There is a fair chance that I was awake on August 26th at 3:30 in the morning, feeding Iva and dozing back to sleep. If so, I did not know that I was newly bereft of my last remaining grandparent.
My husband and I compare and contrast our families often, and while there are not many notable differences, one that stands out are the wider generational gaps in mine. Devynn’s grandmothers are roughly one decade older than my parents – not quite a full generation – and one decade younger than my grandparents. All but one of his grandparents are still living and in good health, and all of mine have passed away at various times spanning from early 2005 to two weeks ago. While I don’t have many significant memories of my grandfathers (either due to my maternal grandfather’s early passing and my paternal grandfather’s relative absence in our life), my grandmothers have played formative roles in my development and their respective deaths have served as major place-markers in the story of my life.
That isn’t to say I had perfect relationships with them; but the older I get the more I see pieces of their characters shining through my own, whether for better or for worse. Death has an uncanny way of slowing us down and making us keenly aware of unseen realities – the state of our relationships, the strengths and weaknesses within ourselves, and the questions we have about life and death that lie beneath our more conscious day-to-day rhythms. So after flying to my hometown a couple weeks ago following the rather sudden passing of the grandparent with whom I was genuinely close to (a unique circumstance for me) I spent a lot of time pondering all of these things.
What stood out to me the most was the concept of heritage, which according to most dictionaries can be loosely defined as “something that is inherited by a predecessor.” Some synonyms for ‘heritage’ are ethic, standard, norm, and principle. Both of my grandmothers have left behind an intangible heritage, the weight of which I feel to be more pressing now that I have no grandparents left on earth and have recently become a mother myself, making my mother a grandmother for the first time. (Now that I think of it, the last day I saw my grandma Patricia was when we took a “four generations of girls” picture during my first visit with Iva in June.)
My grandmothers were similar in many ways. They were both strong Appalachian women to the core, and they both endured a lot of physical and psychological suffering in life that made them fiercely self-reliant and stubborn. They both loved to garden and taught me most of what I know on the subject, though I wish I had learned more. They were both skilled to varying degrees in the womanly arts that my generation has shamefully disregarded: sewing, crocheting, preserving, baking, and so on. They both loved and served their families intensely, whether by feeding them, counseling them, giving them a multitude of second chances, or providing them with shelter and safe harbor. They were both incredibly intelligent. They both knew when to show their silly side when you least expected it, and I hope I never forget the sound of their laughter.
They also were imperfect . . . though their deeper faults don’t belong on a public blog post. I know well enough what they were because I see many of them mirrored in myself, and I hope in those regards I can leave a new and different heritage to Iva and any other daughters that come after me.
So at the end of August, as I walked back and forth through the forested “holler” where my grandma Pat lived, listening to rain fall on my umbrella and watching Iva sleep on my chest in her sling, I thought about what kind of women they were . . . what kind of woman I want to be . . . what kind of woman I want Iva to be.
I thought about the region I grew up in and the history it holds. It’s a history of women who knew what needed to be done and were capable of doing it; women who could compassionately nurse a stray cat back to health but also stomp a rat dead with the heel of their shoe; women who made houses into homes no matter how small or derelict they were in comparison to other parts of the world; women who worked and bled and perspired and harvested alongside their men; women who were truly poor, and were content to create beauty rather than buy it ready-made; women who were resourceful and intelligent because their family’s survival and well-being depended on it. These women knew how to carry heavy burdens with a kind of rugged grace that isn’t immediately apparent to a passing glance.
In some ways I fall short of these standards, and I hope to have them cultivated in me as I grow. And yet, in some ways I have higher allegiances that must move me to deviate from them.
No one has a perfect or morally neutral heritage. There is a lot of talk about heritage in our age and culture, and many people find their sole identity in their earthly heritage. They celebrate it and guard it jealously (consider the theories about cultural appropriation, for example). In a way, this makes perfect sense because an earthly heritage is all many people have to hope for. What they inherit from their predecessors, whether tangibly or intangibly, is the only transcendent thing they can rely on at the end of the day. But as a Christian, I have a hope that transcends my earth-side life and myself in general. This hope isn’t rooted in how well I perform, how good I am compared against other people, or how enjoyable my circumstances are. It isn’t rooted in whether or not my ancestors were admirable, whether they were racist, whether they were soft- or hard-hearted. My hope is rooted in the person and work of Jesus Christ, God incarnate, who took the penalty of my sin upon Himself and who bestows His own righteousness on me. His heritage is imperishable and undefilable.
And while I believe my grandmothers were women worth looking up to, I also believe and hope that they wouldn’t want to be remembered as goddesses of a bygone age, because that wouldn’t be the truth. They were special to those who were blessed to be recipients of their love and care, and yet they were human. The memory of their virtues and their vices motivates me to be a better woman; and I can celebrate their heritage all the more fully, knowing that it is secondary to a greater heritage and hope that I have in Christ.
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.” (1 Peter 1:3-7 ESV)