Friday, January 02, 2015

Grandma Lois

When I was young I remember coming to that bit at the back of the New Testament where Paul is telling Timothy to live into his grandmother’s legacy of sincere and living faith. There was nothing lost in translation for me. I needed no more than her name. My Grandma is Lois too.

Lois Coutts died this week, a picture of grace. Her funeral was today. I was on the wrong side of the ocean to take much part, but was glad to know my brother was giving a great tribute from us grandchildren. When he asked for some input I found I had more to say than time would allow, so for what its worth, here are my reflections in full.

This September: Last photo with both my Coutts grandparents.
Grandpa and Grandma’s house on Oxford Street was the best place on earth. The anticipation of that drive up 16th Avenue was almost unbearable. It seemed to stretch on and on, and the heart would race when we saw the tell-tale skyline of White Rock appear on the hill ahead. Our cousins would meet us there. Grandpa would be sure to give us each a quarter. We’d shoot pool and horseshoes, watch the fireworks from the balcony, put on plays for the adults, and holiday under the blessing of Grandma’s smile.

Grandma was always encouraging—which is all the more impressive when you remember that she managed to be encouraging even when she was letting you know she didn’t approve of something. If I suggested throwing a brother’s toy off the balcony, for example, she’d toss her head back in a short burst of laughter as if she truly didn’t believe I was capable of such atrocity. It was as if she was truly shocked by my gall, and was dressing her gut-reaction in a smile. It was convincing. I can’t recall ever being guilted by her.

She was so kind and encouraging you just wanted desperately not to disappoint her. She probably didn’t realize how much her kindness motivated us to be good. I can imagine her losing sleep praying over us. I would feel bad about that, except she gave no reason to think she was fearful or sad.

Grandma was poised. One time she was taking care of the five of us kids for a few days while my folks were away, back when we lived in Sardis, BC. Given that Grandpa did most of the driving for the two of them, I imagine she was hoping not to have to drive us anywhere--especially because our family's stick-shift grand caravan was not easy to master. But we kids would have balked at the thought of missing a ball hockey practice, so, she drove us. No complaints. It was the slowest, most cautious drive any of us can recall--apart from our own first days with a learner’s license later on, when in that same mini-van we came to realize how calm and even courageous our Grandma had been.

Grandma and Grandpa frequently included us in their anniversaries. I remember cakes and sandcastles in their honour—one depicting them kissing—and I can think of a couple pretty cool weekends where the only reason for our gathering was to celebrate their everlengthening marriage. Sixteen years into my own marriage now, I appreciate where they set the bar.

Grandma wasn’t shy about kissing Grandpa. I’m glad for that. She would chide him too. Lovingly of course. I can still hear her lilting ‘Mel!’ if he had taken the joking a touch too far. She had a knack for preserving the joy of the fun. More than once her gracious intervention saved me from death of laughter at Grandpa’s tickling.

I can still see Grandma poking her head around the corner to see what Grandpa is yelling at on Hockey Night in Canada. Usually a marvellous play commentated by Bob Cole, or an obnoxious comment from Don Cherry. Whether we played hockey in the basement, on the street or on the ice, each of us grandsons found joy in making beautiful plays. How much of that was for our grandparents? For all the times we played baseball or football in the backyard at my cousin’s house, I know it was most fun when Grandma was up on the balcony giggling at us.

This isn’t about rosy nostalgia, these memories were somehow formative for us. Grandma made a safe space for us to find our way in this world, and gifted us with a sense of being loved and appreciated.

As an adult there was a sense of pride each time I could introduce first my wife and then each of our four sons to Grandma. There was never any doubt of their acceptance by her, but it was nonetheless a sacred moment to find oneself playing cards with the grandparents, just like old times except this time with new family members in the fold—each of them added as if they’d always belonged.

In adulthood there’s been a foretaste of this grief as we’ve darted this way and that and seen Grandma and Grandpa less and less over the years. What’s remarkable is that we’d be with them again for no more than a minute and would feel as if we’d never left. They’d prayed for us as faithfully that morning as they’d done each day since we saw them last.

I’m a doctor of theology now, but I’ve never quite figured out prayer. I’d probably give up, except Grandma’s life holds it out like an unsolved mystery. More than once I’ve wondered if something went well or some disaster was averted as a direct result of my Grandma’s prayers. I don’t know what that says about god—would he sit there aloof if not for the earnest promptings of an eighty-year-old on her knees?—but I do know what it says about Grandma’s faithfulness and love. And what it says about Grandma in that regard it says about God.

Throughout life there were scattered occasions—one quite recently—where we sat in church with Grandma and Grandpa and could hear them belting out the hymns, could see them dropping their money in the offering, could feel the cloud of witnesses impressing itself upon our lives.

It will be hard to live without Grandma; without the comforting knowledge that she’s living and breathing on this earth somewhere. It does help to imagine her ‘in a better place’, but for me this is not the time for that. We look forward to the reconciliation of all things—but there’s a blessing for those who mourn.

This is the time to grieve; to stop with Jesus at Lazarus’ tomb and express indignance that Grandma is gone. We didn’t deserve her, but now that we’ve had her we’ll not pretend to be glad to be letting her go.

There’s been an accompanying sadness as we’ve watched her health diminish; watched her grow frailer. We’re grateful she had her wits about her to the end. She was bright in every sense of the word. The world is surely a shade darker today.

This September when my family said goodbye to Grandma before our move to England, it occurred to us it could be farewell. I feel robbed that we didn’t know for sure, because I’d have said a proper goodbye. I’d have told her I feel honoured to be returning to the part of my heritage that is hers.

Sometime in the upcoming months we will venture over to East England and visit the villas of Tonbridge Kent and Enfield, where Grandma’s mother and father were born. We had meant to do this while she was alive so we could send her pictures of the homeland to which a part of her line had returned. Now we’ll do so with a tinge of sadness, as our memorial this side of the sea, as a pilgrimage under a dreary gray English sky. But there will be a profound sense of happiness too, because we know that through Grandma the Creator turned his face toward us and gave us peace.

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