for Myrtle Takken for her 95th Year
Grandma walks toward Easter one more time;
I see her walking not toward church but trees—
trees of the farm she used to own:
small persimmon hidden in the gully,
chestnut in a corner of the cornfield,
sugar pears in the front yard, bitter hard,
apple trees so near the gully’s edge
we could only lean the ladder three directions.
She comes to elderberries on the afternoon side of the barn,
dark rhubarb by the garage,
grapes sweetening the farthest fence.
I see her kitchen table bearing all the season’s gifts in turn:
strawberries red as Pentecost,
beans as green as Ordinary time,
grapes purple as Lent,
blueberries like Advent,
onions white as Easter
piled high and shining on her table.
With her I lean toward all of these
present, past and future feasts—-
we walk toward Easter one more time.
I wrote this poem for my grandmother’s 95th birthday, 26 years ago. She died at age 103 — eight more Easters. The poem was published, along with an account of her life, in a local newspaper.
I’m a little embarrassed now by its sentimental and forced comparison of produce to the church year. But she really did know and love every inch of their 36 acre farm, and she really did take us on pilgrimages to every corner of it. I can see that ground because of her, because she made us see it.
The poem may give the impression that our grandmother was some sort of earth mother with little use for organized religion, but that’s not true. She was in church every Sunday of her life until the last little while. But she didn’t talk about her faith much, or her church.
Her farm was her passion, along with her family. When we moved away she frequently sent us postcards, farm reports and weather reports, with lots of misspellings. Grandma had to leave school after the 4th grade, to take care of five younger siblings. This after her mother was taken to an insane asylum in South Dakota, where she later died.
Knowing someone else’s faith is like knowing someone else’s thoughts. You don’t know much. I do know that Grandma’s faith was enlivened by her connection to the earth. In their eighties my grandparents sold their farm and moved to a tiny condo in town. Once, I asked Grandma what she missed about the farm. She thought for a minute and said, “I miss the birds.” Many birds came to her feeder in town, but she missed the wide variety of birds she enjoyed on the farm.
As an adult, my own faith has been enlivened by celebrating the seasons of the church year, not something I experienced in the church of my childhood. Especially, I love Lent. I worked as a chaplain for 25 years, mostly in hospitals where the majority of patients and staff were Roman Catholic. Ash Wednesday was our busiest day — hundreds of people wanted the ashes. Such a tiny ritual and not a sacrament and yet when I smudged that cross on forehead after forehead, how often the tears would start; it was like pushing a button.
Dust you are and to dust you shall return.
What thoughts are behind the tears? Memories of childhood? A visceral knowledge of one’s mortality? What does it mean for me? I don’t know all the reasons but it makes me happy to receive the mark of my deepest identity in Christ along with millions of Christians the world over.
At this remove, what I most admire about my grandparents’ life is their small carbon footprint. They lived their whole life within a few miles.They grew their own vegetables, made their own bread, bought milk at a local creamery, eggs from a nearby farmer, had few clothes, never got new furniture. They traveled by car a couple of times to visit siblings in Minnesota and a cousin in Philadelphia, but they never flew anywhere.
Of them you might say it was all Lent all the time. My plane trips alone would cancel out any Lenten reductions of my energy use — even if I never flew again.
I do try to live modestly, but in the gospel story, repeated in Matthew, Mark and Luke, I identify with the rich young ruler— I go away from Jesus “grieving, for [I] have many possessions.” (Matthew 19:16-30). How wonderful, then, in Mark’s telling, that “Jesus, looking at him, loved him…”(Mark 10).
This Lent I want to walk with Jesus toward Easter one more time. My walking is nothing to brag about; in truth, I’m limping badly.
It’s really the other way round: I want Jesus to walk with me.
image from unsplash: Rajesh Rajput@rrajputphotography