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My son took a trip the other day to the Keweenaw Peninsula, atop Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, atop Michigan’s Lower Peninsula. A peninsula on a peninsula on a peninsula. The Keweenaw Peninsula juts into Lake Superior like it is waving goodbye, and well it should, as it sits at what feels like the top of the world.
My grandmother grew up there, and my son’s trip got me thinking about her. There was a lot of suffering in her life. She was bent over and arthritic and acquainted with grief. But she was tough. Really tough.
Her parents came from Norway and settled in the UP town of Oskar, now a Michigan ghost town, way up by Hancock in Copper Country. Tens of thousands came from Italy and Finland and Norway to work the copper mines. Life was abrupt, and when my grandmother was six her mother died and her father—a man named Cooney Shields, whose character apparently was as slippery as his name—took off, leaving my grandmother to be raised by her grandparents.
As a teenager, my grandmother was sent to live downstate with an aunt. Her grandparents knew there wasn’t a future for her in Oskar. She took the train through Wisconsin into Chicago—where her family had told her not to walk around gaping at the tall buildings—and then headed around the bottom of Lake Michigan and up into the state capital of Lansing.
After a few years she met and fell in love with my grandfather, a good man who worked in the capitol building. He collected stamps, played pinochle, attended the First Presbyterian Church, and smoked Viceroy Cigarettes (“As your dentist, I would recommend Viceroy”), and my grandmother started doing all those things, too. She raised two children through the Depression and became a widow when she was in her mid-50s after my grandfather died of a heart attack, which was certainly the horrible lasting legacy of that dentist and those Viceroys.
Two decades into her widowhood, living with a body twisted and stooped from arthritis and osteoporosis, she went to eat with a friend following church one Sunday. They were using my grandmother’s car, but because of my grandmother’s trouble walking the friend brought the car around to the front of the restaurant after the meal. My grandmother was slowly making her way behind her car when her friend slid over into the passenger seat and accidentally put the transmission into reverse instead of park. My grandmother was run over and crushed by her own car.
Somehow she survived this—I told you she was really tough—just like she’d survived being abandoned, and being shuttled between relatives, and the Depression, and losing her husband. She traded her cane for a wheelchair, and this is how my children remember her: her face a web of wrinkles, her fingers crooked, her legs swollen, and sitting more often than not with a shawl wrapped either around her shoulders or legs. She looked like an ancient figure out of a Dickens story, but get her into a pinochle game and she would show you what was what.
She saw her father once—he found her during the Depression—and he told her of another family, a new wife and children, and then hinted that it might be nice since she was so well situated if she’d see clear to give her dear old dad some money. She said get lost. The details are fuzzy because she told my father and aunt that story some sixty years after it happened and they were left contemplating the surprise that they had relatives they’d never seen or even heard of.
The power of family secrets is so great that no one had ever asked many questions about her father, and to my knowledge she never talked about the crushing losses and abandonment and grief she lived with so deeply. She wasn’t bitter or sad, instead she saw her life as God’s great gift.
She lived in that broken body into her 90s, and even then her departure came slowly. A final indignity came as her mind gave out before her heart. It’s almost twenty years now, and I was the one who preached at her funeral. I am not ashamed to say I took the message in a sentimental direction, speculating on heaven as a place where she would not only be reunited with her long-dead husband but also the place where she would also be reunited with her mother. The suggestion of that brought tears to my eyes.
What I didn’t have the pastoral imagination to come up with then, but think about now, is the additional hope that heaven also might be a place where she would be reunited with her father. Could God’s grace reach that far? We hope things about heaven but don’t really know. I hope a home in glory means that all the relationships we get so tangled on earth are beautifully untangled there. Who can say?
Love bears all things, Paul told the Corinthians, and my grandmother bore a lot. I have a hard time imagining how she endured so much pain.
Frederick Buechner has a line in The Sacred Journey about how the giants of our childhood take death in stride, because although death may put an end to them it does not put an end to our relationship with them.
My grandmother lives on, in me and my family. It doesn’t take much—just the news that my son was at the top of the UP—and I see her sitting in her chair, hardly able to move, alive as ever.