As I start this column, I'm in a hotel room in Baltimore, Md., just outside of BWI airport, having had my flight back to Jackson canceled repeatedly for the past two days because the airport had no power and water. I'm watching the Weather Channel and CNN and checking in to post things on the JFP Web site, because I'm the only member of the staff with Internet access. Or power. The devastation on the Gulf Coast and in New Orleans is heartbreaking and, seemingly, getting worse by the hour.
I came to Maryland last weekend for my grandmother's funeral. She was 95 and an amazing woman: resilient and determined in her independence despite her stature—well under 5 feet tall and easily less than half my weight—but always maintaining her driver's license and her independent life in her country home in Carroll County, Md., at least until things got too bad around the spring of this year.
Had I been asked to eulogize her (I wasn't, as that task fell to my uncle, a Brethren minister), I would probably have said something about how my grandmother often reminded me of the "real" world. She was born in 1910 and had seen a lot—World Wars, depressions, children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. Her brothers and her husband died of smoking and alcoholism-related illnesses. She attended the first and 75th of her family reunions; she'd seen a great deal of change and outlived nearly all of her contemporaries.
My world, on the other hand, has always seemed to persist with less-than-real things—computers, television, restaurants, bars, adventurous moves from city to city.
I often think of my Grandma when I sit down to dinner and the one phrase of hers that will remain indelible in my memory for my entire life. "S'good! Eat!" she used to say, usually when she detected one of her grandchildren picking at an unfamiliar green vegetable or on the rare occasion that she tried to serve one of us liver. That memory sparks another one—you never got a dessert plate in my grandmother's house; your dessert was "going to the same place" as your supper, so you "derned well" could eat it from the same plate.
I saw my grandmother often when I was younger, sometimes for weeks during the summer, and then more intermittently as I got older and moved away from home, went to college and then eventually left Texas, where she would visit often because both my mother and aunt lived there. Later, after my mother had moved to Florida, I saw my grandmother there with her; still later, when Donna and I lived in New York, we got a chance to see my grandmother whenever we managed to make the quick drive down I-95, through Baltimore's maze of loops until you get to Maryland highway 140, headed to New Windsor.
Once in late spring Donna and I drove through New Windsor when the pear trees were in bloom, and it looked like it was snowing those bright white blooms in the quaint old town, which was founded in the 1790s and boomed in the 1820s, meaning the population swelled into the hundreds. Calvert College was founded in the 1850s and later became the Brethren Center, where my mother stayed a few times in the past few months as my grandmother became more feeble and she was moved to an assisted-living center. New Windsor was a bit more mystical and, at the same time, more real to me than the places I lived.
When our family gathered for the funeral, the one thing missing was the inevitable parade of group photos; Grandma was responsible for the picture taking, so much so that one of the enduring photo moments of her was a picture Donna took at my brother's rehearsal dinner a few years back—a picture of my grandmother taking a picture. We had it blown up and framed and gave it to her during her surprise 90th birthday party, which was held in the Fellowship Hall at the church in New Windsor; easily over 100 people attended.
The last time I saw Grandma, she was still living alone in her house in Marston, just down a country highway from New Windsor, and she still insisted on taking us to Cactus Willie's in Westminster, although she had me drive her car. Cactus Willie's was an all-you-can-eat food bar where we could get by quite nicely as vegetarians, and she could get a little food to push around on her plate, and a cup of black coffee.
When we returned to her home that night, we learned that Grandma's "telephone friend," an elderly gentleman with whom she shared regular conversations, had passed away that week. We tried to console her, but it was difficult to watch a woman whose life had been rich with friends mourn the loss of one of the last.
The funeral was, of course, most notable for the family that it brought together—I'm the eldest of my grandmother's nine grandchildren, even if I do have the most unkempt hair. With my brother and cousins, I served proudly and quietly as a pallbearer for the first time in my life. I've been to only a handful of funerals, including my grandfather's in 1982, which may well have been the last time this entire branch of the family was together; this time my cousins were older, and it was my nephew and cousins once removed who were the babies and toddlers.
Back in Jackson, I realize that I'm very lucky given the problems that others have around us, from locals who had more extensive damage or injury sustained from high winds and fallen trees to the "refugees" who are staying in places like the Mississippi Coliseum or the Superdome. And the truth about the devastation on the Coast and in New Orleans seems only to be getting worse as we get a better sense.
It's been a full week of "real life" for many of us, and I'm certainly blessed that my personal circumstances aren't as bad as the thousands of people who are without shelter or who are missing loved ones. Our hopes and prayers at the JFP are with you.
It's a time, perhaps, when we need the strength that was shown to us by women like my Grandma, and probably your parents or grandparents as well. It's a time when real life has intruded, a horrific disaster has taken place, and all we can do is work together to find strength.