Grandma Sweet Love

Sweet Love.

How my 13-year-old self rolled my eyes and huffed out a sigh whenever Grandma Merrill would call me that. Now I find myself saying those very words to my daughter.  How did I not see how much my grandma loved me?

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Grandma with her father and some of her siblings.  She’s the girl standing up.

Grandma Merrill – Ann Clark Merrill – was born in January of 1900, so it was always easy to remember how old she was. She was the 11th of 12 children, the second to last daughter who remembered traveling from Utah to California by covered wagon when she was ten.

When she was born, no one owned a car. Women were not allowed to vote.  She and Grandpa raised their family in Anaheim when Disneyland was nothing more than orange groves.  She lived through World War 1, the Great Depression, World War 11, Korea and Viet Nam, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the moon landing, Watergate. She witnessed her husband’s death as he fell from a ladder, victim of a heart attack, while picking peaches.  She outlived her daughter, my aunt who died too soon. She was always cold, and even when she’d visit us in Houston in August, she would wear her cardigan.

Though never much more than five feet tall, she was a woman of no small opinions. She carried the stereotypes of her day, pronouncing them loudly in public places. She was convinced that Michael Landon utterly ruined the majesty of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books. She had an expectation of how we were to behave, and let us know with a certain look or purse of the lips if we had not held up our end of things.

Two stories capture her for me. She often apologized to my sister and me for having passed on to us what she called “the Clark fanny.”  We were all round in that posterior area and she taught us exercises to reduce the spread. One consisted of sitting on the floor, legs straight out, scooching forward across the room. The other began in the same position. One would then raise one’s fanny of the floor (arms locked at the side with palms on the floor for support) then smash said fanny into the floor. I suppose there was a hope that all that slamming would blast the fat to bits.  It didn’t. It’s no wonder she had both hips replaced. Perhaps no wonder that I just had one replaced as well.

When I was a young adult I lived in New York and my parents were in New Jersey. Grandma came for Christmas one year, and we rented a van and went into the city for a fancy dinner. Grandma had her usual Manhattan before dinner and loved the meal. As we were finishing dessert, she caught the waiter’s attention. “Young man, do you think you might get me a cigarette?” She smoked with elan, in her orthopedic shoes, all 4’11” of her.

Pretty brazen for a woman who never learned how to drive, who did not know how to write a check when suddenly widowed in her mid -60’s.

But that was Grandma. The minute you thought you’d figured her out, the minute you thought she would scold you, out would come “sweet love.” And she meant it.

I do too.

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My sainted grandmother

(Note: I think these next seven days are going to be a bit brutal, and the news and social media will not present our better angels.  So for these next seven days, I’ll write posts about something I find beautiful or happy or warm.  Just in case you need a brief respite from the election.)

family-pix-002In some ways, anyone who knew my grandmother would not immediately say she was a saint, not in the traditional “sweetness, goodness, and light” sort of way.  She caught my grandfather’s eye while dancing on a table at the local tavern, or so the story goes.  They married in 1925 and were married until, sixty-three years later, my grandfather died in his sleep in the bed they shared.

This is one of my favorite memories about Mary Hansler.

Every summer we would visit my grandparents in Washington State, and coming from New Jersey, and then Texas, that was a big deal.  It was a big deal for them, too.  We might spend a night at their home in Tacoma, but the real goal was to get to the Ranch, the property they bought in the early 1940’s outside Mt. Rainier National Park.

We’d get up to that mountain air and know we weren’t home.  It smelled of fir trees and mint and we needed jackets to go outside; without television, the most constant sound was the creek babbling near by.  Other family members might come up while we were there, and the siblings and cousins would take turn washing all those dishes by hand.

But the real winner of the whole deal was breakfast.  My grandmother loved to fish, more than anything else in the whole world.  She would get up before dawn, grab her pole and reel, and head to the creek.  While she was gone, Grandpa would light the wood stove and start the percolator.  Grandma would come home, clean the trout, make biscuit batter.  If one of the kids was up, they’d be sent out to the raspberry patch to pick berries.

Then she’d dredge those rainbow trout in flour and lemon pepper and set the big cast iron pan on the stove, and put a slab of butter in it.  Down went the trout, so fresh they’d curl up as they cooked.  Biscuits went in the oven. Juice and milk and cream and sugar and homemade blackberry jelly went on the table.

img_9609And then we ate. We stuffed ourselves silly, to get ready for a day of moving rocks in the creek and hiking up Mt. Osborn and washing dishes by hand.  Grandma sat at the head of the table, her little brown tea pot next to her, her eyes twinkling, her cheeks perpetually rosy.  She could be sharp sometimes, but I think nothing gave her more joy than seeing her family, some of whom lived too far away, gathered at that table devouring the feast she made possible.

So on this All Saints day, I say a prayer of thanks for all  my grandparents, whose love formed my parents and in turn me. And I say a prayer of thanks for rainbow trout, and raspberries and blackberries, and butter, and biscuits, and family.

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Morning Coffee

photo (5)I’m at our family place with most of my FOO (family of origin).  The house is big enough to hold all of us, though the septic tank gets a little cranky if we flush too often or shower too long.  It’s great to see everyone, to come back to this place where we have gathered most summers of my life, to raise glasses and share reader glasses and tell our stories to the younger generations.  It’s all good and harmonious – until we get to the  morning coffee.

We have four different ways of making morning coffee here, because none of us can agree on our Morning Foglifter (which is actually a Stumptown label that none of us has brought.)  My sister has her wee french press for her “stick-a-spoon-in-it-and-it-will-stand-on-its-own” coffee.  My parents have their own french press with special grinder for their strong-ish (emphasis on the “ish”) brew.  My brother and niece grind their own in the morning and brew it, half-decaf.  Me?  Well, last month I bought a Cuisinart 4-cup drip like the one I have at home, along with ground Peet’s French Roast, because the last thing I want to do before I’ve had my morning coffee is listen to a coffee grinder.  Least Favorite Sound. Ever.  It’s like the Fran Drescher of kitchen machines.

I try not to read too much into the whole coffee thing.  I try not to overanalyze the situation, not think that this is endemic of our familial inability to come together, to let go of our preferences and share in the common good, or the common ground, or the common grounds.  At dinner we all manage to share the same bottles of wine; why not morning coffee?

Truth be told, although most of us in my family are morning people there’s a limit to our morning-ness. We are up with the sun, but we don’t really want to engage with each other until we’ve been a little dosed with caffeine.  Maybe there’s grace in allowing each other our individual brews.  After all, my husband foregoes the coffee and reaches for the Diet Coke, and my sister-in-law is a confirmed tea drinker, and we love them.

When we would come to this place when I was little, at the old house where we stayed before my parents built their own place, there was one percolater.  Grandpa was usually up first, and the percolator was going, bubbling up in the glass lid-thing at the top.  If you were a coffee drinker, that’s what you drank in the morning – no french presses, no coffee grinders, just a good waking up to Folgers.  My grandfather, who had a magnificent, wry sense of humor, would laugh to see us these mornings.  But he would be glad we’re all up here, whatever we might be drinking.

So I raise my mug to him this morning, with gratitude for the gift of this place, and for my morning cuppa joe.

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Family Reunion

Family Reunion

ranch oneMy extended family – parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, first cousins once removed, first cousins twice removed – owns property together.  It’s land that my grandparents bought over seventy years ago, land that they have passed down to their children which they, in turn, are passing down to their children.  It’s home to me, in a way; it’s the place we went to every summer, whether my address was in California or New Jersey or Texas.

Because we own this property together, we have an annual meeting to talk about the management of the place.  Some years the annual meeting goes well, and some years there is contention, as happens when more than one person is involved in making a decision.  But always after the meeting, we gather for a potluck lunch.  Some of the family stays around for a few days afterwards; others go back home, promising to see us the next year.  Because we own this property together, we know each other. We’re spread out from New Jersey to Wisconsin to West Virgiania to Washington but I know my cousins; I know the names of their spouses and kids.  My kid will know her second cousins and her great aunts and uncles.

My grandparents left us a treasure.  Sure, the land would be worth something if we ever sold it, but it’s a different kind of treasure. I know my family; I know their joys and quirks.  I have shared their heartaches, and so often they make me laugh out loud.  That’s priceless.

This last week I’ve been at a different kind of family reunion.  The General Assembly (national gathering) of the denomination in which I minister (the Presbyterian Church U.S.A.) has met, as we do ever other year.  We are not bound because of a piece of property.  Rather, we are bound by faith.  We are each other’s beloved because we are all God’s beloved and we know this because of Jesus.  We get together to talk about our mission and ministry and our rules.  Sometimes the meeting goes well; usually there is contention.  Actually, always there is contention.  But that’s okay, because we talk about things that we feel passionate about, things we believe deeply about, things that have called us together and things that threaten to tear us apart.

I’ve had such a sense of reunion this week, seeing old friends from so many times of my life.  My internship buddy.  A guy I dated in seminary.  A woman who moderated the presbytery when I was examined for ordination.  Seminary mentors and classmates.  Former members of my pastor’s group (all of whom absolutely shone this week.)  Friends who challenge me to act beyond the role society has proscribed for me.  Friends who inspire me to love Jesus more.  Friends who irk me into speaking up.  Friends who took a taxi with me because my hip hurt too much.  Friends who laughed at my bad jokes.  Friends who walk the walk of faith and ministry and Presbyteriana with me.

We are family, in the best and worst sense of that word.  We are bound by love, but thank God it’s not our love doing the binding but God’s love.  And we fight the way families fight.  Sometimes we fight and make up.  Sometimes we let ourselves get rent apart.  I know for some the metaphor of family describing church doesn’t work because their own families are so messed up and a source of deep pain. I know there are some in the Presbyterian family that feel that way, especially after some of the decisions made this week about marriage equality and Israel/Palestine relations.  I think about that with my own family experience, and I hope they will be willing to come back to the table after the meeting, and I’ll be as gracious as I can be if they choose to find another table.

But I’m feeling so grateful at this moment.  I am so grateful to remember the cloud of witnesses, friends who weren’t at this Assembly because they are with God, earthly witnesses with whom I broke bread and raised a glass.  I’ll be at the next reunion, too, and so the goodbyes didn’t really seem like goodbyes as much as see-you-soons.

 

Tomorrow night I get to have dinner with my family, my husband and child, for the first time in ten days.  I can’t wait for that family reunion – it’s been too long without them.  Sometimes you have to be apart to appreciate the good of being together.  May that be true for Presbyterians in the next two years.

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