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I was in first grade when my grandmother won the award for “youngest grandma” at my elementary school’s Grandparent’s Day assembly. I remember getting up from my seat on the dusty gym floor to accept her flowers, and then carrying them to Grandma, where she sat beaming in a folding chair. Everyone applauded and cheered as I leaned over to give her a peck on the cheek.
It wasn’t until I was older that I made the connection that our school gym was only a mile down the road from the farmhouse where Grandma married Grandpa. Pregnant and barely 16, the wedding was held inside her parent’s farmhouse. Grandma wore a blue dress. She wasn’t allowed a wedding in the small country church that raised her.
It also wasn’t until I was older that I made the connection that the applause and praise she received that morning at the school assembly was because she became a grandmother at only 39, something that years earlier, in the same small town, had earned her mostly whispers and shame.
Grandpa and Grandma met roller skating in the town hall in that same country mile as her church, her parent’s farmhouse, and eventually, my elementary school. I like to imagine them as teenagers, giggling as they held hands and skated circles. Grandpa, with the mischievous twinkle in his eyes that he sported his entire life; Grandma half-laughing and half-begging him to behave, as she did her entire life.
I remember, as a child, watching them skate. Grandma, just over five foot tall, bounced around the oval rink, swaying her hips from side-to-side, effortlessly picking up her skates to cross one ankle over the other at the corners, a move I never quite dared to try. Grandpa, a foot taller than her, took long, smooth strides, nodding his head to the music. She and Grandpa kept roller skating together, the speakers blaring oldies music, the lights turned down low enough to mistake the middle-age man rolling past her for the flirting teenage boy who had turned his head as he passed her all those years before. They skated together until Grandma was diagnosed with ALS at 58 and could no longer pick up her feet.
Because Grandma grew up early, we thought she’d earn an extra long retirement. But instead, she died at only 64 years old. As often happens, the sorting and questions after her death have revealed more to me about her life.
I now know that at 21 years old and already with four children, Grandma was admitted into a mental hospital after what was deemed a nervous breakdown. Admonished by her family, Grandma cracked under the weight of being asked to grow up: to start acting like a wife and a mother, to wear a housedress, to keep her home and kids presentable at all times. After administering shock treatments, her doctors told her she was immature and needed to stop listening to her sisters, to her neighbors, and to everyone who was telling her what to do. These male experts in white coats attempted to cure her of her self-contempt by piling on more advice: they said that her obsessive cleaning — the floorboards every Saturday, polishing her toddler’s white shoes every day — was all too much, that she was making herself crazy constantly trying to prove herself. They said Grandpa needed to help more, and from that day on she never set foot in a grocery store again; he did all the shopping for the remainder of their marriage. Their little ones each divvied off to a relative, the doctors also recommended a getaway, a little time for Grandma and Grandpa to be alone. So, they took a trip, a reprieve from the hospital and home life, and she came home pregnant with baby number five.
Even as a child, I somehow sensed that Grandma seemed to be running from the shame and shadow of her pregnant teenage self. Grandma, who quit school after 8th grade because her parents didn’t see any point in her continuing. Grandma, who sobbed when my 10-year-old cousin told her, during a game of Balderdash, that she could always figure out which entry was hers because the words were always spelled wrong. Grandma, who worked in a local nursing home kitchen, always needing a little nap on the couch when she got home in the afternoon. Grandma, who loved to eat and always wished to be two sizes smaller. Grandma, who taught me the trick of cutting a brownie in half just to have a little bit more, and then again, and again until you’ve eaten another without maybe anyone noticing. Grandma, who did her very best to attend every performance or sporting event her grandkids ever participated in. Grandma, who taught me to ride my bike in the cement lot behind her house. Grandma, who would sit next to me on her front stoop, tossing whirligigs from the Maple tree up in the air, watching them spin, turn, then hit the grass gently. Grandma, floating in a plastic tube in the middle of a pool with a gaggle of grandkids hanging on to her arms, splashing water on her hair and her glasses, while she laughed and laughed.
Grandma’s final years, her dying years, were long and painful. The ALS started in her toes and made a steady debilitating journey up her legs. I was a college student and was given the popular Mitch Albom book, Tuesdays with Morrie, just after her diagnosis. Like Morrie, I wished Grandma could be a hero of a sick person. I longed for a peaceful and gentle withering; I envisioned hospice the way it’s portrayed on the billboards and TV commercials: a special, sentimental end to life. What I didn’t want was the the reality of her slow disintegration: desperate tears in a wheelchair, a clenched jaw and screams at her daughters because even if they visited three times a week it was not enough, stagnant limbs growing heavier by the week because eating was one of the few pleasures she had left.
I didn’t want to watch as her already small world closed in on her more each day, as her cane was exchanged for a wheelchair, her car for a handicapped van, her neatly made bed for a sterile hospital cot. I desperately wanted Grandma to make it easier for all of us, to not to be so sad, so hopeless, but to transform into a softer version of herself. I knew she couldn’t lessen the pain, but I wished she could suppress it somehow: to swallow it, restrain it, or push it down like we had been taught to do.
Also not prepared to play the part of hero granddaughter, I admit my emotions tilted farther toward annoyance than sympathy. I dreaded visits, dreaded her requests for a kiss on the way out the door, dreaded answering the same questions over and over. Young, busy, and eager to get on with my own life, I was consumed with college, traveling, my first real job, dating, and eventually a wedding. When I had to write a scholarship essay on service, I wrote about my service to Grandma, about all the ways I was helping her live while helping her die. I still feel guilty about this.
Nearly two decades after Grandma’s death, I can’t get that image out of my head: that little girl handing flowers to the beaming middle-aged woman being rewarded for enduring the shame of her teenage pregnancy. As I approach the age Grandma was when she won her “youngest grandma” award, I wish I could ask more questions, listen to more of her story, especially the parts she had worked so hard to cover up, to move on from. To offer empathy for the shame that reverberated throughout her life.
And I also wonder, especially as we on this blog dialogue about belonging and baptism, church policy and the people those policies impact, what if Grandma had been allowed a white dress? A church wedding? A warm welcome? Fewers whispers and secrets? What waves of impact might have a bit more grace from her congregation had on her life? What did that young teenage girl learn from her “discipline”? And what did it teach her about the God who she had been assured her whole life loved her unconditionally?
My pragmatic, Reformed-raised, Midwestern background doesn’t lend itself easily to the supernatural, and so I didn’t know what to make of it when about a year after Grandma died, she visited me in a dream. It was as plain and vivid as any face-to-face interaction I’d ever had with her. Suddenly, Grandma was with me, standing on two legs and smiling. She giggled and told me she was doing just fine. She said to tell the family not to worry. And she said that Jesus doesn’t even have a beard — that she had always imagined him with a beard, but that he doesn’t even have one. And then she threw back her head in laughter.
I love this last memory of Grandma, this grace for both of us, her invitation to let go and laugh along with her.
I know it’s not how the old hymns of her youth describe heaven, not what her Sunday School teachers told her, but when I imagine Grandma now, she’s skating: eyes beaming, smiling as she makes a final loop around the rink. Her legs are strong and she shimmies her hips from side-to-side, humming happily along to the music.
Portions of this essay originally appeared in a longer work by Dana VanderLugt called “On Loop” and published in Relief: A Journal of Art and Faith” in Spring 2020.