Goodbye to Grandma

Lake Palestine, East Texas

Lake Palestine, East Texas

My father’s mother, Grandma McKibben, is dying today. Her name is Mary Ellen, and the Mary in my name comes from her. (The Ann comes from my other grandmother, Betty Ann.)

Grandma is 88 years old and said two weeks ago that she’s ready. I’m thinking a lot about my grandfather today, who is saying goodbye to his love of 70 years. How do you do that?

We didn’t see each other much in recent years. The relationships in our family are complicated. But we talked by phone every few months. They were so over the moon about my book—and especially loved that I kept the McKibben in the byline. (Always.)

I wrote this a couple of years ago on St. Patrick’s Day. For some reason it is one of the most-read pieces on my blog.

My father’s family is big and Irish and Catholic. My dad was supposed to be the priest in the family. He even went to seminary for a time; it didn’t stick. Exhibits A, B, C, and D: my siblings and I.

He died a Presbyterian seeker, heavily influenced by the spirituality of Alcoholics Anonymous.

The summer before Robert and I got married, we were at a McKibben family event and someone asked us whether our wedding was going to be in the church. I said yes, seeing as how it was a verbal question… I didn’t pick up on the capital letters. Yes, we’re getting married in the church as opposed to Hermann Park or VFW Hall. 

They were asking about The Church.

My grandparents are as staunch as you can get in their Catholicism. I’m sure it grieves them that few to none of their dozen-plus grandchildren are Catholic.

But I got a letter from them recently, and it was addressed to the Rev. MaryAnn Dana.

In it they shared a hope that they could someday come and hear “their number 1 granddaughter preach the Word of God.”

My grandparents had a lake house in East Texas. I have so many memories of that place, although many of them run together.

I remember a particular sunset over the trees across the lake one evening. It was like a very wide, flat rainbow, reds to oranges to greens to blues. (My cousins and I have been sharing MacShack stories on Facebook today, and we were laughing over the gravelly smokers’ voices of our uncles in the morning, murmuring over their morning coffee as they looked out the window: “Lake looks like glass.” I’m sure the lake was like glass that evening.)

When I got home to Houston, I tried to recreate it with pastels, but I just couldn’t do it. The bands of color didn’t blend right, and I kept adding more and more layers of color, hoping to capture what I’d seen. The paper got heavy with chalky dust and I never got it right. It was beyond me.

I don’t know what heaven is, or even if there is a heaven. But I like to think that for Grandma there will be a sunset just like that one. Or more appropriately, a sunrise.

I love you, Grandma.

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Monday Miscellany

1. Preacher Camp was awesome as usual. I always come back physically exhausted but energized in every other way.

2. Robert gets super props for holding down the fort while I was gone, and not once griping on the phone about it. Caroline was home sick from school on Wednesday, Margaret on Thursday, and James Friday. That’s pretty typical when I’m gone.

3. Which means we’re bracing for the end of the month, when I go to NEXT Church in Dallas. (Are you going?) Thanks, by the way, to everyone who’s sharing ideas about vital congregational structures.

4. I received an e-mail from my editor last week with the marked up manuscript attached. His message was so darn nice and affirming, I can’t stop reading it. Really, it’s just sitting in my inbox, and I return to it several times a day. I suspect, however, that he was simply cushioning the blow of all. those. comments. Yeah. I’m in denial about those. I need to snap out of it soon, otherwise the publisher’s going to call in a few weeks and I’ll be all, “What, you need more from me? But he said it was a fun, lively, likable, compelling read!”

Yes, I have it memorized.

5. The Fellowship of Prayer is still available through Chalice, assuming members of my family have not snatched up every last copy. Which is possible. Though it is nice to receive rave reviews from one’s Catholic grandmother.

6. Caroline had a great birthday, though a little slapdash since I was away the week before. She’ll celebrate with friends this weekend—it’s a slumber party, Lord help us. I thought the Presidents Day weekend was good timing for a sleepover, since there will be a long weekend to recuperate.

7. Caroline got a number of lovely things, but her favorites included a panflute I got her from Ten Thousand Villages, and a rock carved into the shape of a heart that has the word STRENGTH etched on it. Got a big hug for that one. Have I mentioned my girl’s absolute love for rocks and random musical instruments?

8. An elder in our church preached yesterday. It was nice not to have to get right back into the pulpit after preacher camp, but I actually received a good word from him as well. He’s a builder by trade and avocation, and is always doing some kind of work on his house. He said people always ask him, “Won’t you be happy when this is all done?” He always says, “I’m happy now.”

I tend to be a destination-not-journey person, but of course he’s right. There is no “destination” anyway. Not really.

Should I Send My Wedding Dress to Kenya?

Nicholas Kristof recently made this plea for wedding and bridesmaid dresses, which are used by a woman in Nairobi to make new children’s clothing. If you can get them to New York, there’s an organization there that will pay for the shipping to Kenya. (Something tells me this woman is going to be inundated with more satin and tulle than she’ll be able to use in a lifetime.)

The minute I read Kristof’s piece I knew that I wanted to send my wedding dress there. When I got married seventeen years ago, a lot of people were heirlooming their dresses. I didn’t have strong opinions about keeping my dress but ultimately went that route. I took it to the cleaners, where they did whatever voodoo they do, and now it’s sitting in a nice box up in James’s closet. It’s a pretty dress, in a “22 year old bride in the mid-’90s” kind of way.

Ahem.

That is, there’s a lot of fabric to work with, and some nice details.

Robert asked, “Are you sure you want to part with it? Is there a possibility that one of our daughters will want to wear it?” Leaning that way, and I doubt it—although he reminds me that Caroline is very tuned in to tradition and family artifacts and hates to part with stuff. So who knows?

Many folks place great value on things simply because they have sentimental value. My threshold is different. I like having a keepsake for major events and people in my life, but I don’t necessarily need every keepsake. If the dress were the only tangible connection to our wedding day I would want to keep it. But we have wedding gifts and photographs and gold bands on our left ring fingers and flower shops where we can get lilies whenever we want, and that’s a gracious plenty for me.

Still, the discussion we’re having about the fate of the dress has me thinking about the value of stuff. I follow a few simplicity and anti-clutter blogs that provide tips for paring down stuff. I think many of these blogs go too far—for example, this article, by a man whose mother died. He was getting ready to move her stuff to a storage facility when he found several boxes of his elementary school work under her bed. The fact that theses boxes were sealed, unexamined by his mother all these years, led to an epiphany:

I could hold on to her memories without her stuff, just as she had always remembered me and my childhood and all of our memories without ever accesses [sic] those sealed boxes under her bed. She didn’t need papers from twenty-five years ago to remember me, just as I didn’t need a storage locker filled with her stuff to remember her.

…Memories are within us, not within our things.

And this is where he loses me.

Memories are within us… AND within our things. It’s why I keep artifacts on my desk when I write: I treasure those reminders of juicy times in my life. And it’s why some of the kid artwork is going into a Rubbermaid tub rather than being scanned into Evernote: it is a precious thing to feel the paper that my kids held on their laps, to trace the brushstrokes.

It goes the other way too. We are fumigating our church right now, and folks are taking home all the dishes, pots and pans to be washed thoroughly since the church doesn’t have a dishwasher. Some of these kitchen items have psychic energy that is, in my opinion, not all that positive. (Old stained trays? 200 coffee cups in a church that now worships 50?)

Our stuff isn’t neutral.

I said recently that I’m done with the word “spiritual.” My main objection is that it implies a separation from the physical world. (Thank you Platonic dualism.) The realm of the spiritual is what’s in our brains and in our (figurative) hearts, and it is given higher status. The body is just the Rubbermaid tub.

Of course we can become obsessed with stuff, hoarding and clutching, or constantly upgrading and discarding. But I agree with Michael Lindvall (subscription required, sorry) when he wrote that the problem isn’t that we value our stuff too much. Our problem is that we don’t value it enough. It’s all disposable anymore, cheap and devoid of meaning. After all, memories are in our minds, right?

But my goodness, God loved stuff. God made stuff, and called it good and very good. And Christians go so far as to make the outrageous claim that God became flesh and lived among our stuff. He ate stuff and drank stuff and blessed stuff and told stories about stuff and even mixed stuff with his own spit and made mud on one bizarre occasion.

So if I value stuff so much, why am I thinking about sending my wedding dress to Kenya rather than keeping it? Not because the dress isn’t meaningful to me, but because it is meaningful. The day I wore it was a day of great beauty and hope and joy. It has the potential to bring beauty and hope and joy to people I don’t even know. Doesn’t that seem like a good way of honoring the love that was expressed on October 22, 1994? To let it have a new life, rather than sitting in my closet for another couple of decades on the off chance that my daughters will want to wear it?

One of the things I think about when making a decision is, where is the good story? And yes, Caroline or Margaret walking down the aisle wearing the dress I once wore is a good story. But it’s a story that I ultimately control and own. There’s something to be said for letting the story go, so it can take on a life of its own.

I’m still thinking. What do you say?

Photo: Jane Ngoiri of Nairobi.

I’m Irish… But Aren’t We All Today?

Early in the week I asked the twitterverse whether it was polemical to wear orange instead of green on St. Patrick’s Day. I am Protestant, after all. And yes, I am part Irish, but isn’t everyone today? I’m also Scottish and English and countless other northern European things. Even my married name means “The Dane.”

But still. Irish.

My father’s family is big and Irish and Catholic. My dad was supposed to be the priest in the family. He even went to seminary for a time; it didn’t stick. Exhibits A, B, C, and D: my siblings and I.

He died a Presbyterian seeker, heavily influenced by the spirituality of Alcoholics Anonymous.

The summer before Robert and I got married, we were at a McKibben family event and someone asked us whether our wedding was going to be in the church. I said yes, seeing as how it was a verbal question… I didn’t pick up on the capital letters. Yes, we’re getting married in the church as opposed to Hermann Park or VFW Hall. They were asking about The Church.

My grandparents are as staunch as you can get in their Catholicism. I’m sure it grieves them that few to none of their dozen-plus grandchildren are Catholic.

But I got a letter from them recently, and it was addressed to the Rev. MaryAnn Dana.

In it they shared a hope that they could someday come and hear “their number 1 granddaughter preach the Word of God.”

I’m wearing green.

You Know What Next Friday Is!!!!

It’s the National Day of Listening!

This is a Story Corps-sponsored event in which folks across the country are invited to interview their family and friends and record the conversation.

I love this event because:

  • people are generally together on Thanksgiving weekend, and in my experience, sitting around and talking is just about everyone’s speed following Turkey Day
  • it gives you an “excuse” to reminisce and ask questions
  • I love stories. And Story.
  • it’s a nice alternative to Black Friday.

We dabbled in this a little bit last year. I interviewed Caroline, Robert and his mother. I remember sitting on the floor of our family room with the laptop going… hmm, I wonder where those sound files are?

This year it will just be the Danas for Thanksgiving weekend, but I’m contemplating a remote session with far-flung family.

The StoryCorps website has some suggested questions such as Who has been the most important person in your life? and What are you proudest of in your life?

Those aren’t bad, but I bet we could come up with some really good ones. Leave your suggestion in comments… here’s one off the top of my head:

It is said that bad decisions make good stories. Can you think of an example from your own life?