When I came to know Grandma Nancy, she had already been deeply wounded by life. My earliest memories of her are filled with explanations for why she could not walk as fast, see as well, or drive. Why part of her forehead was missing. Nancy had faced death several times in her life: Polio, cancer, a brutal car accident, meningitis; and she wanted none of it. She wanted to live!
In a Christian view of the afterlife, we might try to imagine Nancy as a perfect young woman dressed in white. But this would not be the Nancy that I knew. For me perfection is the wholeness brought about by our wounds. More than anyone I know, Nancy bore her woundedness with love, grace and humor. Her love and laughter have been present throughout my life and I will miss her.
Grandma Nancy was a towering figure of my childhood. Grandma’s house was always a place I loved to go. Sometimes, I would stay overnight at grandma’s small apartment and she would cook lamb chops (and after reading some of her journals, it appears that my siblings got a lot more dessert than I did). She would tell me stories about the Salt Lake of the 1940s and 50s. We have a few of her journals, from 1947, 1951, 1953 and 1954. Reading through them was a treat. She was a precocious young woman, taking note of the weather each day and starting each entry with: “Dear Diary.” She had an early crush on a boy named Dick and many, many friends. She called cigarettes “doogies”, saw movies, ate a lot of French fries, did chores, and played canasta. A few excerpts:
- January 4, 1951: Had oodles of cars following us all night! Ma smelled smoke on me!
- January 4, 1953: Don and I went to show. Saw ‘Lure of the Wilderness’ at Richey. Baby really was kicking in show. Don’s ma called earlier and we were scared she’d come and catch Don still here.
- Friday July 30, 1954: Started throwing up terrible. All morning. Guess I’m pregnant again.
- Tuesday September 28 1954: Went to the hospital with Polio.
She rarely writes about religion or church (except when she writes about not going), but writes passionately about lovers, friends, family and her home on 2nd North. She was a kind friend, a good sister, and a young mother.
Other times spent with Nancy we would just watch TV, or she would teach me how to haggle with Tijuana merchants if the chance ever arrived, (not sure why, but this is a very vivid memory of her). All of us grandkids remember her long natural finger nails which she would turn into eggs that needed cracking on our ticklish scalps. She never missed a birthday or Christmas and her gifts were generous despite her humble income. She loved to celebrate with us and her later journals are a litany of grandchildren milestones, birthdays and time spent with family. She was there for every major milestone in my life, like many of you.
To hear her stories was one thing, but to tell her our own was quite another. Whenever I told her a story, or showed her something I had made, or gave her an update from college, she lent almost comical attention to every detail. “Grandma look what I made!” YOU MADE THIS! NO!?
I love her and she will be sorely missed. However, I want to admit that I could have spent more time with her, cared about her suffering more, listened to her stories again. Nancy’s death has recommitted me to valuing our elders. With their death comes the reminder that we too will one day die. This is scary and sad, but let us also remember that death is part of the precious gift of life. Like leaves on a tree, our bodies flourish for a time and then return to the soil. This is one of our oldest metaphors; earth-lings, shaped from dust, we must all return to our Mother the Earth. We return to the soil, but the Tree of Life lives on. The air we breathe was breathed by Nancy, and now returning to the earth from which she came, the air we breathe is Nancy. It is hard to fully grasp. We want our loved ones to stay forever, we want to live forever ourselves. Why should the living pass back into the non-living?
These are questions humans have asked for thousands of years. And many of our spiritual traditions provide confident answers about what comes next. I am not here promote or to discourage any one of these beautiful beliefs that give us hope of seeing each other again. But I want to say that for me, a mature spirituality is less concerned with explanations for death and suffering, than with how we respond in the face of death and suffering. What will we do with the losses and the wounds that life metes out without respect of race, class or creed? This is for us to work through together, as family and as friends.
For me, though she was not religious, Nancy embodied fully a religious response to suffering and death; one that I hope to emulate to some small degree. She responded with awe, grace, love, hope, joy, humor and peace to life and in death she teaches us to do the same. Despite our wounds, let us follow the example of Nancy’s holy wonder for life, as we do the work of a thousand generations before us of burying our cherished dead. Thank you.
I would now invite us to celebrate Nancy with our stories and memories…