county programs that helped old people. She didn’t want to stop helping moms and families but she decided to take the new job – perhaps she was thinking of the day when she would be old.

By now, you know your grandma’s story. She helped a lot of old people. She helped get them meals when they couldn’t get out of the house. She got them fans when the temperature in their apartments was ninety-five degrees. She helped them get money for rent when the landlords wanted to evict them. And when she had to she broke the rules.

When I was going through some of your grandma’s papers yesterday, I found a job evaluation her boss had written when she was running the elderly programs. The evaluation said your grandma was very good at all she did. It ended with the statement “if one can tolerate individuality in an employee, then Mary is an asset.”

Your grandma had to stop working just before she turned sixty. Her mind was still sharp but her health was poor – and she was still haunted by depression. Without the work that meant so much to her she was oftentimes hard to deal with. But she always loved her grandchildren.

As you know, two years ago we took your grandma to Kavanagh House. They said she had two weeks to live. She had ideas of her own. Eight months later they said she had to leave because she hadn’t died soon enough. With the help of Hospice nurses, she stayed with us for the next six months. It was oftentimes challenging but also a blessing. We finally had to put your grandma in a nursing home because the Hospice nurses said they couldn’t come any more. They said your grandma wasn’t going to die anytime soon.

We thought she wouldn’t last long in the nursing home but we were wrong. She met Willa there. Willa was your grandma’s roommate. She was ninety-nine years old, the daughter of a slave, and the loving mother your grandma never had. There were times when I would visit your grandma late at night. She and Willa would be holding hands. Your grandma was oftentimes in a lot of pain and Willa would get out of bed to comfort her.

Many people cared for your grandma, loving her each in their own way. But Willa was the first person in your grandma’s life that loved her unconditionally. Willa brought out the best in her. The last few months of your grandma’s life were times of both pain and peace. Near the end, she shared her love unconditionally with those around her.

When your grandma was moved to a second nursing home it broke her heart to be separated from Willa. But she didn’t give in. A week ago yesterday she was taken by ambulance to the hospital in Des Moines. It looked like she didn’t have long to live. When she was lying on the gurney in the emergency room she pulled me close and said: “I could have died tonight but I decided not to, is that alright?” Your grandma didn’t die that night and they took her back to the nursing home.

Two days later we took her a small Christmas tree. When she saw us she was an expression of pure joy. Shortly after that she went to sleep and never woke up.

Your grandma’s story is one of promise, rebellion, despair, courage, accomplishment, suffering and, ultimately, redemption. But your grandma was more than her story. As I said earlier, your grandma was a complicated woman.

She loved politics and she loved the Democratic Party, with all of its faults. Your grandma was always asking about the courthouse and what boneheaded thing the Board of Supervisors had done. She loved John Kennedy and hated Richard Nixon. She loved Bill Clinton and hated George Bush, both of them. Your grandma loved ideas, controversy, and debate and she loved Larry King.

Your grandma loved to travel when she finally had the resources to do so. But she didn’t go to Paris and Rome like others. Instead, she went to Russia – four times. She loved to talk to people there about their struggles. Your grandma hated the Nazis and was fascinated by the Holocaust. The last trip she took was to Poland – she had to visit Auschwitz.

And finally, your grandma loved her church, particularly Jesus’ mother – and all the Mary’s of the New Testament.

If your grandma were here today, she would tell you to engage in the struggles of the world and debate the burning issues of our time. She would tell you to never stop learning. She would tell you to lift up those who have fallen and always be kind to strangers. She would tell you to hug those who are close to you and never forget to tell them you love them. And finally, she would tell you to never, never become a Republican.

I want to finish by reading you something from one of your grandma’s books. As you know, she was not sentimental. Her books were about politics, travel, and the struggles of others.

Of all of her books, she only had one book of poetry, aptly titled: “Risking Everything”.

I want to read the first poem, one she had dog-eared. It’s titled: “When Death Comes” by Mary Oliver.

When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes like the measles-pox;

when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering: what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everything as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea, and I consider eternity as another possibility,

and I think of each life as a flower, as common as a field daisy, and as singular,

and each name a comfortable music in the mouth tending as all music does, toward silence,

and each body a lion of courage, and something precious to the earth.

When it’s over, I want to say: all my life I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it is over, I don’t want to wonder if I have made of my life something particular, and real.

I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened, or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.”