A Thanksgiving remembrance
My grandfather first noticed my grandmother in a Bible class taught by a professor named Dr. Luck. But he will tell you luck had nothing to do with it.
The school was Moody Bible Institute, and the topic was prophecy in Daniel and Revelation. Gram and Grandpa’s last names both began with an “M,” which for this particular class meant they were neighbors, because students were seated alphabetically. “Why they chose that method, I will never know,” Grandpa said. “It was the providence of God.”
He was especially taken with this neighbor, the pretty girl who sat listening quietly and very attentively. “He thought I was being studious,” Gram said, “but really I was just trying to pass the course.”
She did, in fact, pass the course, balancing it with secretarial work in the alumni office. Date nights with my grandpa were often spent at Wheaton College, for intramural Moody-Wheaton events. Other nights, they would catch a show in town. It was the fifties, and Chicago was hopping. “Of course,” Gram remembered, sighing, “my grandma thought there was a bandit on every corner. And there probably was!”
Gram was born and raised in Michigan—the same state where, in one of life’s strange twists, her grown son (my father) would circle back to take a professorship and settle with our family. She grew up in Grand Rapids, less than an hour away from where I would grow up.
It was on a cold Grand Rapids night, a hundred years ago, that Gram’s father had been stood up by friends for a New Year’s Eve of hard partying. Stumbling through the bitter cold to keep warm, he found himself standing in front of a rescue mission. “You must be freezing!” said the kind stranger who opened the door to him. “Come on in, I got a seat for ya.” At the time, the mission didn’t yet bear the name of Mel Trotter, the man who would stand up to give his own testimony that night. It was an alcoholic’s testimony, a testimony that spoke directly to the young alcoholic in the front row. When the altar call came, he took two steps forward, and his life was forever changed.
Returning to the mission each New Year’s would become a family tradition, vivid in memory for Gram and her brothers. One snowy eve, the family walked out to find their car had been stolen. The thief was caught and jailed, whereupon my great-grandfather and another relative paid him a visit to exhort him with the gospel. The same gospel Gram had accepted as a child, and would cling to her whole life long.
Gram went home to work after graduating from Moody in ‘54, saving up for a car and other bare necessities she and my grandfather would need to marry. He was working too, juggling Bible college classes in Johnson City, New York with a retail store job, a mile’s walk away on Main Street. She joined him there for a year, then went back home to keep working. When they were apart, they corresponded regularly, copying out long Scripture passages they’d challenged each other to memorize. When they finally married in 1957, they had their rings inscribed with the words of Psalm 48:14: “For this God is our God, for ever and ever; he will be our guide, even to the end.”
They spent several years in Dallas for Grandpa’s seminary education at DTS, where he continued picking up work to make ends meet. But God had other plans for their future. My grandfather would discover that while he still had a pastoral heart, his true calling lay in teaching. This would ultimately lead them to another Bible college in Clarks Summit, Pennsylvania, where he would eventually plan and build the house they made a home. But not just for themselves.
Their first child, my aunt, was born in 1960. My father was born a few years later. As the decade wore on, the little family began to have what some might call chance encounters. But my grandfather would doubtless gently correct that “chance” had no more to do with them than “luck” had to do with that first meeting in a Moody Bible classroom.
It wasn’t “chance,” after all, that moved Gram and Grandpa to welcome in the lonely young girl down the road from their first Clarks Summit rental house, offering her a place to land, a family to vacation with in the summer. It wasn’t “chance” that every night, they would kneel and pray together after dinner, and every night she was with them, she would watch them. It wasn’t “chance” that Gram would teach the girl everything she knew—how to bake, how to clean, how to do times tables. How to tell the truth. How to be a mother to her own daughter, when she was grown and married to a pastor.
Nor was it “chance” that moved Gram to slow down for another girl walking to her dry-cleaning job in the freezing cold with no winter coat, gently but firmly telling her she mustn’t do this, she must get in the car right away, today and every day from that day on. In much later years, when this girl was grown and came back to honor her debt of thanks, Gram would confess she barely remembered this, because “it was nothing to me. It was nothing. It was just like a cup of cold water, you know?”
This was Gram’s way. “She had a way,” a friend would say, “of collecting strays.” Lonely girls. Battered women. Women from dysfunctional homes. Women who brought culture shock through the door with them, into a quiet space where Gram never raised her voice, because she never needed to.
When she was spending her last days in a home, my father asked Gram what her favorite Scripture story was. She said she would give it some thought and answer when he called her the next day. The next day, she told him she had always loved the story of Hannah—the woman who wept, because she was barren. My father was moved to reflect that perhaps this was because she envisioned herself in that story, before Hannah’s prayer was answered. She envisioned herself offering the girl a kind word, a supporting arm, a presence in her sorrow.
Gram had her own sorrows. After my father, she lost a child. By the time she discovered she was pregnant again, she was no longer a young woman. 1973 had come, and 1973 had gone. The reassuring doctor told her that she had choices, now. Whatever she chose, it would be safe and legal. “Trust me,” he said. Gram answered quietly, “I will trust God.” Today, her third child, a son, my uncle, is a musician and a pastor, with a family of his own, quietly ministering to the poor.
Decades later, after all their own children had grown, it was on that same trust that Gram and Grandpa would adopt another newborn child, together with a mother who had nowhere else to go. Like so many others before her, she, too, would learn to call them “Mom and Dad.”
I was Gram’s first grandchild. She delighted over me for all the days she was able. Once, when I was tiny, she and Grandpa watched me for Mom and Dad. I still have scattered, mortifying memories of the holy little terror I was for them, not that they ever breathed a word of it to Mom and Dad.
I also have a memory of tiny, dramatic, hyper-imaginative me once asking Gram what she would do if I was drowning. She considered the scenario with gentle solemnity, then said “Well, I would jump in and hold you as tightly as I could. And if we drowned, we’d drown together.”
Over the years, she and Grandpa sent me small handwritten notes and cards. They sent birthday money for the dollar amount that matched my new age. And they prayed for me without ceasing, far more faithfully than I ever remembered to pray for them.
The last time I saw Gram, it was around Easter this year. I recorded the audio I would draw on to write this tribute, much less than I wish I had captured. I was a freshly minted Ph.D., preparing to interview for what would become my first job. I talked a little with Gram and Grandpa about it, about how good a fit it seemed to be, how pleased I would be to get it even though it wasn’t the high-flying research position my advisor probably envisioned for me, because I would get to teach and work with kids. I told them I had a date penciled in to interview and sub teach. Grandma pulled out a calendar as I talked. It was only later that I realized she was doing this so she could note the date on which to pray.
On the recording I made, I hear her voice saying, “Well Bethel, I will tell you: Life goes pretty fast. It doesn’t seem like it when the days stretch out, one day after the next. But I’ll tell ya, you look back and it’s like, where did they go? What happened? Life goes quickly.” We talk a little more. Then she says, “It’s been a good life. And I know it, because of who I married, and because of loving the Lord and loving His word. It’s been a very good life. And even though I’m old, 88 (yikes!) and can’t do anything, I can’t even stand up long enough to do the dishes—my knees won’t let me—or to cook something on the stove, but my doctor said, ‘You’ve done enough dishes. It’s time for somebody else to do them.’”
Grandma had already survived cancer and other severe physical difficulties by the time she entered her last decline. My father flew out to be with her during what we thought would be her last days, but turned out not to be, quite yet. Because we didn’t know, we quickly mocked up little posters with block-letter messages to take pictures of and e-mail over to her. On mine, I wrote “Grandma, I love you. My prayer warrior, my hero!” It felt so insufficient. It felt like a drop in the sea.
Though she wasn’t yet at death’s door, Grandma could no longer be cared for at home in her final days. When he could, my grandfather would visit her, and they would sit and talk and sing hymns together. Sometimes her roommates would join in. Some of them hadn’t been Christians before they became her roommates, but they were now.
Meanwhile, I would take that job and begin a new life. I told myself I would call her, many times. But I only called her once. I can still remember it, baking in my new kitchen, with my phone on speaker mode. I was baking a loaf cake, a recipe I’d found after scoring a windfall of redcurrants from the country store down the road. We only talked for a short time. I told her what I was baking. I told her about the job, how I loved it, how it was just what I’d wanted. She was tired, but happy for me. So happy for me. In turn she shared, a bit wearily, about some of her own trials, the little sorrows and limitations of a sickbed. I noticed as she talked that her voice seemed to be slurring slightly. I strained my ears, not quite catching all she said, but trying, trying to listen. Soon I let her go. She told me to keep letting the sunlight in. This is the last thing I remember.
The very next day, she was taken to emergency. Not long after, she was gone. Shortly before she died, when she was still conscious and responsive, they said she was looking intently up at the ceiling, her eyes fixed on something they couldn’t see.
I cannot think of Gram without thinking of the passage in The Great Divorce, where Lewis and MacDonald encounter an ordinary saint who walks clothed in extraordinary majesty. And as I read it again, I cannot think of a better way to end this, my small tribute. And so I leave you with it, as I leave you with the memory of Marjorie McGrew. My prayer warrior. My hero. My Gram.
The reason why I asked if there were another river was this. All down one long aisle of the forest the undersides of the leafy branches had begun to tremble with dancing light; and on Earth I knew nothing so likely to produce this appearance as the reflected lights cast upward by moving water. A few moments later I realised my mistake. Some kind of procession was approaching us, and the light came from the persons who composed it. First came bright Spirits, not the Spirits of men, who danced and scattered flowers—soundlessly falling, lightly drifting flowers, though by the standards of the ghost-world each petal would have weighed a hundred-weight and their fall would have been like the crashing of boulders. Then, on the left and right, at each side of the forest avenue, came youthful shapes, boys upon one hand, and girls upon the other. If I could remember their singing and write down the notes, no man who read that score would ever grow sick or old. Between them went musicians: and after these a lady in whose honour all this was being done.
I cannot now remember whether she was naked or clothed. If she were naked, then it must have been the almost visible penumbra of her courtesy and joy which produces in my memory the illusion of a great and shining train that followed her across the happy grass. If she were clothed, then the illusion of nakedness is doubtless due to the clarity with which her innermost spirit shone through the clothes. For clothes in that country are not a disguise: the spiritual body lives along each thread and turns them into living organs. A robe or a crown is there as much one of the wearer’s features as a lip or an eye.
But I have forgotten. And only partly do I remember the unbearable beauty of her face.
‘Is it?…is it?’ I whispered to my guide.
‘Not at all,’ said he. ‘It’s someone ye’ll never have heard of. Her name on Earth was Sarah Smith and she lived at Golders Green.’
‘She seems to be…well, a person of particular importance?’
‘Aye. She is one of the great ones. Ye have heard that fame in this country and fame on Earth are two quite different things.’
‘And who are these gigantic people…look! They’re like emeralds…who are dancing and throwing flowers before her?’
‘Haven’t ye read your Milton? A thousand liveried angels lackey her.’
‘And who are all these young men and women on each side?’
‘They are her sons and daughters.’
‘She must have had a very large family, Sir.’
‘Every young man or boy that met her became her son—even if it was only the boy that brought the meat to her back door. Every girl that met her was her daughter.’
‘Isn’t that a bit hard on their own parents?’
‘No. There are those that steal other people’s children. But her motherhood was of a different kind. Those on whom it fell went back to their natural parents loving them more. Few men looked on her without becoming, in a certain fashion, her lovers. But it was the kind of love that made them not less true, but truer, to their own wives.’
‘And how…but hullo! What are all these animals? A cat—two cats—dozens of cats. And all these dogs…why, I can’t count them. And the birds. And the horses.’
‘They are her beasts.’
‘Did she keep a sort of zoo? I mean, this is a bit too much.’
‘Every beast and bird that came near her had its place in her love. In her they became themselves. And now the abundance of life she has in Christ from the Father flows over into them.’
I looked at my Teacher in amazement.
‘Yes,’ he said. ‘It is like when you throw a stone into a pool, and the concentric waves spread out further and further. Who knows where it will end? Redeemed humanity is still young, it has hardly come to its full strength. But already there is joy enough in the little finger of a great saint such as yonder lady to waken all the dead things of the universe into life.’