Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Just a thing

This weekend Jeff and I went to Kentucky for my grandmother's memorial service. She died at age 101 this fall. That thing happened that often happens when old people die - for years they have been a shell of themselves, unable to think or act like they used to. But this week, with children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren gathered in her house to remember her, she was there in a way she hasn't been for years.

My other grandmother, from the rich side of the family, used to tell a story about her childhood. A diamond belonging to someone in the family had come out of its setting, and Granny secretly got it out of the drawer and was playing with it on the floor. The stone fell between the floorboards. She told someone what had happened and then hid behind the door, terrified of being punished. The frantic adults pried up the floorboards and found the diamond, and they were so relieved they forgot all about Granny and left her unpunished behind the door.

At the memorial my mom told a story about her mother which I had never heard before. When Mom went to college, Grandma gave her a diamond ring, a family heirloom. (I've seen both diamonds, and this one is smaller but much prettier.) At one point Mom thought she had lost the ring, and she felt just awful about it. She told her mother she couldn't find the ring. Grandma answered, "It's just a thing. If you were lost, I would be really upset. But this is just a thing."

I'm intrigued by the comparison. My father's side of the family is much more materially successful. They're the reason I could go to an expensive private college. But I don't love any of them like I loved Grandma, who struggled to raise four children on the earnings from her and her husbands' various jobs (factory worker, teacher, secretary, newspaper columnist, minister). This woman taught me that if you could get the protein for the family supper for under a dollar, you were doing all right. (Her solution was usually tuna. Mine is usually beans.) But despite having less, she valued possessions less. At the memorial we sang a hymn that especially suited her, with the line "Riches I heed not, nor man's empty praise."

Grandma knew where it was at.

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