Graves, Grace, and Greenwich Granite
I recently gave my first eulogy at a funeral. It was at the request of my mother, at the funeral of her mother. I was honored and flattered, but very much aware I was asked for a purpose. Eloquence was needed in the absence of other lovelier things. Dexterity was needed to maneuver between the thorns and roses of our family and its history. Words? I have plenty of. Wisdom? For this? There is no ink in that well from which to draw.
They should have chosen someone else, someone who is okay with murky middles or half-truths, someone who could hang a smile on their face like drapes over windows. Drapes keep their shape and are lovely regardless the weather outside and lovely regardless the storms inside. They should have chosen someone who saw less, heard less, and knew less. They should have chosen a friend not a family member. Friends were invited in when things were “just so.” Family was there for how it “just was.”
My grandmother was a beautiful lady with impeccable style, class, and charm. I did finally find the words to honor her, but a few of them I found were in Peggy Noonan’s handwriting. I remember years ago, reading her eulogy of former first lady, Barbara Bush. Noonan described Barbara Bush as Greenwich granite… “She is a strong woman, not ego-driven but protective of kith and kin. Those merry eyes, the warmth, the ability to get the help cracking in a jolly way and then not so jolly. A lack of pretension, a breeziness, but underneath she is Greenwich granite, one of the women who settled the hard gray shores of the East and summoned roses from the rocks.” I always loved that. I remember thinking when I read that line, that I wanted to be like that one day. Strong, determined, capable enough to command a room or a laugh. That was exactly what I admired most in my grandmother and admire in my mother still. They are granite, though less gray shores of Greenwich and more high plains of the Panhandle. And breezy? Maybe in a Texas home but not in Texas hair. My grandmother was the same shade of Revlon’s Mocha Polka coral lipstick and Fanciful Rinse’s Bashful Blonde for at least forty years. All held together with enough Aqua-Net to rival the emissions of the CCP. She wasn’t a breeze, Sugar. She was a gale.
Geography and weather aside, the rock was a gem. This could not be a truer description for Lillian, or Mimi the Great as she became known when the grands had kids and mom was promoted to Mimi herself. One of the kids shows I had seen had an Aunt named Alice the Great and just knew that our family needed a “Great” also. I remember the first time I called her Mimi the Great, (Mimi TG when the kids became teens.) She bristled at it. But every time I said it that day I could see her soften. From dismissive waves of her hands and requests to stop, to a smirk, a smile, and finally even a giggle as she accepted her new name.
Like granite– she very much had the markings of an explosive past, high pressure, and hot temperatures that spilled out and over the edges before cooling and becoming hard. Very hard. She was a child of the depression and the daughter of German immigrants. Hard work was her native tongue. Even when she was young, she was industrious, clever, and pretty enough for it to be both a positive and a negative. I can absolutely understand why success and security mattered a great deal.
Lillian married a young man after WWII, a fellow German who was equally charismatic and hard-working. But he was hard living as well. And that made for a beautiful, childhood home that was hard for my mother to love. My grandmother found herself alone at 49, made a widow by alcoholism and suicide. Bankrupted by her husband, her good name ruined by the man who gave it to her. My mom remembers her family’s successful German restaurant being auctioned off, the accounts emptied, faulted loans, liens, and IRS agents coming for it all.
Sweet Mimi, I understand why success and security were the only things that mattered at all after that. I understand that your life required a grit that seemed abrasive to others. I understand that your survival required guts that could not be weak or leaky, and eyes that could not be wet or weepy. I understand how it seemed your only choice was to die right beside him or spend every waking hour, working to live. I can understand how seeing the beautiful things you worked so hard for carried away left wounds that would not heal until treasures were returned or replaced. I can understand all of it for a season. But a lifetime?
Sometimes pain erupts like magma and runs in ruins down every face and facet of your world. The slow cool, the deeper cool, the hardening of all the things. Intrusive, extrusive… changes that began on the surface determine to see their completion to the very core–persisting until everything is set in stone, with cracks that will never be filled. The only signs of life are the remains of things that live no more– fragile creatures that were caught up in the chaos are now fossils from the tumult. My mother may have left her impression in the hard places, but she also left home before petrification. A grace my family still gives thanks for.
Did you know that the pressure of burial can often cause rocks to melt? It can. But does not always.
What do you say when the only true things are hard things and the things that would best be said, are not true?
It’s funny what details you remember from your childhood, little random things that seemed significant or special. I remember on some visits I would get to go to work with my grandmother when she was the office manager for a dental surgeon. I would get to lay down in the recovery room and watch soap operas when there were no patients. She would give me pieces of paper to “file” and let me play on the phones. We would put in a day there, go home and catch our breath, then onto the next job.
I remember my grandmother always having extra jobs. We say “side hustles” now, but for my Mimi there was no “side” about it. It was all hustle. I would go with her to big, beautiful houses where she would watch the little kids of up and comers. I thought it was funny that they called her Mimi, too.
If we did stay home a night, she would spend it ironing. She had mastered the starched and pressed shirt. The “who’s who” of her town came very early and late to pick up and drop off their custom shirts. She would point out the monograms on the cuff and tell us how much they cost or where they came from. This one is from a judge or that one is the president of such and such bank.
Her “side hustle” paid off her beautiful townhome and 2 of her 3 Cadillacs. Her clients adored her, and she adored them. I remember being in town for a visit and one would call and just want to talk about a failing marriage or financial troubles. Or they would open up her fridge, sit at her counter and visit while she totaled up their bill. I wondered if they heard as much about us as we heard about them. There were definitely times when her family seemed to be the stepchildren and her clientele the heirs.
It wasn’t until high school or college that I became aware of some of the more complex layers and dynamics in my family. I would catch little snippets of conversations when my mom was trying to plan a trip to visit her mom or asking her mother to come visit us. There was always work, always ironing. I remember hearing my mom telling Mimi that she was concerned she was wearing out her body… her hands and her shoulders specifically, from the heavy irons. Or my parents would offer money to eliminate any worries Mimi had about finances, offer to pay for trips or repairs… whatever was needed to free her up to travel or really experience life. They would look over affairs and remind her that she no longer needed the extra money.
They encouraged her to retire in her sixties, then in her seventies. They begged her to relent in labor, to enjoy her efforts, to enjoy her life and family. They offered to move her closer or buy her a house to preserve independence. Every offer declined. She was never done with work, she was never leaving her home.
And I don’t blame her, it was stunning. There was nothing “old lady” about it. It was straight from the pages of a magazine. One of my other favorite things to do when visiting Mimi was to go to the furniture stores. She always had her eye on something. She would tell me how many shirts it would take before she could bring it home. She kept a ledger of how much each thing cost and when the time came to replace it she got as close to the price she paid from a neighbor, friend, or child.
Hard to fault frugality. Who can criticize work ethic? Is there even a downside to having pride in your home and a desire to make it lovely? You wouldn’t think so.
You also wouldn’t think that the love of money or possessions could rob you of life and it absolutely can. You may not know that vanity can cripple you, but again– I assure you it can.
The determination to be independent proved costly. In her eighties she fell in her home one night and broke both of her legs. Overnight the home, the car, and everything about her life changed. It was a painful and unfair tragedy to see unfold. Understandably, it amplified insecurities about her “things.” My mom made her hospital rooms and rehab rooms look like the Biltmore in hopes that seeing her treasures would calm some fears. Pretty dishes and blankets, curtains and custom cornices. But it was never what was in the room that was discussed, it was only what wasn’t and why it wasn’t.
I remember getting her ready to move rooms in an assisted living center/rehab and a nurse told her that some of her furniture could not go with her. It was already taking up too much room in walkways and causing trip hazards for her. She wasn’t having it. Nothing would be given up. She fell that night in her room and broke her pelvis. She never made it back to independence.
As much as I reflect on our history and say, “Never me” in my head, I know it’s easily “Me, Me!” in my flesh. This very week, we are downsizing and moving, and I feel myself longing for things that shouldn’t be missed. Like square feet or an extended island. I find myself looking at new homes and telling each one how much better the last one was.
Hey Salty Lady, I see you. I know we frown at Lot’s wife for her inability to move forward and leave Sodom. It seems crazy that possessions or our home could be possible reasons for paralyzed pillars of salt, unless you’ve seen what I have seen. It makes perfect sense to me. A woman who cannot let go to save her life, love or lead her children well? That’s not as ancient as we’d like to believe, my salty sisters.
Can I tell you a secret? Friend, leaving life as you know it or the identity you have manufactured and tethered yourself too is harder than you think. If we are being honest, disobedience has been caused by far, far less. Like a mood… a feeling… or a grudge.
I know these seem like petty musings and I’m fine with the perception. There is much left unsaid, buried in dirt or the dark closets of hearts and minds. Painful wounds and words that landed and were felt deeply then and have since found their full measure of healing in time and Christ. There’s no need to dust them off now.
But a word of caution to you hard workers and hard timers, if your “making a living” is killing you and those around you… it might not be a life that you’re making. Mimi the Great surpassed her stated goals of survival decades ago but habits hardened and then hearts. The work became a way of life and then sadly, the point of life.
Bitter roots begin there for all of us, friend. When anything but God is our source of satisfaction, security, joy and identity… it breeds hard ground where not much can grow.
At the funeral, I told my mom that though I knew her childhood was difficult, I was grateful for it. I was grateful for the woman that she was and how she had been shaped by her life. I was grateful that because of it, she always made my family feel valued and wanted, she always had a healthy perspective on work and stuff. My mother treated her family the way her mother treated her work or income. And that was really saying something. I never heard my grandmother talk about people the way she talked about things. How do you offer encouragement to children who would know you were lying if you said, “Your mother loved you more than any anything?”
What do you say when true things are hard things… when what should be said is untrue or unflattering? What do you say when lies wouldn’t even comfort? I landed on the Gospel. You just say “Jesus.” Jesus in it all. Jesus over it all. Sometimes the Gospel is the only good news.
What was the only comfort or source of hope or joy on the day Mimi the Great was buried? That way, way back in her hard life she trusted Jesus as Lord and Savior. I believe and I know others in my family would agree, she was a convert but not a disciple. Her growth had been stunted by tragedies, traditions, and traumas. Rather than let the Lord in to heal, callouses formed instead.
Hardening of hands, hardening of habits… can lead to hardening of the heart. The only thing that separates any of us from being the walking wounded, turned walking wounders? Grace. Grace alone.
There is no need to dwell on what man has done or can do. There is no life or light to be found there. But what Jesus does through man and our brokenness? That’s a horse of a different color. The hard lessons my mom learned in hard ways could have easily perpetuated another generation of addiction, obsession, and death. But the blood of Christ was applied over it all, redeeming it all for His glory and her good. And then my good. And then my kid’s good… and now your good.
One generation’s trauma can be the next generation’s tools… if Jesus is invited into their midst. I wish I could tell you my grandparents discipled my mother in the ways and words of God, but they didn’t. Which is not to say it wasn’t done, the Holy Spirit does that personally for the orphans and He would have for widows too.
God’s gracious, redemption ministry to us is not hindered by Hell, highwater, or hard things. He uses ALL OF IT.
The things absent to my mother in her childhood, were the things she became an expert on and gave generously to her children. Affection? Always. Encouragement? Always. Generosity? There could not be more lavish love given than through my parent’s servant hearts. What invaluable lessons I would have missed if I had not seen my mother care for her mother, often in spite of spite.
Houses of secrets became houses of transparency and authenticity. I grew up in a home where nothing was concealed for the sake of perception or self-preservation. My word, can I just tell you that confidence grows heartily where shame is hunted and vanquished?
Can I tell you what I am genuinely grateful for? A house where suicide succeeded became my house where depression was dealt with head on. I grew up in my mother’s home, that was shaped by her mother’s home, and in my home we talked about mental health. A lot. I know my brothers and I would tell you we are alive today because my mom confronted signs of depression in us and was vigilant and relentless in pursuing our health and wholeness. We had the privilege of growing up feeling valued and treasured. We grew up feeling necessary to our family.
I could pretend sunnier things, and there will be some who’ll wish I did… but why would I when actual Light shined in the darkness? Fake families, fake anything– rob God real glory.
One generation’s critical nature is the next generation’s clarifying nature. One generation’s hardness is the next generation’s saltiness. If Jesus. Isn’t that a miracle? Equipping happens from and through our brokenness. Family trees with broken branches or scars still provide roots enough for good fruit. If Jesus.
I wept over the reality of years wasted for my grandmother. But not for long. And then I wept over the eternity she is experiencing now. A life defined by work, now defined by rest. A life spent proving herself to the world now eternity, spent with the Savior of the world proving His love to her. The joys she had pursued or tried to purchase? Now unnecessary when face to face with the One who paid the ultimate price for her, Jesus Christ–THE JOY-GIVER. You’re finally home with THE GOOD FATHER, honey. There were mansions waiting, Mimi. Yours were never going to compare.
We often think about the physical afflictions healed in Heaven, but my heart delights over the emotional scars being healed in the same love and light… the minds that are finally right, the hearts that are finally healthy, the weary that are now well. The rigid rocks finally melted in *HIS* death, burial, and resurrection. The next time I see my grandmother, I will see a soul who has finally felt her worth, who needs nor wants for anything.
Take heed and heart, my dears. There will come a day where you are the gatekeeper over what is finally buried in your family history and what is worthy of drawing from the ashes to scatter and nourish tomorrow’s soil.
Unpleasant things for you aren’t always unhelpful things to your children. There are worse things to pass on than the determination to survive. Or the ability to make a lovely home out of unlovely things.
I look at Lil’s children, and children’s children… there’s not a faker in the bunch. Don’t let the culinary skills, ginger jars, or bold lipstick on the ladies fool you. We are brawlers. Maybe not Greenwich granite… but I’ll take Scrubby-Deutsch with diamonds any day, every day. Even on ironing day.
*A true picture of a daughter faithful to honor her mother to the end, my mother gathered up Mimi the Great’s treasures and flooded them and the room with flowers, food, and fellowship in her mother’s honor. Laugh, my brothers and I did… but Mimi planned her funeral years ago and I don’t know if it was on purpose, but that coffin is the exact shade of champagne as her last Caddy. When the saints go marching in is right! Or rolling in in a cream puff Sedan Deville.