What Would Grandma Say?

This essay is a letter that has been written for children whose grandmother died last year, at the age of 67.

Dear children,

This last March marked the one-year anniversary of the death of my mother (and your grandmother). I ask myself: how shall I remember her life and grieve her passing? Every human being must die. Yet the certainty of death does not make it any easier to accept.

What do we mourn, when we mourn the death of someone we love? Sometimes death cuts short a life full of potential and promise. Other times, we feel the loss in a very tangible way, in the loss of wisdom and advice about life. We can no longer ask them about the important decisions and hard choices we make, whether a choice of friends, a field of study, or a potential spouse. Life can be hard to handle, and we’re dependent on others for their help in living well. Thus, when a wise person dies, we mourn not only for them but for ourselves.

This essay is my attempt to mourn my mother through a meditation on her wisdom. Mothers are the world’s most underrated philosophers. They are keen students of human nature, having observed from youth all our talents and potential as well as our foibles and deeply ingrained faults. No one ponders over the ancient question of nature or nurture as much as mothers do. Mothers think deeply about the nature, meaning, and specific application of parental and filial obligations. They directly contribute to the practical and intellectual education of their children. My mother was not a philosopher, but she possessed a settled philosophy of life that we can learn from.

First, let’s think a bit: what does it mean to be wise? Wisdom concerns above all the kind of person you are, or want to be, the kind of life you should live – the one in accord with human nature and the world as they really are, not simply as we wish they were. How to live: that’s something of stupendous importance. In fact, it’s probably the most important concern you will ever have. And you’ll have a lot of choices. One becomes an adult, a grown-up, when they settle on one way of life, one kind of person, to the exclusion of all other options. Life isn’t like an amusement park, where you can go on all the rides.

Mom taught me my first lesson on human freedom: the world isn’t arbitrarily divided into good and bad people. No, we ourselves choose to be good and bad. Though forces outside our control do influence us, such as our family, the liberty to make choices is just about the highest privilege and the gravest responsibility that a human being can have. Your choices do more than allow you to chart a path in life; they actually shape who you are. In every moment, in choosing this or that course of action, you’re choosing what kind of person you want to be and then becoming a bit more like that person. So, when you sit down for four hours of college football on a given Saturday afternoon, you take a small step toward becoming a couch potato.

When you are younger, you may want to be good just so you can stay out of trouble. That’s fine. As you get older, however, you will see that character matters just as much for your own happiness as it does for the people around you. You will want to look at your life and be happy with it. It sounds cheesy to say it, but you will want to fundamentally approve of yourself. But as you strive to become something noble, which isn’t the easiest thing by the way, you’ll increasingly find yourself asking more questions and looking for help.

My mother knew that there is a real art to living life. She would be only too happy to help you out. I recall once reading in her diary, “I resolve to speak the truth as frankly and kindly as possible.” The sad thing about her Alzheimer’s disease, however, was that it slowly stripped her of the ability to speak the truth. We all watched helplessly as the woman we knew disappeared. As each successive layer of her personality was stripped away, I remember chastising myself for not taking full advantage of an ability or thought that, as time went on, she lost in the relentless drumbeat of the disease. Her Alzheimer’s served as a continual reminder that I had not sufficiently appreciated her unique gifts and perspective. So, both for your sake and mine, let’s recover her forgotten wisdom. I will attempt to distill some of that wisdom without distorting it too much – a challenge for a political theorist.

Let the Light of Your Countenance Shine

The world is full of scowlers. Mom was a smiler. She smiled frequently because she knew that the mouth is a window into the soul. Out of the fullness of the heart the mouth speaks, Scripture says, and how true that is. When she smiled, her face (the outside of her) reflected something inside of her. In a cynical age, she possessed a joy-filled heart. Why?

She knew a basic truth: the world is either a comedy, in which everything ends with laughter – the musical notes of merriment, or a tragedy, one that concludes with wailing and grinding of teeth. The world is a comedy if, among other things, our existence means something. A tragic world is one that means nothing at all, in which existence is pointless and life hardly worth living for a rational creature that knows this pointlessness. Mother firmly believed that life is worth living, but also that meaning is something we find or discover. All attempts to create meaning for ourselves give way to these two possibilities: joyous participation in something bigger than us, in which all meaning comes to us as a gift, or the exhausted and hollow aggrandizement of the self. Because she fundamentally accepted her creatureliness, she could have joy in a world of cynical and joyless self-promotion.

This belief that life is worth living as a creature allowed Mom to see beauty in the world. She was not an aesthete but a simple and humble appreciator of the created order. More than anyone I knew, she delighted in the simple things: a flower opening in the sun, the cool waters of Lake Michigan, a nature walk. Like Adam before the fall, she was a gardener. She loved things because she loved the source of all things. No doubt she offended a fair number of people who never let anything please them, or who are pleased only by themselves. Mother radiated a simple joy in creation that was God’s own, as G.K. Chesterton says in Orthodoxy:

“Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.”

The comic has a realistic orientation but also a sense of how things should be. It is this difference or incongruence between what is, and what should be, that makes us laugh. Laughter is philosophic, it is rational. Mother’s ability to laugh, the sheer frequency of her laughter, reflected her ambition to order her life in the light of God’s truth, and to make reason the master of her emotions. To laugh at ourselves is to see our personal incongruence with the order of things. So, the trait of not taking yourself too seriously is related to your ability to see the whole of reality. When we seek wisdom, we’re searching for this elusive knowledge about the whole of things, and the relation of that whole to our particular lives.

Laughter is also a human response to the mysteriousness of being. We laugh because we fail to comprehend ourselves and others. Mystery causes laughter: we laugh because we do not understand. It is an admission of human weakness and fragility, and dignity, all at the same time. My mother’s last words were part of an imagined conversation. She lay there on her hospice bed, eyes closed, and chuckled, “That is something I will never understand.” I wonder what it was that she confessed to not understanding! It was a remarkable statement for a woman who struggled with Alzheimer’s for a full decade. That night, she slipped into a coma, never to regain consciousness. She died a few days later.

The upshot: no dentist will improve your face if it’s missing a smile. But if you have a happy soul, you’d better be happy on the basis of some reason or belief that you’re willing to live and die for, not because you’re filled with bubbles. Mom knew that comedy abounds where there is reason for living. I appreciated mom’s readiness to laugh. She was always open to the comic – notwithstanding some very difficult times in her own life.

Read Good Stories

Mom’s love for knowledge affected me from a very early age. She taught me how to read. I quite clearly remember sounding out my letters in a giant blue book – one of my first and most precious memories. She taught me to equate the joy of reading with the thrill of discovery. That was no small achievement, and I’m grateful to her for grooming my appetites in a way that would conduce to liberal learning later on. In moments of boredom, I would return to her bookshelf as such a place of excitement and discovery. I would find in them new worlds, but ones which resembled my own world in important ways.

Of course, Mom knew that reading is one easy and pleasurable way to get ahead in this world. Mostly, however, she loved the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. Or, to put it differently, she most loved to learn the best and most useless things. God was at the top of the list. God is simultaneously the best and most useless thing. I say this with care. God is good-in-himself, worth knowing not primarily for what he gives us (even salvation!) but because he is the end. The very point of salvation itself is unity and life with him. As God says to Moses: “I am.”

Hell, by contrast, is a utilitarian place: every last person is used, useful, servile: always a means and never an end. Hell is not just life without God, but life without possibility of what God is: a final end, purpose, and fulfillment to which our intellect points. If it excites you to think a new thought about the noble things, then you would have liked mom.

Mom loved knowledge without being a mere cataloguer of information. She knew the difference between knowing information and being a knower. Having read deeply and well, and knowing the power of a good question, she allowed the good books (so say nothing of the Good Book!) to influence her and shape her imagination of the best way of life. So, her humility became the gateway to a vibrant intellectual life. Her habit of discussing books with others, her view that reading ought to be a social endeavor rather than an escape, shaped me profoundly.

I must mention a few of those books and authors she loved – the ones that found a permanent place on the bookshelf. She loved A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh, Eleanor Nesbitt’s The Children and It, the Laura Ingalls series, Alice in Wonderland, Hilda van Stockum’s Mitchell Family books, Beverly Cleary, and Roald Dahl. She had a huge store of Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, and Boxcar Children stories for us to read. As I grew older and more serious, I read Anne of Green Gables, Stephen Crane’s Red Badge of Courage, Grahame’s Wind in the Willows, Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book, Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter, Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, and virtually anything by Charles Dickens. I found some more historical books that exposed me to real instances of human greatness and tragedy, such as Corrie ten Boom’s Hiding Place or the lives of the saints as told by Mary Windeatt.

My mother loved Lord of the Rings and the Chronicles of Narnia. I share that love, and it is a matter of some sadness for me that I never discussed those works with her in a very robust or complete way. I do recall once asking her about why she liked the Tolkien trilogy. Mom replied that she loved the goodness of the characters. The good guys stunned you with their virtue. She thoroughly appreciated one of Tolkien’s most memorable characters, Faramir, for his heroism, wisdom, and stout resistance to evil. She thought that literature needs unbelievable moral heroes, not believable average bums. I think she regarded Gollum as important too. The point of a book is not to show yourself, but to help you see how dreadful or godlike you may become.

Mom had a few surefire methods to get me reading. She would begin by reading the book out loud, knowing full well that the first chapters would incurably hook me. I would then race ahead and finish the book on my own. She also used boredom to her advantage, knowing that the bored child will not only read a book, but to read it again and again in the way that Chesterton describes. She never thought it her duty to entertain us, something I struggle with as a parent myself. In my search for entertainment as a kid, I frequently stumbled on something good and ennobling, and found some books worth returning to. I think it hugely significant that I discovered beautiful books outside of a school curriculum, on my own time and in my own home. I read them entirely by choice, or at least the illusion of choice (I was bored, after all!), free from the coercive glares or desperate pleadings of a middle school teacher.

Incredibly, my mother kept reading all through her dementia. As the disease progressed, she read books for younger and younger children. By the end, she was reading picture books with a few words on them. As her death approached, she ended up with the books that she loved most: children’s literature. I shall never forget this.

Become a Friend of God

Mother loved friendship and desired to be a good friend. Because of this, she had many friends. In an age that glorifies romantic love as the highest thing, my mother lauded friendship and suspected that it might be the highest kind of relationship. I know this because she sought to be friends with God and described her relationship to God as one of friendship.

What do we do for a friend? We look forward to seeing them. We speak well of them in public and private. We want their good and we make their concerns our own. We can be friends with God in Christ, and that means that we enjoy God’s company. Do you enjoy God’s company? Do you know what his company is like? The fact that we cannot enjoy God fully in this life is no reason to avoid his society altogether, which too many people make a habit of doing. As a friend of God, she believed in his faithfulness through thick and thin: an article of faith in this uncertain world.

As a young child, my mother taught me a profound lesson. Most Sundays after prayer meetings, we would stop at the local country market for a few groceries on the way home. Once, as dad shopped, mom and I sat together in the car. I asked a question that had been troubling me for some time. I wanted to know whether we – mere laypeople – could talk about God, or if it was the province of priests only. She responded, “God loves it when we think and talk about him.” He loves when we ponder his nature. He beautifies every thought spent on him. In her own quiet way, by example and by speech, Mom showed not only that revelation is rightly the inheritance of every human, but that through Jesus and in the power of the Holy Spirit, we can know the creator first-hand.

Mom’s confidence in this truth enabled her to life freely and joyfully for God. In a talk given to a Christian women’s conference, Mom described her relationship with God in this way, paraphrasing St. Gregory of Nyssa: “This is true perfection: not to avoid punishment like slaves or desire for reward. Rather, we seek the friendship of the Lord for its own sake.”

When you go to college, you’ll hear people talk about rights: what’s owed to you. Beyond rights, there lies the realm of duty: what you owe to others. My mother lived according to a third category, love, and specifically the love of friends. She recognized that love for God goes far beyond the duty we owe him. She was deeply Augustinian. Love of God transcends the demand “You must!” and even the question “Must I?”, by asking “May I?”. It anticipates the needs of others and does not wait to be asked for something. It is the love of the Lord who washes our feet.

Her life was one of reciprocating this love and becoming thereby ennobled by its humility. In a sign of this, she made a frequent practice of massaging, bathing, and pedicuring my father’s arthritic feet. Sorry, Dad. It must be told of her: the beautiful things she did for you and for God, in the love she sought – and found – in friendship.

The Superiority of Christian Detachment

There’s one more lesson that I’ll relate to you. Mother learned to let go of the things of this world, and lay hold of God. This doesn’t mean the world is bad, or that you should withdraw from its problems and opportunities. But it does mean that you should possess the things, and that the things should not possess you. Mother paid careful attention to the akedah, the story of Abraham and the binding of his son Isaac. God called Abraham to sacrifice his most precious son, the promised one for whom Abraham had waited many years. It was an extraordinary test. Abraham is called the father in faith because of his response: “You have not withheld from me your son, your only son,” says God. One almost senses in God an admiration for Abraham and an inner plan to match that deed.

The lessons of the akedah are many, but mother took from it a spiritual aim: to live in freedom from possessiveness. Abraham’s test rid his inner heart of the words “me” and “mine.” Abraham knew that he owned nothing. He knew his real treasure was inward and eternal, in God himself and not in the things God gives.

The conviction and determination to be less possessive pervaded my mother’s life. It started with motherhood and family. She loved us all with a light touch. Her detachment, her refusal to control us, allowed us to do God’s will to the best of our ability, even when this imposed certain costs on her (loneliness, feeling unneeded at times, etc). She allowed us to experience the consequences of our behavior, and this not simply in cases of major disobedience but even when we were forgetful or inattentive. I sometimes forgot my lunch at home, as kids do. After a warning, she simply refused to bring my lunch to school. Not only was this a shrewd parental strategy (she knew hunger would inculcate responsibility better than any words of hers!), it was a way to practice letting go of her child. You may be surprised to learn that parenting sanctifies the parents even more than it does the children! Mother saw in parenting many opportunities to let go of the world and lay hold on God.

Mom held her possessions lightly, too. Despite growing up in one of America’s wealthiest counties, Mom exhibited not just simplicity but a blessed freedom. When you’re in college, you’ll probably read some Marx. Marx shows that you don’t have to be religious to be appalled at consumerism: “Every product is a bait with which to seduce away the other’s very being!”. But Mom showed me that the opposite of consumerism is not the equal distribution of things. It is the freedom from slavery to things, which is a freedom for God and a treasuring of what cannot be taken away. So, we never had much junk. We never had that many snacks in the pantry, either, a fact which I rather bemoaned as a growing teenager.

I remember her speaking with admiration about a friend of hers who sold everything she owned, down to the family art, to raise money for a missionary journey to Africa. That woman sold her possessions with good cheer. Selling one’s stuff without regret, in fulfillment of the Great Commission: this action spoke to the depths in mom. She was justly famous for her purges of toys, clothes, and luxuries that we could live without. No thing was sacred. Partly she purged for cleanliness and order in the household, but there was a spiritual point too. The Lord encouraged her to let go of things, even nice things, as a way of getting a grip on her desires. She would encourage you to live like that, too. As she once said, why worry about the stuff in your life? Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes?

Finally, mom learned to let go of her own abilities and the esteem of others. This “letting go” was the final task in life for a talented and respected woman – and it may well be the final task of your life, too. As a person who valued friendship so highly, she let go of other people’s opinions as her abilities declined. Early-onset Alzheimer’s disease exposed her to abandonment by others who did not understand her situation or who did not have time and patience for her. This silent suffering of being misunderstood, of being invisible, regarded as a non-person and disposable, was mom’s constant companion in her last years. Even my father, who loved her faithfully to the very end, did not understand her sufferings completely. There are groans too deep for words. Have you ever felt that? My mother did.

She endured it with good grace, but hardly passively. She wrestled with the Lord like Jacob in the desert, crying, “I will not let go until you bless me!” After her death, my siblings and I found a passage underlined in her bible that indicated her attitude. Psalm 142 says, “Bring me out of prison, that I may praise your name.” Her prison was deep and dark indeed. Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord! Hear my voice. That was my mother’s prayer. I profess in hope that the Lord has not only restored her to herself, but lavished upon her glory and honor that more than recompense her loss on earth. Because there is no justice in this life, we who believe depend on Him who is justice and mercy incarnate.

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