Category Archives: Grandmothers

Unashamed–Amid the Beams (Rejoicing in the Babies)

The views expressed in this blog are, of course, my own and should be taken as such.

My grandmother is with me in my daily life. On the days when I do not want to do good–offer the ride, buy the meal, wave someone on at the four-way stop–I can hear her gentle voice, “Thereby some have entertained angels unaware.” If I decide to skip sunscreen or Neosporin or a blow-dry, she reminds me to.

Stephanie Saussy’s desire to celebrate everything is with me still–thirteen years after her death, I find myself thinking, “Time to get out the Valentine’s bowl fillers.” I remember the thoughtful absurdities: she would hoard the banana Laffy Taffy so we could eat it in her bed while watching Little House on the Prairie; make us all dress in luau garb just to sit beside the wading pool and sandbox while our toddlers played; leave no-reason presents on the front stoop.

In Seattle, we lost over twenty friends, people who did not see their children graduate, marry, launch small businesses, people who missed futures that I lived to see, who have left me a legacy of awareness: this is what I have; here is my treasure.

Twenty years of hearing them, of remembering, left me prepared to hear my father–to have my days interrupted by memories: the way he sang “I love a parade” while waiting to turn at the corner of Seminole and Central; the times he’d moan, “Spare me/Why me/Oh my god!” over idiocies both large and small; his spontaneous speeches about men that were his heroes.

I knew he would be with me.


What I didn’t expect was the haunting of suicide, the additional burden that survivors must bear (and one suicide affects up to 135 people), the weight of anger and sorrow and shame.

I didn’t expect to be cleaning a litter box and think, “Well, everyone [in this small town] thinks my dad is in hell.”

I know, I know, I am not supposed to type those words–or even admit to thinking them–even though you think them when you see me in the grocery store, whisper them to your children. Even though you perpetuate the stigma, I am not supposed to admit that I see it.

I am supposed to live in your denial.

I am supposed to go quietly away, to take my agony and drink in a corner.

Good Lord–why didn’t I learn to be feminine? Or at least subdued?

You want me to live in shame–to take my trauma-filled childhood and even more incomprehensibly traumatic adulthood and go away.

Because that is what shame demands–that people put their troubles in tightly-lidded boxes, that people like me, with troubles that are particularly unsightly, duct tape their boxes shut, then cover them in black tarps–that our pain remain, always, completely covered.

But there is a place where pain cannot be covered, where it must be unmasked because there is no mask large enough, no make-up thick enough, where it must be seen, even in the face of your judgment.

The thing I want to show you, the thing that I hope my blogs point out again and again and again is you can make people’s lives okay. You can make the unbearable bearable. You can come alongside. That is Christlike.

Why, then, do we choose shame???

Why does society–even Christian society–choose to heap on the pain???

Last Sunday was Sanctity of Life Sunday. People lined roadways bearing “Choose Life” signs–this always profoundly moving to me since my daughters and I–and even my granddaughter–could have all been aborted: hydrocephalus, suspected birth defects, unplanned pregnancy, anencephaly–all were crisis pregnancies carried to term.

We were loved–even en utero–as babies should be.

It’s really that simple: babies are worthy of celebration, fearfully and wonderfully made, known by God in their mothers’ wombs.

But any veteran high school teacher–or anyone who works with young women–can tell you that the cultural stigma against unwed motherhood is still strong, particularly within the church. The shame some of these young women feel is deep–and church-sanctioned.

I’ve witnessed it for three decades–the same church that says, “Don’t abort,” can refuse to open its arms.

The women apologize–to the church, their grandmothers, all of us–as they don their scarlet letters, shamed for the babies everyone demanded they save.


I began this blog because my own daughter was twenty-one, unmarried, and pregnant and all the Christian resources I could find said things like, “Gather the children to discuss their sister’s sin,” and I just could not do that.

I could not heap shame on my daughter, couldn’t slap my grandchild with an “unwanted” label.

I was broken, overwhelmed, and lost–and I failed,in some ways, utterly–but I could not choose shame, even if that’s what “powerful” Christians told me to do.


Putting people in boxes, policing their behavior, judging on outward appearance–it’s all so exhausting.

Shaming and mandating and chiding–telling others, always, how wrong they are–exiling and alienating and punishing–the words themselves are wearying.


I have heard decades of sermons about specks and motes and beams in eyes–and spent my lifetime either hiding beams or removing motes–and I am here, now, with ruins all around. I have nothing to show, nothing to hold–it truly stuns me, still.

But there is value and redemption in this: you and I can see my beams–somehow, raised as I was, in the Church, married as I was, in the Church, having seen all I have seen in the Church, I am still here, among these broken beams. You and I both see that my world is not beautiful: impacted by cancer, anencephaly, suicide, and divorce. There is nothing tidy here.


Here’s the thing: I don’t have a heaven or hell to put anyone in. I could spend days saying that. It is a life-changing revelation.

I don’t have to decide.

I don’t have to judge the sins, weigh the merits, see the dark black smudges and hunt for the bright white. I don’t have to wonder about anyone’s salvation or think too long about whether their long walk to the altar at age thirteen will still save them at forty-three.

It is their salvation. It is God’s heaven. I am totally out of the equation.


Once you realize that, once you see that it is you and God and them and God–that you are not the chairman of any heavenly committee and your mansion in Glory may be right next door to Ted Bundy’s–once your eyes are open to your complete lack of power, in that realization is your freedom–to rest and rejoice–in God’s grace.

(And all those babies.)


Measuring Sticks (Suffering is not a Competition)

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I don’t really like church. I wake up on Sunday mornings and try to talk myself out of going. While I  dilly-dally over breakfast, playing online Scrabble, I tell myself there are other, more productive things I could do,

No one else in my family goes. (I once believed I was destined to be a quiver-full wife, and now, ironically, I am, mostly, alone on the pew.) So it is tempting to stay home and pet cats and drink Dr. Pepper.

But lately, I go, and for the stupidest of reasons. A friend, a handsome, mildly-womanizing good old boy, attends his own church weekly. And once when I teased him about going on Sundays, probably hungover, he said simply, “You always learn something.”

Point taken.


This morning, my first thought upon waking was a PMS-fueled, yet pragmatic, “What is Screenshot_20170917-143848even the point?” But twenty minutes before church was to begin, I mustered the energy to dress, putting on my twenty-five-pounds-ago pants that were, in my favorite aunt’s polite terms, “unflattering” even when they fit. I didn’t brush my teeth.

My husband wandered in the bathroom and asked mildly, “You going? The last thing I heard was you asking the cat if you should go . . . She must have said yes.”

 


The door greeters were, thankfully, non-handshaky, and I made it through the narthex without a hug. The lady behind me had a cough, and I didn’t really like the songs, but I was singing. My mind was everywhere–no one I know is at their personal mental best right now after Hurricane Irma–and I was really wrestling to focus on the lyrics, to leave my hectic week behind me, to feel churchy instead of blah.

The chorus leader began “When You Walk Into the Room,” a song that I like enough that I wouldn’t skip it on Pandora. As we congregants sang, “When you walk into the room/The dead begin to rise/Cause there is resurrection life/In all You do,” from across the sanctuary, there came a joyous shout.

Tina Goble, a mother who, having lost her five-year-old daughter to DIPG brain cancer, fully gets the promise of the resurrection,  rejoiced, shouting praise to our God who sustains.

I looked over and thought, “She is so together. She lost her daughter, yet can worship so freely.”

And, immediately, in my spirit, I heard, “Give yourself some credit. You lost your granddaughter, and you are here.”

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Once again, I was getting out my measuring sticks in church. Thinking: she is better than me. She is more patient, more genuinely kind. Why, she is even able, somehow, to sincerely smile–even with her eyes.

When I see Tina, my reaction is always immediately positive. I give her gold stars for being in public, having makeup on, and being so peppy.  My instinct is adulation.

When I see myself in the mirror now, most days, I’m just surprised–who knew that skin could be that gray or hair could be that stringy? I’m full of judgment and disdain for myself. My instinct is condemnation.

That’s what placeholder Christianity does–it puts Tina here and me there. She’s nearer Jesus because she can smile and curl her hair and raise her hands, and I am much farther from Christ because I am here with unbrushed teeth, I looked at Facebook on my phone during the sermon, and then took my shoe off and gave myself a mini foot massage–in church!!!

And my mind gets full, so full, of all the things that I am not. There are so many things that I am not. Then, the pain at all my lack comes in, followed by the envy of others who are doing life better–who are successfully navigating over and around and through their waves, while I am going under again.

And it is so stupid.

Tina and I both faced certain horror. We both held children who were given death sentences, children who were bombarded with cannots and willnots, and who needed accompanying past them. Precious little girls who needed love on the journey to death, and we gave them that.

Christ allowed us to give them that. 

Now, we both have days where we are empty and aching. Days where the smile of another child isn’t enough. Days where we remember the heartbreaks we witnessed. Days where we touch our lost children’s clothes and blankets–and we want so desperately to kiss our girls’ sweet foreheads again.

That I would take out a measuring stick and want to compare my horror with hers, my coping with hers, my current smile and hairdo with hers–and that I would even SEE or THINK about these stupid, superficial things–having seen all that I have, having endured so much, shows desperately the need we have a revelation of Grace, true Grace.

Our God is not a God of checklists and balanced scales. He does not keep track of which of us was kinder to the greeters. He does not care whose breath is fresher. He does not ever notice our hairstyles.

For God’s Word tells us that He does not look upon our outward appearance, but that He looks upon our hearts, and he sees them Whole. And so, when He saw the two of us talking at lunch, He probably chuckled and said to Jesus, “Look, there’s Rachel–she’s telling Tina that she forgot, for a second, the most important thing . . .

When I look at them, I only see You.”

Christ: Who Strengthens Me

12976754_920310534764208_2244250461583658971_oOn my classroom white board, there is a list of things I cannot do. Currently, it reads: “Carve into a mountain; jog to Blackshear (nine miles); cross the monkey bars; roller skate; be nice to Abby about her eyelashes” (Ab added that last one).  It’s a silly list, but it’s meant to remind my students of two things: that works of nonfiction may not always be truthful (mountain carving; jogging barefoot through the snow carrying a violin) and that we all have things we cannot do.

An honest and fearless list would, of course, be much longer. It would include more negatives: I can’t help you with a loose tooth or a nosebleed–ever.  I can’t be kind when I’m really, really tired.  I can’t repeat an answer more than three times nicely. (I start spelling each word in thundering tones.) I can’t remember names when I’m anxious. But lately, the biggest Can’t remains this: I can’t cope well with my daughter’s pregnancy, nor with the fact that her anencephalic daughter, Stephanie Grace, is expected to die soon after birth.

I generally fare well in the struggles we face. I always have. From my husband’s leukemia and our family’s cross-country move to students’ in-class seizures, I have handled past crises calmly. But this pregnancy, after a series of smaller family crises in the fall, has just done me in. I’m ready to turn in any medal I won in the Cancer Caregiver Olympics or the Child of an Alcoholic Triathlons–because in the Parent of an Unwed Pregnant Daughter Speed Trials, I’m not doing as well as I’d like.

I suppose that I expected more of myself because I’ve always done well with my pregnant students. I recognize their stammering and hesitant, “Can we talk?” and, if I’m among the first adults they tell, I manage to make the interaction survivable for both of us. I want my student mothers to remember adult support, not condemnation. Logically, I also want that for my own daughter as well.

I just can’t find my footing–I can’t put the pieces together. I can do some things–buy maternity clothes, accompany April to doctor’s visits, get excited when I feel the baby kick, make jokes about the baby’s stubborn streak, and even talk with some equanimity about the plans for her funeral. Anything pragmatic about this pregnancy, I have a pretty good handle on–if I haven’t figured out the logistics, I have a fairly adequate general plan. But in every emotional aspect of this pregnancy, I am inadequate. Not enough.

I couldn’t even be happy before it was time to be sad. 

April, at 24 weeks, is not struggling. If the time with her daughter is limited to Stephanie Grace’s time en utero, then April will make the most of it. She wants maternity pictures, plaster casts of the baby’s footprints, and an adorable layette. She’s letting the baby listen to her favorite songs, singing to her, and making certain that she knows she is loved.

There is nothing, nothing that I would rather do than curl up beside April and read Let’s Get a Pup, Said Kate loudly to my granddaughter, to cheerfully chirp, “What a brand new one?/With the wrapping still on?” and to let that baby learn my voice. But I can’t stop sobbing long enough to read a book. I can’t talk for more than one minute about maternity pictures or help April shop for the right dress. I can’t stay in the baby section of any store for more than thirty seconds before the air leaves the room. I can’t share in my daughter’s fragile joy because I am still gathering the pieces of my broken heart. 

There is no instant fix for this. I’ve been trying to tell myself, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” but I’m finding that, for me, that verse has been stripped to something akin to “I can live another day, and perhaps be kind to people.” I can’t do much more than that right now. I cannot be all that my daughter needs me to be. 

12959564_10208178114863308_601819068_oBut I want you to know, my grandbaby now has a layette. A former student’s mother took April to lunch last week; afterwards they shopped in Belk’s, where April selected a pink dress and bonnet set for Stephanie Grace.  The student’s great aunt, whom April has never met, has also crocheted the baby a blanket.

My daughter has her professional maternity pictures. A former coworker volunteered to spend the last day of her spring break doing a beach photo shoot. In addition to having pictures to cherish, April will always remember the flower crown she wore, the wind whipping her dress, and the nearby wedding that was close enough to hear.

She has a lovely, long maternity dress. One of her elementary school classmates, Caitlyn, loaned April the dress she’d used for her own cotton-field maternity shots. When we went to fetch the dress, Caitlyn sat holding her newborn, whom we’d thought would grow up alongside Stephanie Grace. I marveled at our peace in the room.

She has freshly cut and curled hair. Our hairdresser, whom I have known for over thirty years, made sure that April felt special and looked beautiful for her photos, refusing payment. “She said it was her gift to me,” April explained.

Yesterday afternoon, as April was dropped off after the photo session, we got to sneak a peek at some of the shots. She beamed peacefully onscreen, totally relaxed, trusting God and enjoying the moment. She was beautiful and radiant and loved. She’d accomplished one mission, ticked one item off the To Do list; her pregnancy was, in at least one way, normal and fun.

My part in all this? Well, I had made the phone call for the hair appointment and suggested a pink bow. That’s it. Because I could not do any more, my friends did Much More. They enthused and rejoiced and clucked over April. They smiled and laughed and chatted. They made everything better. 

12968095_920310824764179_7958268002363552032_oLast night, as I was once again wishing my failures away, I thought about that verse in a different light. What if the words “in others” were included? “I can do all things through Christ [in others] who strengthens me” seems a bit more reflective of the way I’m living now. The funny texts, sweet cards, and late night phone calls from friends strengthen me. The Bible devotional a friend gave me months ago feeds me daily. My husband’s patience with me and my daughters’ understanding show me God’s grace. No one is mad that I cannot do what they can; they are simply picking up my load and going forward, then looking back to make sure I’m still straggling along.

This is the only way I will survive this journey: through the Christ in others, ministering to me. Though I wish I could lead the pack and plow confidently ahead, in accepting my current weakness, I am seeing other’s strengths.

I may be lagging behind, lost in “What ifs” and exhausted tears, but I’m still at least journeying toward the finish line that I don’t want to reach. I don’t want to go there; none of us do. But with our friends we are moving forward; through their love, we are all moving onward.

Myself included.

 

 

The Precious, Cool Nostalgia

Hidden in a tin

In the back of the heart pine cabinet.

Its little black latch a trial for pudgy fingers, were

Valentine’s Day cookie cutters—

Only two.

(It was the 1970s. Before the excess.)

One small tin heart, plain.

One, a pink polyresin press, with its mirrored “Be Mine.”

The old-enough cousins

With their gleaming hands—

nails scrubbed brusquely by a grandma on a mission—

Dipped into the dough.

Rolled and pressed, pressed again

Into the yellow Formica countertops

Until it was time to cut and trim. To bake and eat.

(The cooling was, of course, the hardest part.

The wait before the pleasure.)

 

She hated to cook.

She hated baking most of all.

But made the shopping list.

Put on her plastic rain bonnet,

Tied it just so, every hair covered.

Drove to the grocery store for

Fresh eggs. Real butter.

At home, she unearthed the cookie cutters

To make our eleven memories.

All we had heard–in passing–

“Mother hates cooking.”

 

We never understood until

We owned our own kitchens

With our own pots,

Familiar and resented.

 

It is a chore, this cooking.

(We all eat 1,996 pounds of food

A year.  If half is at home,

We nevertheless lug tons.)

 

We chop the onions.

Brown the meat.

For all the Wrong Tacos.

And cook the Regrettable Bacon

(And this is only today.)

 

We serve stuffed shells with pride.

Slide salmon loaf in the trash,

Having met the requirements.

Our duties fulfilled. The Mouths fed.

 

It will be years before they want my

Cast iron skillet.

And miss Saturday’s predictable tacos.

 

They will then taste a longing,

For memorialized meals.

As they stand alone in their kitchens,

Compressing their hearts

For all the right reasons,

These daughters of mine,

Who have had Their Pleasure.