The Values Essays

The Value of Grace

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Gracefilled Nature

If we want to, we can define grace as delight in another that comes unearned, undeserved and unexpected. Bertha Neuffer Marshall Whitmer, my maternal grandmother, provides this grace note in my chaotic, abusive, neglectful childhood. In the too-few years we share, her smile perpetually broadcasts the news that I am unconditionally loved.

In adulthood when I discover the following quote from Frederick Buechner concerning God's grace, I know at the bone marrow level of my life that this was the kind of grace I received from Grandma.

"Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are because the party wouldn't have been complete without you. Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don't be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. It's for you I created the universe. I love you. There's only one catch. Ike any other gift, the gift of grace can be yours only if you'll reach out and take it. There's nothing you have to do. There's nothing to have to do. There's nothing you have to do. Maybe being able to reach out and take it is a gift too."

Perhaps it is only in experiencing God's grace through another human being, that we ultimately understand the concept with God. Grandma was my conduit to God's Grace.

Grandma's up-beat nature never wanes, in spite of a life of physically hard work, two alcoholic husbands and more than her share of poverty. She cares little for outward appearance, so her thin grey hair is often pulled back in a rubber band and her malleable face is made even funnier with monster looks and wickedly funny sounds to intrigue the nearest child. No grandchild's question ever meets an unwelcome response---I once ask for the recipe for mashed potatoes! No behavior ventures beyond her love---I once burn my midriff while walking, with iron in hand, to eaves-drop on her phone conversation. My scar is almost gone; the memory of her care still fresh.

Grandma teaches us to recycle before recycling is cool. The city dump serves as her favorite flea market and our 1950's Toys-R-Us. Turning up my nose at the odor or being concerned that it isn't quite right to shop at the dump, never occurs to me when faced with Grandma's enthusiasm. Old purses (my personal fave), trinkets for house or garden, a rock for the fish pond---no found object lacks possibility. Discoveries, often effects I don't know I need or want, morph into treasures when seen through Grandma's eyes.

Many springs, Grandma escorts me around her yard reciting the names of every flower in bloom. While not particularly interested in horticulture lessons, my gut tells me that time with Grandma is cultivating a perennial blossom of love that I desperately need. Decades later, I experience lingering grace notes when flower names pop effortlessly into my mind from some ancient, cobwebby index. Pansies, creeping phlox, hydrangeas, geraniums---I walk down any street, identify each bloom and my heart smiles in memory.

In contrast, a day in the blackberry patch with Grandma pushes me to the edge of my comfort zone. I don't like to sweat. I don't like being poked by brambles. I don't like even the thought of chiggers. With a bucket full of blackberries and enough sassafras to boil for tea, we finally call it a day. While rubbing Grandma's gnarly feet that evening---after the almost-worth-it cobbler and tea---a tick walks boldly down her forehead. I scream; she carefully removes the tick. She instructs me about burning ticks instead of squashing the life out of them. Conveying the benefits of sassafras to the next generation garners equal time with expounding on the death of the tick---and neither gets rushed. Moisturizing those old diabetic feet never lasts too long when the minutes are filled with stories and wisdom----and grace.

Sometimes grace is most needed in the middle of the night. If Mom gets scared, she loads up the kids and off we go to Grandma's---in a taxi! Normal families in our town don't use taxis during the day, much less in the middle of the night. Dressed in her ragged chenille bathrobe, Grandma greets us, pays the taxi and we immediately feel secure. We are ushered to pallets on the floor; Mom is comforted about the fear-du jour.

Even several moves to California do not ameliorate the need for Grandma's grace. It just gets more expensive than taxi fare to access the blessing. Mom, who can romanticize most any circumstance, teaches us to love the train ride Home---Home being wherever Grandma lives. We especially like the Grand Canyon Line because its route through the states that divide us provide excitement and beauty. Putting together the pennies necessary to transport a mother and five kids on the train never gets easy. I plead guilty to helping Mom once convince my younger sisters that they had already had lunch when sack lunches are gone as well as all money. Finally, the conductor walks through yelling, "St. Louis! St. Louis! Everybody off for St. Louis!" we can't wait to tell Grandma that the delay out west caused the train line to provide a free meal in The Dining Car---a first class experience for a band of ragamuffins.

Grandma's trailer, (we never once heard the term mobile home) at fifteen feet, is the smallest in the park, so she and Grandpa agree to the shortened lot adjacent to the above-ground septic system. She claims she has never once smelled what others assiduously avoid. With Mom and five kids sleeping in this tiny trailer, Grandpa says it is "wall-to-wall people" when he tries to leave for work and routinely almost steps on someone. Neither cramped quarters, train rides without lunch nor smelly septic pipes keep us away from this abundant source of amazing grace.      
In adulthood, I realize my perception of Grandma was naïve. This does nothing to change the memory that she was beauty without pretense, adventure without fear, creativity without restraint, security without a price tag---and the essence of grace. This dispensation of unconditional love shined in high relief against contrasting self-doubt, instability, chaos and made a lasting difference.

updated: 8 years ago


Grace and GrandmaSaturday, October 16th 2010 11:27PM

This one touched me so, Brenda (Slimbo, as Randy used to call you).  I felt like I was there, feeling what you were feeling.  Thanks.