Of What Value, a Life?

We laid her body to rest on a cool, clear summer morning.  Blackberries were just beginning to ripen along the fence rows.  Sweet pea blossoms nodded in the breeze.  The whir of insects, and the intermittent gossip of birds, supplied the only sounds.  The cemetery was an island of green in a great field of freshly mown hay, lying in strips, waiting to be gathered into bundles of winter sustenance.

I remember walking down there with my grandmother as a little girl to visit the graves of our forebears and to share stories.  And now she will sleep there in those mountains where she raised her babies…where she rose in the pre-dawn hours and walked with my grandpa to the dairy barn that provided their livelihood…where she carved a garden out of the earth, then preserved its yield so that her family need never be hungry…where her table was always laden with good things, and her chicken and dumplings were the stuff of legend.

She welcomed her grandchildren (and later her great grandchildren) to this world apart.  It was a life of simple elegance.  You could see a million stars in the night sky, and almost as many lightening bugs hovering over the fields.  There were barns, and corn cribs, and old pieces of forgotten road to explore. Here the dogs frequently smelled of skunk, and the water smelled of the iron that was heavy in their well. And when the summer heat was too much, there was a deep swimming hole nearby that was always cold.  Life was slow here.  And good. We got snowbound one Christmas.  It was the best Christmas ever.

“Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord…they will rest from their labor, for their deeds will follow them.”  Revelation 14:13

I have pondered this verse since the minister shared it at her funeral.  Even though she now abides in the Presence, I know that she has left bits and pieces of herself in us.  As I contemplate her legacy, the deeds that follow, here are some of the traits that live most vividly in my recollection, and I hope live, at some level, in me.

Extravagant Love She and my grandpa were married 71 years.  That, in itself, would be quite a feat.  The beautiful thing is that they were still crazy about each other.  He used a different voice when he spoke to her than he used with anyone else.  I have seen Grandpa teary before, but never in my life have I heard him sob……until yesterday.  He has lost his sweetheart.

All of us who sat on her porch yesterday, who gathered around grandpa and sang away the afternoon, have been the grateful recipients of that love.  That doesn’t mean she was oblivious to our faults.  She never hesitated to offer words of correction or advice when she felt they were warranted.  But she found ways to make each of us feel as though we had some singular value, as though we were special.

Exceptional Vitality She tilled her garden until she was in her 80s.  Quite frankly, I am in awe of that.  My mom laughed about the fact that when Grandma went along with the sisters on summer vacations they thought she would give them an excuse to move slowly.  They were wrong.  She and my grandpa visited my aunt in Germany when I was a teenager.  And I still have fond memories of a trip our whole family, grandparents included, made to the beach after I was already married.  Hers was a vitality of mind as well.  Always learning, always curious.

Perhaps this was one of the hardest things about watching as both body and mind betrayed her after her stroke.  We knew the vivacious woman who lived inside.  And even within the confines of a body that no longer did everything she asked it to, those sparks of ebullience, of wit and good humor, still emerged from time to time.

Extraordinary Generosity The line of mourners stretched across the room, down the hall, and out the door at times.  So many people loved her and came to say so.  She had given of herself to them…encouragement, advice, understanding, sympathy, courage.  Some of them she had taught, others she had fed, driven, served, mentored.  Grandma had a way of seeing people others do not see and drawing them into her loving embrace.  My daughter is very like her in this.  I loved hearing their stories.

“How does someone who lived so simply leave such a hole?” my cousin Amy asked through her tears.  My grandma was not famous.  I’ll warrant you have never heard her name.  But every life that intersected hers was made richer by her presence.  I would take that over being famous any day.  She lived a quiet life of ordinary, extraordinary beauty.  And that is profoundly valuable.  I am blessed to have known her.