Growing up next door to my maternal grandparents turned out to be a gift I never anticipated. When I was young, I thought it was boring to be “stuck” over at their house. As a teenager, the looming chance that they could show up at any point and cramp my style was perceived as a threat. But as I moved away to college, and within a handful of years, became a newlywed, I found my grandparent’s proximity a welcome comfort.
My grandfather lost his battle with lung cancer while I was in high school, but my grandmother continued living in the house he built, across the pond and up the hill from the home my parents constructed from scratch before I was born. My Gran did an excellent job maintaining her independent lifestyle, with the help of her children, and occasionally, from her self-important granddaughters. That is, until she didn’t.
The Beginning of the Decline
Warning signs began to sneak in from all sides: forgetting the questions on Jeopardy, confusion over where bills had been placed, and showing up to a dentist appointment at 9pm instead of 9am, still insisting she was right and that the office was going to open at any minute. Dementia has a confusing way of embedding into the very core of its victim, and our experience with Gran was no different. The woman, who, in my mind, never missed a beat, was walking around in a practically perfect physical body, but without the cognitive focus she prided herself on for a lifetime.
Throughout a slow deterioration, we watched our Gran excuse home care providers, pop in and out of the hospital with vague pain symptoms, and finally, land in an assisted living facility just a few miles away. She kept insisting she would come back home, to watch her azaleas grow and see the Canadian geese land on the pond with the change of seasons. But after suffering a mild stroke, and losing many of her physical strengths, it became clear that would not be the case.
As Gran lost her abilities, both physical and cognitive, I clung tightly to the memories I made throughout my childhood and early adult years. She was quick to offer advice and wisdom, whether requested or not, through our activities together. She showed me how to build a Christmas wreath from the beautiful boxwood she trimmed from the bushes in her yard. As we meticulously placed each branch, she asked about my graduate studies, and how they would match up with my husband’s trajectory. Over popcorn and jellybeans, we watched Gone With The Wind on slow summer nights, commenting on the beautiful fashion and Scarlett’s whirlwind romances.
The Dining Room Table
In the forefront of my mind, all these years later, is time spent around her dining room table. It wasn’t exactly the memory of Sunday lunches with our extended family, or celebratory dinners over tender roast beef. Instead, it was what this table signified for my grandmother, and in it’s own way, what it could symbolize for me moving forward, without her continual presence in my life.
Gran’s dining room table resided in the fancy area of her home, which was connected to a formal seating area to receive guests. The table was made of beautiful solid wood with a walnut finish, complemented by needlepoint seat cushions. The table could easily fit six adults, with more children wedged in between.
Unlike many of her contemporaries, my grandmother was college educated in the midst of World War II and went on to teach at the elementary school where my mother and uncle attended. She was a pioneer, along with her mother and sisters, in forging a home and a career in the same lifetime. She knew that her allegiance was to her family first, but she felt that she could provide a better life for them while simultaneously working.
She bought her dining room set after saving her paychecks for some time, and she swelled with pride when she recounted the story to me. She worked hard, and this table stood as a reminder of that dedication to both her family and her own independent pursuits. She believed in what she did, and loved telling stories about her students, even the bad ones, for many years to come.
Finding a New Home
After Gran had been in assisted living for a couple of years, we decided to rent out her house. For some time, furniture was a necessity for the tenants, so the table remained. But once Gran moved into the memory unit, it became clear she would not be moving back home, as her care was exceeding our abilities. My mother and uncle tackled the task of cleaning out Gran’s house, which I know came with their own heartache.
I mentioned to my mother, on more than one occasion, that I would love to have Gran’s dining room table. Mom quickly reminded me that my home would not be ideal for such a fine piece of furniture. With three small girls underfoot, and one more on the way, the chance of Gran’s table being used for anything nice was slim to none. The tabletop could easily get scratched, or a chair leg broken, or grape juice spilled on the beautiful needlepoint cushions.
I couldn’t shake that I wanted her table: not only to have a beautiful reminder of my family, but also to daily see a source of encouragement. If Gran could balance a career with her family over fifty years ago, there’s no reason I couldn’t do the same today. And if my grandmother wasn’t able to verbally give me the reassurance I desired, then at least a small piece of her could serve as my inspiration.
Once I could materialize an appropriate dining room, my mother and uncle caved, and the gorgeous table came to live with me. For some time, I saw it as a sacred space, which should be honored and kept very, very clean. This resulted in her great-granddaughters not being allowed near it. In fact, I think the only time anyone sat on those needlepoint cushions was for holiday meals, once we spilled over off of the (rather dirty) kitchen table and into the formal dining room.
Then It Became Theirs…
Overtime, as my Gran continued to physically deteriorate, so did my hold on the table. I loosened my grip, allowing one daughter to open birthday presents around the table and having another, on top of piles of towels, construct her class project. But it was my third-born, the spicy, feisty one who challenges my patience and maintains my humility, who took up residence in one of the chairs this year and refused to move.
Meticulously, my daughter constructed Lego villages and Kiwi Crates, practiced her handwriting, and arranged her stuffed animals. With the realization that I was fighting a losing battle, I surrendered, relinquishing the idea that I would carry on my grandmother’s tradition of elegance and formality through this table. Instead, I just prayed I wouldn’t impale myself on a tiny Lego caught in the carpet below.
Feeling exceptionally guilty, I created a plan to recover Gran’s table. I felt the strong need to fill my daughter’s moments of play with respect for this beautiful gift. But, no matter what I tried, my daughter wouldn’t budge. And slowly, all of her sisters joined her, to the point where the entire table was taken over by Legos, craft creations and signs of their childhood. And it was a simple glance, across the crowded table and into the eyes of my four daughters that brought back my most treasured memory with my grandmother.
Back to our Foundation
I grew up in a small country church, down a winding road, pretty much removed from any signs of commercialism. My great-grandparents started attending this church almost a century ago, and it has been at the center of my family’s life ever since. In a building that can only hold seventy-five people, over half of them on a typical Sunday were related to me.
In her retirement, Gran spent lots of time volunteering for our church, and I often tagged along with her. In my early middle school years, Gran took up the job of decorating one of the windows for All Saints Day. As we arranged greenery around St. Francis, she spoke of the importance of being a caregiver. She reminded me that God has given each of us gifts, and wanted to instill in me that I would find my true joy if I used the gifts He had given me.
After the window was completed to her satisfaction, Gran reached over to the Book of Common Prayer in the pew. She methodically turned the yellowed pages until she found what she was looking for, and read aloud The Prayer Attributed to St. Francis.
I can still hear her voice, all these years later, as I watch my daughters learn the give and take of our most vital relationships, around their Gran’s table.
Lord, make us instruments of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let us sow love.
Where there is injury, pardon.
Where there is discord, union.
Where there is despair, hope.
Where there is darkness, light.
Where there is sadness, joy. (p.833)
I realized that, if my daughters can come around this table to learn how to work together, to support one another, and to receive the peace they need from our home to take it back out into the world, then maybe that’s what Gran would have wanted most of all. She wouldn’t look to the scattered Legos or piles of stuffed animals, but would instead see the next generation of her family, learning all the values she held dear.
And as their mother, it is my greatest responsibility, and pleasure, to nurture them as they adopt these values. To provide space and a haven where they can return, as they live and learn all that the world has to teach them. And to welcome them, with all of their strengths, as well as their shortcomings, back home again.
We might clean it off from time to time, for holidays or large family meals, but Gran’s table is has morphed from a formality to a sanctuary. It is no longer a place reserved for special occasions, but instead, is a space that is fully alive, integrated into our daily routine as we raise our girls.
And honestly, I think it would make Gran smile.