My children’s great-grandmother died last week. She was my father-in-law’s mother and had been a fixture at every family holiday and Sunday afternoon in my memory. She was small in stature, but a spitfire who would tell you like it is. She would sit on the sofa and watch her grandchildren play, flipping cartwheels or singing into plastic microphones, until a moment would trigger a memory and she would tell anyone listening, about “that one time when…”
Her life, in the later years, as I came to know her, was lived out like a story book, and she would reread the pages aloud to entertain, to enlighten, and, more personally, I imagine, to relive.
On Saturday morning, we gathered in the funeral parlor as a single family, with his sisters and parents, mourning. My six-year-old daughter wanted me to hold her. The older children lingered around at the sides of their aunts and grandparents, quietly watching as we made the small talk one makes in these somber moments. How lovely and peaceful she looks. That shirt was a perfect choice, it even matches the beautiful sprays of purple and white flowers. She looks good. They did a good job.
All of the awkward ways we stumble through these moments, somehow manages to bring us even closer, perhaps in how they reduce us all to this place of uncertainty. What is the right thing to say, ever, when in this moment? Or is silence or a hug or to stand near a window with your uncomfortable child and look out into the sunlight and talk about heaven – or are any of these just as right as any other words you can muster?
At the church, my baby niece bounced around on her mother’s lap in the row in front of us. She cooed and smiled at my daughter and I. She’s my sister-in-law’s eleventh child and in her smiling round blue eyes, I saw the miracle of this moment, celebrating her great-grandmother’s life.
Here we all sat, because Gram lived. Literally, I would not have the gift of my husband, nor would my eleven nieces and nephews or my own four children, have life, had she not lived. But, the church full of people who gathered to tell testimonies of how she had helped shape them, helped calm their anxieties, helped lead them to a deeper understanding and walk with Christ – none of us would have been where we were, at the moment, had it not been for this woman and the life she lived.
This is, as the pastor called it, her legacy. We are.
He pulled out her well worn Bible and opened to one of the markings she had scribbled down in the pages, a verse with a note that said it was the start of her journey to salvation, at a church in Detroit.
And I thought of this woman, in Detroit. In Ohio. In Pennsylvania. In Massachusetts. I thought of the spoon collection her grandchildren mentioned in their words of remembrance. Each spoon, representing steps in her journey, places she had traveled. I thought of how each decision she made, each question that turned from maybe or if, to yes, and how it impacted her life, how it led her to here, in this church, surrounded by this legacy of love.
If she had not married her husband.
If she had not raised her son as she had.
If she had not moved to Massachusetts.
If she had not taught five decades of Sunday School.
If she had not ever been to that church in Detroit.
If she had not taken that scripture and written it on the pages of her heart.
If. If. If.
It sounds so simplistic to say that if she had made a different choice, even a small one. If she had slept in that Sunday morning. If she had not heard that scripture, or let it into her heart. The path of her life could have been so very different.
If she had not said yes to the uncertainty, the commitment to love and stand alongside someone, even when health fails and bills pile high.
We like to think that we have more control than we ever do.
But, all of our lives are choices, opportunities to step out boldly, in the face of the unknown.
There are times we cannot control the unmentionable bad things, the terrible, awful things that can happen to us or those that we love. But we can still walk in faith.
We can’t control skin cancer or macular degeneration. But we can continue to walk in faith.
We can’t control when our spouse will be laid to rest. But we can continue to walk in faith.
The steps that lead to a legacy aren’t paved in assurance, they’re paved in what if and they are walked on by the strength of our faith alone.
At the service, Evaline wriggled beside me, uncomfortable with the tears, uncomfortable with sitting through so much talking. She wrote words down on strips of paper. She has been my toughest student, unwilling to sound out words, unwilling to try. But, here, as person after person stood to share how Gram had come alongside them, Evie spelled out words.
As people shared how Gram prayed with them, through three AM anxiety, through life choices, through doubt. Evie lifted the page to me, pointing with her long fingernails, to each word, and nodding. Is. Pig. Fox.
As one woman stood and told how Gram had a way of encouraging everyone, passionately, to be their best selves and to live full and active lives – lives that would each have their own spoon collections on their walls – marking the places that they’ve been, the memories that they’ve made. I looked down and saw my daughter, as a part of Gram’s legacy, and as a part of my own – and this simple moment, of her finally spelling out words, as a small but shining memory that I’ll store away in my heart. A collection of spoons only I can see.
If Gram hadn’t made her choices, we would not have been there, in that moment.
But, if I hadn’t made choices of my own, we wouldn’t have, either.
If I hadn’t held Vinnie’s hand on that cool October night almost twenty years ago, perhaps, none of this.
One day when we are laid back down to the earth, perhaps a chorus of people will choose to stand and share our stories and share how we’ve somehow made a difference, however small. The stories of my children, of Vinnie and I, each of our journeys inextricably bonded, branching off into our own, but all from the same root.
And it started with a church in Detroit.
And it started in Ohio.
And it started in Lowell.
And it started in Quincy.
It all started, as everything good and worthwhile does, with a what if, turning into yes.