In Memoriam

It’s interesting how a farewell can suddenly make us look differently at the person or place we’re parting from. When I came to my grandma’s bedside to say a last good-bye, I was struck by her beautiful hands. Long, elegant fingers, that even in this last stage of her life continually sought something to hold. Her fingers clutched her blanket as if it was … what? Her handkerchief, the one she always carried around and occasionally pulled out of her sleeve to blow her nose loudly? Her knitting needles? Grandma was the fastest knitter I ever saw at work, sitting quietly in the corner of the room, enjoying the chatter around her. A book or a pen? Grandma had been a prolific reader and a writer – mostly of letters that were flown overseas but also of a thousand notes on things she wanted to remember. Who knows what grandma thought she was holding when I saw her that last time, but I sensed she was looking for contact. When I placed my fingers in hers, she squeezed them tightly, though her eyes never opened to see me.

How many people had grandma’s hands cared for in her lifetime? First and foremost, her Aris – the man she had waited three years for to come back from fighting in Indonesia, and who she spent the remaining 68 years of her life with – and the six children they went on to have. But she had also cared for nephews and nieces, children of friends and neighbors, her grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Everyone was welcomed into her home as the family expanded.

Grandma’s hands had made countless cups of coffee and pots of soup. They did the laundry for her own household and sometimes even for other families who were struggling to get by.  It wasn’t until child number six that grandpa, who had been putting by what he could spare, decided to break into his savings and treat her to a state-of-the-art washing machine.

Before marrying, grandma had been a seamstress. I wish I could have seen her at work, measuring, pinning, cutting, sewing. I am sure she did so with much grace and expertise.

When grandma’s hands weren’t at work, they were often folded in prayer. Her children knew that she prayed for them every day. During her last bedridden days, there was so little grandma could do, tired as she was from the 91 years of life behind her. Her eyes occasionally flicked open but immediately fell closed again; she couldn’t bring herself to swallow more than a few drops of juice.  But when my father sat down next to her to pray, I saw her make an effort to move her hands, and I gently helped her fold her hands together one more time.

As I sat there, thinking over the life and legacy she was leaving behind, I was moved – not by sadness, but by a deep sense of connection to her. I suddenly realized I had more in common with grandma than I had ever realized.

Most obviously, we were both the short kind, but there was much more. Our love for traveling, for example. Grandma, a farmer’s daughter who had lived most of her life in the same small village, was nonetheless a world traveler. In the course of her life, she had made overseas trips to South Africa, Israel, Canada, Ghana, and Guinea. She used to tell us grandchildren that she had only ever traveled to visit family, but secretly I think she loved going on the adventure with just her own wits, her trust in God that everything would work out, and maybe one of her children for company. Like me, she had a love for language, teaching herself English so she could correspond with an English penfriend.

My grandma was a farmer’s daughter, but she was accomplished and sophisticated. She developed her skills. She read a great deal, and her world was much larger than just the farm where most of her life took place.

When I saw her at the end of her life, I thought, “This is how it’s meant to be.” All those dozens of people she had loved in her humble, unassuming, and practical way, came to say thank-you and good-bye: children, grandchildren, neighbors, old friends, the siblings she still had left who were able to come. Their loving hands carried her gently out of this life – and I know that the loving hands of her Maker carried her gently into the next.