A cheery voice always greets me when I call my grandparents.
“Hi, Grandma, This is Danielle” I say–Figuring it is too much to expect her to recognize my voice among those of her five daughters and eight grand-daughters (not to mention grand-daughters-in-law, great grand-daughters, and whomever else).
“Well, what do you know!” She always says, as if she is both surprised and very glad to hear from me.
Phone conversations with my 97-year-old grandmother are always short. She was raised in the day when you paid by the minute; and as a child of immigrants, then a school teacher, and later as a missionary wife with six kids, every penny counted and she counted every penny.
My grandma—Frances is her name—was born in Pennsylvania after the milk man and the nanny to a wealthy family fell in love and got married.
I don’t know why, but her father never showed her affection. The only memories of him I’ve heard her recount are the rather painful birthday spankings he gave her and the stinging disappointment when he wouldn’t let her ride with him and a friend in his friends’ new automobile saying (in her hearing) “well, if we wanted to take a pretty little girl, we wouldn’t take that one.”
Whether he was joking or not, I don’t know. But ninety years later, she hasn’t forgotten those ugly words.
Grandma worked several jobs at a time to put herself through college at Wheaton. She attended at the same time as Billy Graham and recalls going a few times to hear him speak at the “Tab” as they called the Tabernacle.
I’ve heard her tell a few stories of her teaching years, first at a country public school and later at a private boarding school. At the country school, the students would take turns bringing the teachers meals as part of their pay. One of the students brought a live chicken which proved to be a little much for the two “city girl” teachers and their cramped living quarters. Fortunately, one of the other students’ mothers put an end to the indoor “chicken run” chaos by taking the chicken home and bringing it back fried on a platter.
At the boarding school, she counts Elizabeth Elliott among her students; but there were many others over the years she taught. As World War II drew to a close, my grandfather (whom she had gotten to know some at Wheaton) wrote to her from Japan and asked her to marry him. She wrote back and said yes.
Her students and fellow teachers were excited for her but the administration less so when they found out that she was leaving. The headmistress dropped her off with a single suitcase at the train station while the rest of the school was in a chapel service. No thanks. No goodbyes. No well wishes.
“It’s probably for the best.” She told me. “Because I loved teaching. And the next few years would be fairly difficult ones.” As I was, I never looked back.
She left everything she knew for what would soon be a fairly isolated life as a missionary wife in Japan—a several month boat ride away from anything familiar. She didn’t know Japanese. The Japanese didn’t know English. There weren’t grocery stores full of familiar foods or phones to call her family.
Before long, the couple had six kids, a budding church, and a historical opportunity to reach Japanese for Christ. And they did it with all their hearts for thirty years.
I love to hear my grandparents talk about their years in Japan and I love to tell their story—even though I know my knowledge of it is limited to a tiny window into a huge world. There is a lot I don’t know.
But the part that has really struck me recently is not what happened in the past for my grandma, but what is happening in the present. You see, after 30 years on the mission field, they “retired” to jobs in Florida—Grandpa as a property manager/maintenance man and Grandma as a bookkeeper. Then, just before Grandpa turned 80, they “retired” again to Penney Farms, where they volunteered in all manner of other ways—Grandma at sewing service, the resale shop, the dining hall, the assisted living center, and as a Sunday School teacher.
Slowly, in the last few years, Grandma has had to give each of those items up. Her vision got so bad she couldn’t see to sew. Eventually, her legs bothered her enough, she couldn’t do resale, Sunday School, etc. I think she still wraps silverware at the dining hall one morning a week, but things have scaled back greatly. For a while, she enjoyed listening to audio books, but I think now it is hard for her to stay awake for long periods to follow the story line.
Amazingly, Grandma still cooks and does laundry. But otherwise, she spends the majority of her time in her stuffed chair or her bed listening to the Bible on CD.
And her chair is beside the phone. And if I ring that phone, I will hear her cheery voice on the other end.
Because with each season of life, Grandma seems to have mastered the beauty of not looking back. She never whines about the ways her body has limited her activities. She will tell stories if I can get her talking, but she doesn’t longingly brag about who she once was and what she once did. She isn’t bitter about life being reduced to a two room apartment; she seems to embrace the simplicity of it and be willing to let go of the things she can no longer enjoy.
Another woman in my grandma’s shoes might be looking in the rear view mirror at the hard things: the father who was never affectionate, the growing years on a lonely island in the South Pacific, the need to work right up into her 80s. Her quiet life so far from her family.
But instead, with each passing year, I’m more and more amazed at how bravely Grandma looks forward. Praying for her children, her grandchildren, and her great grandchildren. Taking care of my grandpa. Listening to her Bible. Living in an ever-changing, always complicated world and yet letting life become more simple.
When I wasn’t able to get down to Penney Farms for her 97th birthday, she told me about it on the phone in a voice that rivaled a kid at Disney World. Because she is a contented woman with a beautiful life.
I want to be like that.
And maybe there’s hope for me. I can honestly say that I’m glad that God saw fit to keep me single for a longer-than-average length of time. Because it was here, in singleness, that I learned to love life for the beautiful gift that it is. Not waiting for the next season. Not fearing what is to come. Just enjoying the precious present. Because I too have a beautiful, fulfilling life.
Not quite as simple, perhaps. But beautiful just the same. I can look at the future and smile.