Editor’s note: This is part two of a two-part series. Read part one here.
Fast-forward to “Granny’s” 98th birthday. For the event, several of us traveled to the motherhouse in Indiana where she’d retired with many of her friends. Even in old age, they were still remarkably gracious ladies. Within minutes of our arrival, a cart appeared with sandwich fixings, cold drinks and beer. (They’d never been overly pious, these veterans of tough missions.) One sister spoke fondly of her work with H’mong refugees, who in gratitude had given her a H’mong name which translated to “Sister Umbrella.” The umbrella not only symbolized their new life in the U.S., but also her kind protection, shelter in a strange place.
May aunt was almost totally deaf, but she didn’t let that isolate her. At the slightest provocation she’d launch into hysterical stories, like her puzzlement when a poor family in San Antonio had gratefully brought the sisters a live chicken. Or the time the bishop, thrilled with his new television, invited the sisters to share the wealth. Unfortunately, their little town didn’t yet have a channel, so they tried to sit appreciatively through snow on the screen and static in the air. Later, when he’d watch his cowboy shows upstairs, her job was distracting visitors for an hour, trying to convince them he was praying, and disguising the thrumming of horse hooves overhead.
A frequent refrain when she described her many kinds of service: “it was such a privilege.” Never a complaint, when there must have been plenty of irritations, frustrations and tragedies. She quoted a hymn which might sound cheesy now, but which fit her perfectly: What more could Jesus do? How many more blessings could there be? Many of her friends had died, but she reveled in the present moment. Even in her walker, she gave us a tour that exhausted the young folk, and made sure we had our afternoon snack of cookies and Cokes. Bent over with osteoporosis, she nevertheless bent even further to touch the arm of a sister whose mind was fine but whose body was almost paralyzed. As she made a “date” for a chat later, she was the portrait of compassion.
The large campus which the sisters run is noted for its hospitality. In cooperation with Lutheran Services, they offer retreats for women veterans returning from deployment. How peaceful it must be, I thought, after Iraq or Afghanistan: these gardens, beehives, ponds and grasslands. Each sister, living or dead, has a tree with her name hanging on a small plaque on the trunk. For Arbor Day, local schoolchildren identify the wide variety of trees, hike through areas set aside for conservation, and take home their own sapling. Their labyrinth is open to all and many have entered this form of moving meditation that dates back to medieval cathedrals. The morning I walked it, grass, leaves and pine needles were gleaming with tiny drops from a recent rain. Each branch, each step bejeweled: it must have been an image for the life of grace, the kind of lives these sisters had so gratefully embraced.
To look back over 98 years with obvious joy and appreciation must be a great gift. Always the Irish storyteller with perfect timing and cadence, Granny loved to embellish precious memories and entertain a new, youthful audience. She even bragged about the Babe Ruth autograph she’d gotten on a baseball, waiting outside the ballpark as a girl. But the story she told most proudly was of a small, shy boy, asking her to be his grandma. Now 37, he got misty-eyed, as did his wife, who was hearing it for the first time.