Grandma's Grandkids

 

 

by John Tyler Connoley

 

November 1, 2006

 

 

Today is All Saints Day. In the southwest, where I live, November 1st and 2nd are the Dias de Los Muertos, when people build altars to the dead and decorate the graveyards. The ancient Celts believed the veil between the living and the dead was thinnest during this transition from autumn to winter, the day they called Samhain. Personally, I like to take this time of year to remember the saints in my ancestry, who've made me who I am today -- some blood relatives, some spiritual relatives. Maybe it's a trick of the imagination, but they do seem closer as the leaves fall from the trees and the nights turn nippy.

This fall, for some reason, I've been thinking a lot about my Grandma Meeks, who died several years ago. She was a Wesleyan minister's wife, born in the teens, which meant she was very conservative. She wore her long hair up in a bun (sometimes irreverently referred to as a "Wesleyan wad" by her grandchildren). I never saw Grandma's elbows, because she always wore three-quarter-length sleeves. And she, of course, never, ever wore a pair slacks one day in her life.

However, despite her dress, Grandma Meeks was the opposite of what most people think conservative Christians are like. Quick to laugh, I can still hear her gasping giggle, which would sometimes prevent her from speaking or finishing the story she was telling. When I think of Grandma Meeks, I can feel her big soft lap and silky old-lady's arms holding me. By the time I knew her, Grandma had born six children and was a fat-and-happy old lady. Most amazingly, for a conservative Wesleyan, Grandma Meeks embodied the sort of grace and love that should be part of Christian living, but too often isn't.

Three stories come to mind when I think of Grandma Meeks and her openhearted brand of Christianity.

Surprise!

My Aunt Becki is from the Connor half of the family, and so wasn't related to Grandma Meeks, but knew her through the Wesleyan Church. In college, during the early seventies or late sixties (I'm not sure), Becki was decidedly unconservative. She was the first in her family to pierce her ears and wear makeup. She even wore blue jeans when only hippies and other young scoundrels did such things. As a result, Becki says, the Wesleyan pastors in her college town would have nothing to do with her.

One year, around her birthday, Aunt Becki was feeling particularly homesick. She couldn't be with her family on her birthday, and she didn't really have a family at school yet.

Grandma Meeks, seeing this young girl struggling and sad, planned a surprise party for her. The woman in the Wesleyan wad and the polyester dress with modest three-quarter-length sleeves planned a surprise party for the jeans- and makeup-wearing rebel child.

Aunt Becki told me the story twenty years later when I visited her one summer. And as she told me, all those years after the fact, her eyes glistened with tears at the memory. "None of the other pastors would even speak to me," she said, "and your Grandma -- who was more conservative than any of them -- threw me a party."

I Guess You'll Have to Decide

Aunt Peg, Grandma Meeks' daughter, told me another story the same summer, sitting over coffee at her dining room table. "One year at Thanksgiving," she said, "my son was living with a woman he wasn't married to . . ."

Peg had invited her son to visit for the holiday weekend, but had asked him not to bring his girlfriend. She didn't want them sleeping together in her house, and she didn't think they'd sleep in separate rooms. So, she figured, the best solution was to not invite the girlfriend.

Peg's son, who's always had a strong will, told her that was fine, but then he wouldn't be home for Thanksgiving. So Peg called her mom to talk this through. Mostly, I'm sure, she wanted Grandma Meeks to give her moral support. Tell her she was doing the right thing. Tell her to stand firm.

Grandma listened as Peg rambled on about how upset she was, all of her reasons for choosing the route she had, her anger at her obstinate son, and her grief at not having him for the holidays. Then Grandma Meeks said, "Well, I guess you'll have to decide which you want for Thanksgiving, your son or your scruples."

Peg called her son and told him his girlfriend was welcome.

If Only Grandma were Here

A couple years after Grandma's death, we had a Meeks Family Christmas. My mom, her dad, and her brother all lived within three blocks of each other at the time, and two of Mom's sisters decided to drive in for Christmas weekend. It seemed like a great plan, and my mom and her brother had it all worked out where everyone would stay, until they got word that Cousin Jennifer was bringing her live-in boyfriend.

For days, Mom and Uncle Richard sweated over what to do with these two lovebirds. They both agreed: "They obviously can't sleep together while they're here." But that somehow didn't seem a strong enough statement. So, Mom and her siblings decided that Jennifer and Brandon would sleep in separate houses -- Jennifer at Grandpa's house with her parents, and Brandon at my parent's house.

I don't know what the adults were thinking? Perhaps they thought the two might sneak down the hall to each other's room. Or maybe it seemed likely Jennifer and Brandon would fornicate in the middle of the living room, if allowed to sleep by Mom and Dad's fireplace with the other grandchildren. Whatever the thinking, the result was that my cousin's future husband was introduced to the family by being told he would be staying with complete strangers in a different house from his girlfriend and her family -- not just strangers, but people who thought he was a terrible reprobate.

My generation was horrified and flabbergasted. Jennifer and Brandon nearly turned around and drove back home, but ended up renting themselves a hotel room and staying half a mile away. The family discussed the controversy in hushed voices all weekend, and I was amazed by the wonderful way my generation responded.

More than once, over popcorn and board games, I heard, "If only Grandma were still alive. She would never have let them do that." Or, "They wouldn't have even thought of suggesting such a ridiculous idea if Grandma were here." That weekend, we reminded ourselves of the lessons we'd learned from Grandma Meeks, the woman with the Wesleyan wad and the modest dress, who loved people as they were.

So, I proudly admit it. I'm Grandma Meek's grandson. Yes, I'm conservative, but I love throwing parties for heretics. I always choose family over scruples. And, this time of year, when Grandma seems somehow closer, I imagine she sees how I'm living out my Christian faith, and she smiles. She may even let out a gasping giggle once in a while. I'm certain I can hear it if I listen.

 

 

 

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