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Friday, July 26, 2013

In Honour of My Grandmother (Feast Day of Sts. Joachim & Anne)

Today is the feast day of Sts. Joachim & Anne and is celebrated as Grandparents' Day in many countries.  In his Angelus today, celebrated with the church's youth in Rio, Pope Francis devoted especial attention to grandparents: "How important grandparents are for family life, for passing on the human and religious heritage which is so essential for each and every society! How important it is to have intergenerational exchanges and dialogue, especially within the context of the family."

My grandmother with my first son
While all of my grandparents have been very important in my life, my Grandma Hughes was someone who was particularly special to me.  She passed away on October 30, 2011, and while I was sadly unable to attend her funeral, I did write something about her for my family.  In memory of her on this Grandparents' Day, I'm posting my brief tribute here.  While it does not go into the amazing details of her life, a life lived with seemingly limitless generosity and love for others, I hope it gives some sense of who she was.  Eternal rest, grant unto her, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon her.

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My grandmother, Erma Grace Hughes, was one of the most important people in my life.  She was for me more than my grandmother.  She was my spiritual director, my counselor, and my friend.  And I miss her immensely.

Before moving to a room where she no longer had a telephone, Grandma and I would often talk on a weekly basis.  And whenever I asked her how she was doing (including when I spoke to her three weeks ago on Skype), she would almost always reply with words that I know are familiar to many of you: “I’m just great, now that I’m talking to you.”  From her this was not a platitude.  She really meant it.  And she really meant it whenever she said these words to anybody.   For Grandma quite simply exuded love, a love that showed itself as a caring selflessness for others and a desire for the well-being of those around her.  In this, she showed what it means to be a Christian.  As a theology professor, I tell my students that the great mystery of Christianity is not that we believe in a God who is all-powerful, all-mighty, and omnipresent.  Rather, the great mystery, taught to us by Jesus Christ, is that God is at heart, at his very essence, a God of selfless, humble, love.  He is a God who leaves 99 sheep to find the one that was lost.  He is a God who runs out to, and lovingly embraces, the son who has insulted him and squandered all his money.  He is a God who chose to become a human being like us to show us what love really means.  Grandma knew and knows this God intimately.  She spent hours with this God, and was and is an intimate friend of God.  And the result was that she was transformed to become like God, manifesting the selfless and humble love that is God.

This did not mean, however, that Grandma was a pushover.  She was never afraid to let me know when she disagreed with something I thought or something I did.  She once told me a story about when she was a little five-year-old girl that shows something of her character.  She was the pastor’s daughter, at a small congregation that had very strict rules about what women could not do.  At this church, women could not wear make-up, nor could they wear jewelry.  Little five-year-old Erma, however, desperately wanted to wear jewelry, and she secretly and dutifully saved up ten pennies in order to buy ten penny candies, all of which had little rings around them.  When Sunday came, she went to Sunday school, placed her hands underneath her legs until the opportune moment when she placed her hands on the table.  To her Sunday school teacher’s horror, all 10 of Erma’s fingers had rings on them.  “Erma,” the Sunday school teacher said, “don’t you know that you are the pastor’s daughter and that you are to be an example to the other girls and boys?  Why, you’re leading them all straight to hell!”  Five-year-old grandma simply looked at her Sunday school teacher and said, “Well, if these boys and girls can’t make up their minds for themselves about what is right and what is wrong, then they can all just go to hell!”  I love that story, because it shows something of Grandma’s willingness to speak the truth when necessary, something she did consistently through her life. 

It seems like a cliché to say that Grandma was special, but the reality is that she was and is special.  Throughout a life that included some tremendously difficult times, Grandma clung to the promise of Proverbs 3:6, a verse she always recited for me whenever I came to her with my troubles and concerns: “In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will direct your paths.”  Her love of God was deep and profound, and I loved hearing how movingly and feelingly she sang her favourite hymns (in fact, one of my best memories of her is listening to her sing along with a Johnny Cash album of hymns that I put in the car stereo when we were driving late at night when she visited Kim and I in Ontario).  She can now sing in the community of love that is eternal life with the God who is love, and I await with eager hope the time when I will hear her sing again (and this time I shall join in with her).

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