Here's an essay that was just published for the online magazine Catapult. I hope you enjoy it. Click on the Catapult link above to see the rest of the issue, which follows the theme "Heroes and Saints".
by Troy Cady
We were at a church potluck. Rectangular tables, fluorescent lights, pale tile floors. Plastic plates piled high with jello, rolls and the ever-present “hot dish”.
I didn’t sense anything different would happen that night. The hot dish offerings were standard fare: goulash and tater tot casserole; lasagna, au gratin and scalloped potatoes (what’s the difference, anyway?). It was a normal kind of evening: scores of lukewarm Minnesotans were tucked comfortably into a white brick-walled basement after enjoying a special event.
Then, I noticed Grandma was missing. I scanned the room and spotted her. What I saw next surprised me.
Grandma had always been a woman who kept her hands busy. If she wasn’t doing one thing, she was doing another: vacuuming, cooking, sewing, dusting. On a typical winter morning she’d make her bed, brew some coffee, butter some toast, and stoke the fire. During the day, she kept herself busy with various tasks like: ironing, writing letters, washing clothes, baking cookies, kneading bread, feeding the dog (and even wiping his butt, on occasion!). Once, I paid her a visit and she was “out back” splitting wood. On another occasion, I found her atop the unusually steep roof of her two-story house, like an Alpine climber reaching for a precarious ledge: she was painting her chimney.
Grandma used her hands in other ways, too. Her fingers were both physically and spiritually employed. For starters, she leafed through her Bible daily. She also cupped her hands regularly, pleading with God to save certain wayward children and grandchildren. Grandma also had a little electric organ in her living room. It had a full range of foot pedals and two tiers of keys along with dozens of multi-colored toggle switches and sliders to affect varied sounds in categories of brass, wind and string. From time to time, Grandma dusted off her digits and plugged out an old-time hymn. She was not what one would call an accomplished musician. Her rhythm was uneven, tempo inconsistent, and volume singular, but she played How Great Thou Art with all her heart.
Yes, Grandma, it could be safely said, kept her hands busy. On this particular night, however, I discovered that she had lots of practice with her hands, starting from a very young age, a younger age than I realized. Those were the days before the moniker “Jaderston” was attached to her first name: Vivian. The younger years were the Kanthack years. Those were the years of silent communication: sign language. See, Grandma’s mother was deaf, so my grandmother learned sign language when she was just a child. I hadn’t seen her use it before that night. In fact, I’m embarrassed to say that I can’t recall ever seeing someone use sign language before that night, except on TV and in movies. It was entrancing.
Wonder bubbled in my soul as I saw Grandma talking with her hands to a perfect stranger in a spirit of joy and delight. By the look on her face, I could tell the other woman was both surprised and heartened that my grandmother would know sign language. No doubt, she had come to the event expecting to talk about significant things only with her immediate family and friends, but when my grandmother made the move to say “Hi” to her, it brightened her spirit in an unexpected way.
Suddenly, my view of Grandma’s strength of spirit took on greater depth that night. Her signing was confident yet humble. They told jokes to each other. I laughed along with them but, of course, had no idea what they were going on about. The spirit of the whole thing enlivened my heart.
Grandma was a rock for me in other ways, too. I come from what you might call a “broken family.” My mom and dad got divorced when I was two. Then, when I was 9, my mom married a man named Jim. It was not a good marriage. In fact, eventually (almost immediately) we got into a routine that went something like this:
1. Jim starts drinking;
2. Jim starts cursing or threatening or hitting (depending on the annual cycle);
3. Mom and kids run away to stay with friends for a while to let Jim cool down so he doesn’t pummel them all;
4. Jim leaves the house to shack up with his newest girlfriend;
5. Mom and kids see that the coast is clear and take up residence in their home again;
6. Jim comes back a few weeks later, repentant and weeping, vowing to be a real Christian this time;
7. A few weeks later, Jim starts drinking (then, repeat steps 2-7).
If you don’t count steps 3-7, we lived that way for about 5 years. Counting all the steps, I think we lived that way for about 2.5 years. Naturally, after a while, that sort of madness takes its toll on a kid. So, when I was 14 and I heard Jim was ready to launch step 6 for the, oh, let’s say, seventy-eighth time, I told my mom that if she let him back, I would leave home and go live with Grandma.
Mom let him come back. Grandma took me in and prayed for me and Mom—and even prayed for Jim. During that time, she fed me and loved me and cheated at SkipBo with me. Each night (just before going to bed) she sat on her recliner with her Boston Bull Terrier at her side (or on her neck), knitting, and watching Wheel of Fortune followed by the evening news. The routine was a balm for me. About three weeks later, I was home with Mom again. Jim had left. We never saw him again. And, all through it, Grandma accepted us, just the same.
Perhaps her unconditional love sprang from experience. See, her marriage had its own troubles. She was a “believer” and her husband George was not. This created some tension in the home. The tension was exacerbated by the fact that Grandpa had an unusually foul temper. Once, he yelled so hard at my Grandma (I think over something like pepper) that his false teeth leapt out of his mouth and onto his plate, literally. It was all my Grandma could do to not laugh. Perhaps if his dentures had started chattering, she would have done so.
Which reminds me: Grandma did make us laugh with her quirkiness. We’d play cards and have to take a bathroom break. When we came back, she’d be chuckling, all red-faced, because she had added cards to our pile. Or when we played “Pit” she’d arrange it so no one could win by holding one of every card in her hand. The round would take ten times as long to finish and it would usually end when everyone finally “got a clue” and exclaimed in unison: “Grandma!” Of course, she was always innocent, never at fault. We would have believed her plea of “not guilty” had it not been for the laughter that seized her like a pit bull every time. Actually, I can recall the time she wet her pants from laughing so hard. I think she did this more than once, but the time I have in mind was when she played "The Fox and the Chickens" with us in the snow one Christmas Eve.
With that in mind, I guess it should come as no surprise that Grandma died with dignity and grace. After all, those who live well, die well. Last Easter, I closed a short sermon with this story about her:
“She met her death without a trace of fear. All her life, my grandmother had been in almost perfect health and one day she contracted cancer. Now when most people find out they only have so long to live, they tend to react with an unexplainable fear. But, my grandmother faced death with confidence, because she knew death would not have the last word. She knew that Jesus was the resurrection and the life and that he had conquered death and would lead the way to life without end. She believed in Jesus’ power and love, so she did not fear. I will never be able to forget the sense of calm and peace she had in this process. And her sense of peace over the months seemed to carry over right into the night of her death.
“That night, I was in her dining room. It had been converted into a temporary hospital room and Grandma lay on her bed sleeping quietly. She was thin and pale at this point and we knew her passing was imminent. As we listened to her breath, it became weaker until finally she breathed in and she breathed out and then she didn’t breathe in again. She passed into eternity with a gentle exhale. And the peace she had in the process of dying seemed to settle in the room.
“At her funeral I sang a song about life without end. The chorus goes like this: But just think of stepping on shore and finding it heaven,/ of touching a hand and finding it God’s,/ of breathing new air and finding it celestial,/ of waking up in Glory and finding it home.”
Grandma found her home that night. I like to picture her there in heaven, signing and singing and working and laughing, a hero and a saint.