The other day, as I dug through the books on my shelves, I came across a book I have thought of a lot lately, a book like no other.
It’s the little book of Poetry, written by my grandmother, BHK. We’ll call her Beth. Beth died when I was 16, of breast cancer. Her death was one of those that didn’t sit well with anyone. No one said, “Well, it was just her time to go.”
Everyone was more like, “Why did she have to go so soon?”
It was Christmas, and she was only 56. You see, that’s another reason some of us have never been the same on Christmas. There’s more to our Charlie Brown-ness than just commercialism.
To make it worse, Christmas was HER THING. No, really. She owned Christmas, I tell you. She made such a display of decorating her house that she won town awards.
(I’m going to do that this year, too, Grandma! I’m going all out!)
Beauty was her gift. Beautiful Beth. She had a house full of beautiful ceramics, all created by Beth, all perfectly arranged and well kept. Her closet was full of hand-made clothes, mostly dresses. She was prissy, frilly, sarcastic, and fun. Sitting down with a good book, a glass of un-sweet tea, and a cigarette, that’s how we’ll always picture her.
You won’t believe me when I tell you this, but by the time I was born, she wore false eye lashes every single day, and perfume. I used to stand in her bathroom for 30 minutes at a time, just gazing at the fantastic display of Avon perfumes, tiny ceramic pitchers and people, and her unmatched and always tidy collection of make-up.
Grandpa used to jokingly imitate her answering the phone saying, “Hello, this is Beth,” in THE most feminine voice you can imagine.
I loved her so. I often have thought about what it was that made me love her as much as I did, and I think part of it was because she was purposeful in spending time with us. We spent a week at her house each summer, and she would play board games with us kids for hours. She and our grandpa took us to the beach, to Six Flags, to the zoo, to movies, and thrift store shopping. From MawMaw (another name that we called her) I learned the fine art that is bargain hunting.
She used to write me letters, and I would write her back. I kept all of them. I’d love to come across those! She kept my letters too, so I also have those now.
She knew how to get along well with people. She was accepting.
Oh! And did I mention her vast collection of books! Well, obviously, she spoke the language of my heart! There were even times when she owned little book stores, but always there was her downstairs library, wall to wall with books. And scrapbooks! I think we counted about 198 scrapbooks.
At 4 foot 10, or was it 11, I hate how memories fade, she was the first grown-up that any of us kids caught up to.
The year she died was the same year that she announced to us that she had breast cancer, but by then, she’d already had it for two years. She had kept it a secret. I cannot imagine how. I never could, but by the time we found out, it had already moved to her bones. She was eaten up with it. It was only a couple of months after she broke the cancer news to us that she was gone.
We spent that Christmas vacation a couple of hours from home, so Mom could be by her side. We slept at my aunt’s house. I still remember the overwhelming heart break of the visitation service the evening before the funeral.
I sat in a chair near the casket, sixteen years old, losing one of the pillars of my life. I couldn’t take my mind off all the people around me making small talk about the weather. I was suffocating in my thoughts, and I just wanted to make them all be quiet or go away. How could they talk so carelessly? I could barely breathe, and when I couldn’t take it another minute, I ran out to my parents’ minivan, climbed inside, closed the doors, and bawled alone.
I don’t know how any of them figured out that I was there, but one by one, my brother, my mother, and my father all came out and sat in the van with me.
And it turned into one of the sweetest, most comforting moments in my life. There is something about sharing grief with the people who know, who get it, who have lost as much as you have. There is something about it that bonds you like glue and heals hurts deep inside.
I remember saying that I just couldn’t get past the fact that they were going to bury her, my dear little grandma, into the ground. I could not stand the thought of her being put down there and covered with dirt.
“Oh, April. That’s just her body. That’s nothing to her. Her spirit is in Heaven. She is with God, and we will see her again. That’s just her body. Don’t worry about that.”
I don’t remember what else was said, but for some reason, in the midst of my very first great loss, these were the words that I needed to hear. Even more so, I needed the comfort of sitting in the van, just me and the three most important people in my life.
But I’m not going to share this heart-rending story with you, and leave you feeling sad. I would never do that. You know I wouldn’t.
Here is one of my favorite little passages from Beth’s book of poetry. It isn’t a poem. Just wise words from a much loved sinner turned saint.
MY SECRET FOR HAPPINESS
I have a secret for happiness I’d like to share with you.
When you awake in the morning, think of three things you are looking forward to. Remember life’s simple pleasures are often best. They don’t have to be big occasions.
When you retire at night, reflect on three good things about that day.
You’re sure to smile and be happy. by BHK
Try her suggestion, I dare you.