Sunday, October 2, 2011

The Beauty and Blessing of Grandparents

A few months ago I was suddenly struck by the memory of my Granny Jean singing next to me in church with her soft, sweet voice. I had spent years of my childhood at her house, spending every New Year's Eve with her and, once my parents divorced, every third weekend (the weekend my dad had to work his shift at Georgia Power). As an anxious kid, I never made it through the night in her dark, creepy den on the pullout sofa with my brother. I somehow always migrated to her bed and eventually quit trying to sleep anywhere else.

After my parents' divorce, Granny Jean bore a large brunt of the anger I felt. She was always patient with me, letting me skulk through her house with a surly look on my face or mumble incoherent answers to her questions. She let me sleep late on Saturday mornings and always had buttered wheat toast with grape jelly waiting for me once I dragged myself out of bed. Sometimes we could convince her to take us to Hardee's and then to the playground at Bowdon Elementary School. I wonder if these long afternoons with us were tedious or tiring to her after she had paid her dues bringing up four boys.

On Sundays skipping out on church was not an option. Though I'm glad for her determination now, those Sundays at Bowdon Baptist were torture for me. There was a street sign posted adjacent to the parking lot that read "Slow...Church," and I remember thinking the sign was there to warn us the service was boring. To make matters worse, I was an angry, confused girl in the throes of puberty who was being brought up primarily by her dad. He tried really hard during those dark times, but for a few years, my hair was a disaster, I had huge pink plastic glasses, and my self-esteem and confidence levels were extremely low. I felt like an outsider in Sunday school because I was the only one who didn't go to Bowdon, and my pain each time I was there was even more marked than usual.

Granny Jean rarely lost her temper with me. She somehow just knew I was hurting and tried her best to help by giving me unconditional love and stability. She told stories of how excited my Papa Hal was that I was a little girl, and often reminded me of her favorite "Molly story" involving my deep love for Kraft Macaroni and Cheese. One of the few high points of sitting next to her in church was listening to her sing the hymns. Her voice was soft but strong and rich with conviction.

When I was old enough to stay at home alone on Daddy's work weekends, I felt free of Sunday church service, but I always looked forward to Sunday nights at Granny Jean's house. She cooked a delicious meal complete with homemade sourdough bread and the best buttermilk pound cake I've ever tasted. She would reminisce about my dad's and uncles' childhoods and tell stories of my Papa Hal. She would rattle off the list of friends she visited or took to the doctor that week. She took piano lessons and was a member of the Canasta Club. She never remarried once my Papa Hal passed away in 1986, and I often wondered if she was lonely. I admired her independence, and her sweet smile always comforted me.

In 1997, I returned to Bowdon Baptist to attend church with my college sweetheart, and my relationship with Granny Jean flourished. She was disappointed when my boyfriend and I broke up after four years, but Jason's charm and love for me and our kids have long eased her disappointment.  We were at her house to celebrate my 26th birthday the night we broke the news to my family that we were expecting our first baby. Interacting with her after I became a wife and mother further deepened my connection to her.

In the past few years, she has developed memory problems, and her degeneration has been heartbreaking for me to witness. In August 2010, my parents brought her to Savannah, and we spent a day pushing her in a wheelchair her through the city, often with Scout sitting in her lap. The last night she was here, she suddenly got up, gathered her things, took her keys out of her purse, and said she better get home before it got too late. When Dad and Cathy gently tried to explain to here where she was, she didn't remember how she got to my house or that I had even moved a few months prior. I sobbed once they left to go back to the hotel.

Old age is certainly not for sissies, and my Granny Jean has never been one to fall into the sissy category. She is firm and stubborn with a kindness that simply radiates from her. Last May she moved to an assisted living facility into the room across the hall from her childhood friend. She has good days and bad days, but right now she remembers me. Her musical voice is quick to ask about "the children" every time we talk, which I'm sad to say isn't as much as it should be. My heart hurts after each conversation, and I sometimes wish such distance wasn't between us.

A few weeks ago, Jason and I joined Granny Jean and my aunt and uncle at Bowdon Baptist's homecoming celebration. As soon as the pianist struck the first keys to the hymn, Granny Jean's voice rang out strong and clear. I was moved to tears at such a personally poignant moment, and I reached over to hold her hand for a moment.

How blessed I have been for her play such a strong role in my life. She had a profound influence on the determination I found to overcome the pain of my childhood and a diagnosis of clinical depression when I was twenty. She helped make me the mother I am today, and her enduring love for my grandfather is inspirational. Our third son is named Lawson Charlie in honor of her father (Charlie Aubrey Kidd), her (Charlie Jean Kidd Steed), and my father (Charlie Aubrey Steed). Our kids will carry with them the joy of knowing her and experiencing her love and kindness. I treasure every moment I've shared with her, and I will continue to admire her spunk and beautiful spirit even after she forgets my name and beyond.    

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