Hello on a Sunday afternoon,
Forty-seven years ago today, I was marching on the grinder as we called it, proud that I had made it through 90 days of processing and training known as Marine Corps Boot Camp. There was more than once I doubted I had what it took to make it through. Even though I was one of the house mice, anyone who has been through boot camp knows what I mean, I was not an honors graduate or promoted graduate of Platoon 3063 that fall. In the big picture, I was average at best. I managed the physical demands quite well, but emotionally, I had a lot yet to learn. I grew three inches and gained 25 pounds in that three month stretch, but even that was something to come to terms with. Even I got off the plane in Sioux City, my sister was the only one who actually recognized this taller, heavier, and substantially changed barely 18 year old. My bearing, my responses, and my thoughts about my own identity had changed dramatically in that summer experience. I remember attending a church youth group meeting that was a sort of welcome home event. Everyone was stunned by the way I spoke, I listened, even how I sat on a couch. I remember people saying I was an entirely different person. So to take my last two blog titles and put them together: what had I learned? Who was I? At that time, should I have been asked that, I doubt I could have answered either question in some manner that was much more than basic answers. What I remember most about that day was simply this. I was now a United States Marine. That was important to me. I was serving my country. I also know many years later, even that was, to an extent, quite naive.
The other thing I remember about that week was getting to see my grandmother again. She had written me some really important letters while I was in boot camp. They were letters that sought what I know now was forgiveness or more importantly a sense of absolution for being required to give Kris and me up for adoption when we were three and four years old respectively. What was evident in her letters was the guilt and shame she harbored because of her alcoholism which probably necessitated her choosing to allow her cousin to adopt her two grandchildren. While guilt and shame are related, they are not the same; however, they are powerful. It is easy to see them as the same, but guilt is related to the action (in my opinion) and shame is more about the consequence of the action. She struggled with the shame of what happened and how her alcoholism had necessitated a change in placement for her two grandchildren, who had become her children.
What she did do the rest of her life is work diligently and thoughtfully to be an integral part of our lives. This happened in a variety of ways. Some of it was merely by giving us the opportunity to come back to the house we both knew as home as small children. Some of it was in giving me a job in the bakery from the time I was perhaps 12. I washed more cookie sheets and baking trays than I could have ever imagined. However, as I have noted in other blogs, anytime I spent with her was a place of safety for me. The importance of that safety still resonates with me today. I think safety is a central component to our feeling valued, feeling capable, and most of all feeling loved. What I know now was I was free to make a mistake. I most certainly could not articulate that as a small person, or perhaps even into my teens, but what I do know is I was never afraid when I was with her. Fear has the potential to paralyze us; it can also compel the opposite, but when fear is ongoing, unavoidable, it is demoralizing and it establishes a reality that is painful, overwhelming, and destructive. Kris and I both felt that after our adoption. We did not understand the rationale for being adopted nor were we able to navigate our new situation with much success. Of course, what constitutes success for the three year old or four year old? What I do know is I remember more about her struggles than my own. Maybe it is because her struggles were more apparent. Maybe it is because I had ready learned to be a people-pleaser. The problem in being a people-pleaser is that it is not always effective, and more often than not, it is temporary at best.
While alcohol clouded my Grandmother’s ability to care for us (or her business) for a period of time, we were small enough to not really understand that. When I was probably seven years old, with the help of her older sister, my Great-aunt Helen, and Alcoholics Anonymous, she was able to be a sober person again. And while I do not remember an absence of her in our lives, I do remember her being more present from about 3rd grade on. I imagine, staying sober was difficult, but I think her desire to be in our lives in a meaningful way had something to do with her staying sober for the remainder of her life. I also think she had some amazing employees, who were loyal to her as well. Finally, I think her involvement with Eastern Star was her saving grace. I would understand that more fully later in life (and particularly when we were into high school. I think some of her best friends to the end of her life were the other women who were part of that Azure Chapter of the Order of Eastern Star in Sioux City, Iowa. I remember two installations as they were called. The first was when she was installed as Adah (who is the daughter of Jephthah’s daughter – see the book of Judges), which is the blue color of the star; and the second was when she was installed as the Worthy Matron of her chapter. As I looked at some things for this blog and did some research I have found that her best friend and one of the people I remember most, Bonnie Martin (no relation) passed a couple of years ago. It made me remember even more about my grandmother. Bonnie was the person with my grandmother when she passed away on that September evening. In fact, they were at an Eastern Star meeting in Storm Lake, Iowa when my grandmother laid her head in her friend’s lap and was gone.
What was it that made my grandmother my hero(ine)? It is simple; she loved me unconditionally. That is not an easy thing to do. It is, I believe, because we love more selfishly than not. We love when it is easy to love the other, but in our fragility we fail to love when the other makes the loving of them arduous, laborious, or just down right difficult. I also believe we love with the requirement of being loved back. I know in my own life the times I am most fragile is when I believe or perceive the love offered is not reciprocated or not wanted. I am reminded of the words of Norman Maclean’s incredible novella, A River Runs Through It. He writes, “Each one of us here today will at one time in our lives look upon a loved one who is in need and ask the same question: We are willing to help, Lord, but what, if anything, is needed? For it is true we can seldom help those closest to us. Either we don’t know what part of ourselves to give or, more often than not, the part we have to give is not wanted. And so it is those we live with and should know who elude us. But we can still love them – we can love completely without complete understanding” (102). Or again, ““It is those we live with and love and should know who elude us” (100). One of the things I could never do was elude my grandmother, perhaps because I had no desire to do so. Perhaps it is because I trusted and loved her more than I have found it possible to trust or love anyone since. She loved me in spite of my failings. She loved me in spite of my unreliability. If there is anything I regret in my life, and there are a number of things, this might be at the top of the list.
The last time I was in Sioux City during her life, the summer of 1977, I promised her I would stop by to see her. I did not take the time. Why? I was selfish and foolish believing there would be another time. So when I left to return to Ames on my motorcycle, I had failed to stop. A small saving grace for me is I stopped on Highway 71 going into Atlantic, Iowa. I went to a phone booth (remember those?) and I called her. I apologized rather profusely and I felt guilty and sad because I had not followed through on something, and especially something I had said or promised to her. It was a terrible feeling . . . because long distance calling was something very different then, I did not call her again. The next time I heard from her (or about her, more accurately), she was gone. She passed away. I was devastated. She was still my safety person, the person I knew loved me unconditionally. She was kind, smart, elegant, and charming. She was giving, thoughtful, radiant, and I remember standing in the cemetery for the second time in 9 months and I sobbed and cried like I never had. It was a difficult time for me. What I remember is feeling completely lost. It was a warm September afternoon in Graceland Park Cemetery and I could look almost directly across the street and up the shallow rise a bit and see where I had stood in the freezing February cold some months before when my older brother passed. I would stand there again some years later as a pastor and do the committal service for my father on an even colder January. Even as I write this, there is a comfort in that place. It is where I go to find a connection with my heritage. It is where I go to connect to my past, both biological and adopted. As I have looked through this and found pictures, I have also found out my grandfather had a number of siblings and his father was a doctor. I think I have some work to do.
I think what makes my grandmother a hero to me is she was genuine. She had flaws; she struggled with things in her life, but she never lost the ability to love and care for the other. She was a person who gave to anyone in spite of her losses. I remember when she was honestly angry, she would merely say, “I am so angry I could just spit.” Something I realize now is this was her way of saying she would do something unlady-like, something I would never believe possible. She was quite beautiful. To this day I have a picture of her on my desk in my office. She was rather tall as I now remember, and almost statuesque, but I do not remember even an inkling of vanity in her. Later in life, she had things about positive thinking everywhere in her house. I think her involvement in Eastern Star and her church as well as her love for her sisters and for my sister and me became her life. I do not think she ever considered dating again, but I guess it is not something I would have noticed earlier. She worked unbelievable hours at her bakery, often 7 days a week. Hmmmm . . . maybe that is where that work ethic comes from.
What I know is she still affects me . . . from my home to my care for certain things, from trying to respect and care for the other, from having both optimism and honesty in the face of adversity . . . these are the reasons she is my hero, the person I am hopefully some imperfect version of as I carry on her vision in my life. She loved music and I can imagine her loving Pentatonix and even more so this song.
I seldom post more than one video, but something this seems appropriate in the midst of this time. This is the newer version of Pentatonix . . . still incredible.
This last video was actually posted on my birthday. Thank you as always for reading and I love you Grandma.