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Nana 6 (Race and Ethnicity and Culture and Religion and Trauma)

I have hesitated to write the following as a brief post, filled with topics which could each comprise a tome of thousands of pages, but our precious granddaughter will arrive in the next few days and I will be penning observations in which all of them will feature, so I’ll provide some background now.  I am more of an observer and storyteller than I am philosopher or theologian, so I will be narrating and commenting, rather than seeking to create some overarching political statement.  And I will do the best I can to stick to my own story, as other stories belong to other individuals.

My son and his fiancée are the same age, 34, but their lives have followed different paths.  When they were seven, he was a Montessori first grader in the middle of the United States, secure and happy and enamored of sharks and dinosaurs.  She was a member of a large family and growing up in a Somali village, to which the violence and destructiveness of civil war and terror came, as it did to the rest of her country.  As a refugee, her journey took her from Somalia to Djibouti to Italy and finally to France, where she ultimately grew up with a foster family.  She and my son met when he was a college student spending the summer in Lyons, where she was working.  In the next decade, she married and had a son and divorced, and a few years ago they discovered one another again.

Now they find themselves in a world turned upside down by racial and ethnic and religious and cultural conflict — not that it hasn’t always been so, but the fears generated by certain political leaders ands groups in this country and in Europe and Africa exacerbate the natural challenges of creating a family in which so many different backgrounds and expectations and hopes present themselves. We are now a family of many colors; of England and Germany and Wales and Somalia; of Christianity and Islam; and of losses and stories untold.

May the tiny girl on her way be a source of joy who energizes the family into which she arrives.  And for her sake and for her generation’s, may we meet the challenges ahead with love and hope and laughter and a sense of boundless possibility.


Nana ~ 5 (Distance)

Distance.  Something we used to accommodate with some ease.

Americans like to emphasize close-knit, geographically proximate families but, in fact, many of us who are white westerners or Asians are descendants of people who departed home and family thousands of miles away with no expectation of seeing then again.  And those of us who are black and are descendants of slaves, forced arrivals to these shores, can add ancestral trauma to the family inheritance.

My own family seemed stable to me as I grew up, with several generations reaching back through Ohio farmland.  But I went off to boarding school at the age of twelve, and then to college in New England.  I didn’t give much thought to returning home for marriage or career or family.  In fact, my basic plan involved an adult life far from my family of origin.  My grandmothers were dear to me, but my stepmother growing up was not.

As a parent, though, I sought to create stability for my own family.  We even seriously considered moving to my husband’s hometown and raising our kids amidst extended family. (I deeply regret not having followed up on that one.) We did succeed in the stability goal for awhile, but eventually all of our children spent big chunks of the summer away and time in school in Europe.  I imagined that they would settle all over the world and that, with any luck, we would be required to travel to enticing locales in order to spend time with them and their families.

Then our son Josh died and the other two came home for grad school and, so it appeared, to stay.  I permitted myself the fantasy of adult children and grandchildren living within walking distance, and imagined reading to grandchildren (I still have dozens of my kids’ books) and taking them to the Nature Center and running them to sports and lessons.  And, as time passed and I approached retirement age, I even daydreamed of helping out on a regular basis while parents went to work or attended school.

Obviously, millions of grandparents manage long-distance relationships.  I have friends with grandchildren across the country and across the ocean.  I had just hoped not to be among them.  I dreamed of living the life of my own Nan, able to read bedtime stories and then walk home on a summer’s evening.  And, of course, I expected my son and his family to live together, not to be separated by thousands of miles.

We are lucky in some ways, of course.  Technology will make the distance more palatable, and planes make rare (expensive) visits possible. But I’m finding it quite challenging to imagine my granddaughter being born in a week or so in London, rather than in the hospital down the hill in which her daddy and their twin brother made their debut.  And I truly dread, on his behalf, the day when his newborn is only a few weeks old and my son will have to return to the U.S. and to the task of making a living.


Nana ~ 4

Time has sped up these past few weeks, and I haven’t even begun to address the reasons behind my reflections on Nanas.  In brief: My son and his fiancée became engaged two and-one half years ago, which brought us a now ten-year-old grandson, and in another week or so will bring us a newborn granddaughter!

Life is complicated.  Mom and her son live in London, with an immigration application underway for the past several months.  Dad lives here and, as a lawyer contentedly practicing criminal law in Ohio, is geographically bound to this state, barring a complete change of career or focus.  In either direction, immigration laws are not easy to navigate, and neither are family dynamics.  And I haven’t even mentioned the political climate in this country, nor the complexities of this little family’s individual situation.

Grandpa and I are headed for London in three weeks.  I had made our reservations to ensure that the baby would have actually arrived before we did, which now looks like a definite outcome, as medical complications are ensuring a birth at the end of this month.

I have always so looked forward to becoming a Nana.  But I freely admit that I had imagined that possibility in fairly specific ways, which involved grandchildren residing nearby, all sorts of commonalities in culture and religion and interests and ambitions, week-end nature hikes, and annual treks to the beach.  At this point, I have had to abandon all preconceptions, including those I don’t even know that I have.  We will be whipping up Nana-ing from scratch.

Ministry Encounters

It’s Lent, and there’s a lot to do.  Extra worship services to plan, speakers to organize, and the usual rundown of Bible studies, personnel matters, sermons, hospital visits, and conversations about The Future.

Tucked in between all the usual last week were discussions and prayers around suicide, addiction, and gender identity.  Each of these huge societal issues had come home to roost in the form of individuals and families in crisis.

I am guilty to some extent of looking at the neighborhood in which my congregation is located and wondering: What could go wrong?  Of course, I know better than that, from my own family, friends, acquaintances, and colleagues.  Affluence, physical security, employment, the care of loved ones, privilege of race and ethnicity and gender ~ none of these is a bulwark against human frailty and outright catastrophe.

I took today off, completely.  I did some laundry and I chipped away at the overwhelming project of ridding our house of papers and books and I read, and read, and read.  And in another day . . .  back to the ministry of presence and prayer.

The Long Winter: A Book Review


long winter

When I was a little girl, I read and re-read The Little House books so many times that I don’t know how they didn’t disintegrate.  In high school, I re-discovered them and, with one of my best boarding school friends, re-read them all again.  I probably still have a couple of copies somewhere; we gave them to each other and inscribed the inside covers.  In the evenings, hiking back and forth through deep snow to the campus library, we sophisticated (or so we thought) teenagers pretended that we were Laura and Mary Ingalls out on the Dakota prairie.

A couple of weeks ago, I got it into my head to re-read The Long Winter, which I remembered as my favorite of the series, and which was the source for our high school imaginary trips across the Dakota landscape.  What a harrowing narrative!  It had already occurred to me in high school that much had been left out of the books ~ all of the personal and maternity care for which we use warm bathrooms and hospitals, for instance, and the tremendous sorrow that must have accompanied the leaving behind of household furnishings and personal items and family and friends every time a move was made.  But, in fact, The Long Winter, read from an adult viewpoint, does indeed relate the terror of a lonely and isolated winter in which a hundred people or so nearly starved to death in their remote settlement.  As a child and teen, I didn’t grasp how close to the edge the Ingalls Family and their neighbors lived, but the book portrays their hardships in chilling detail.  Food nearly gone, father and daughters twisting straw to try to create a slow-burning fuel, fear every time someone stepped out the door in the midst of a blizzard, whether to care for animals or to try to cross the street.  The near-loss of the entire school of children one blinding afternoon, and the heroism and foolhardiness of two young men crossing the plains in search of a farmer rumored to have wheat stored for spring planting.

The book is structured across the seasons, opening with Pa’s comment, as he and Laura make hay late in the summer, that signs warning of a hard winter coming abound,  and closing with the feasting and music that follow the arrival of a train filled with supplies eight months later.  Characters from past and future novels in the series re-appear and appear, and the entire book is shaped to reflect pioneer courage and determination in the face of almost insurmountable odds.

As I was reading, I recalled having seen something of a new biography of Laura published in the last couple of years, and so I started reading that as well.  It addresses some of the issues that have followed the original publication of the series: Did Laura really write the books, or was her daughter her ghostwriter?  Are the books fictional or autobiographical?  And what about the casually racist attitudes toward the Native Americans displaced by the European settlers?  Stay tuned for another review!

Nana ~ 3

Grandparents ~ the stabilizing influence for a young family, in ideal circumstances.

When I was small, my grandmothers were the poles upon which our own little world depended.  Dodo, grandmother-in-town (all of two miles away, but a different world with its houses close together and its stores and churches and schools), worked some distance away and was not accessible to us except by car, and thus was the grandmother of weekly occasions.  We would gather for dinner around the small formica table in her living room, she would pay me a dime to wash the dishes afterward, and then we would re-gather around the television to watch The Lawrence Welk Show.  My plan was to grow up, style my hair in short curls, re-name myself “Peggy,” and sing on Lawrence Welk.  I have absolutely straight hair and can’t sing two notes in a row without wandering off key, so that was quite an ambitious plan.

Nana, grandmother-next-door, placed herself entirely at our disposal, and lived a quick walk from our own house,  so was the grandmother of everyday routine.  She would read to us for hours and play endlessly-running games of Old Maid and Go Fish, but she also permitted us the freedom that several acres of grass and woods and creek afforded.  If she ever worried about our safety, she did not let on.   We ran in and out of her house all day as if it were our own, and on summer evenings the adults would relax on her back porch while we children chased fireflies across the top of the hill.

Decades later, when I had three small children of my own in a city far from extended family, I would understand what it might mean to have two sets of grandparents nearby.  Kids sick, mom sick, too many places to be at once, errands to run, house to clean, time with each other?  My own parents had theirs, eager to participate and to be of assistance, and all desiring relationships with their grandchildren.  When I was a young mother and the debate over quality versus quantity parental time erupted, I knew from experience that quality was in part dependent upon quantity and the presence during the ordinary that it provides.  The grandmother who is right there, listening, even as she bakes a loaf of bread or sweeps a porch, and has the time to put everything aside for an hour of games, is the grandmother who builds a wall of security around a child and her family.

Back to the Birds

birding 1As my friends know from FB, I have become hopelessly addicted to the barred owl nest webcam.  The owls nested at the beginning of March in a box kindly provided for their use and outfitted with lighting and camera designed not to disturb them, but to permit the rest of us to watch.  Mama is the only one who can brood, so that’s her main activity, with the occasional flyabout tossed in for a distraction and some exercise.  Papa keeps her well supplied with rodents and crayfish.

A couple of nights ago she disappeared for an hour, much to my frantic concern.  The two owlets are due to make their appearance any day now; what if something had happened to her?  Such relief when she returned!

That blurry snapshot of me was taken in 1982!  Based on others in the same photo album, it’s  from a fall trip to watch hawks in Canada; I’m not sure whether it was taken in northwestern Ohio or on the southern tip of Ontario.  I had become starstruck by raptors, and then by all birds, a few years earlier, and in pre-children days had time to chase them all over the place.  The close friendships I formed a few years later when the kids were small did not include anyone with my passion for nature and the outdoors, so I did other things for a long time.  One of the things I most look forward to in retirement is getting back out in the field on a regular basis.

At the moment, “the field” is my laptop.  I can hardly wait for the emergence of the little owls!


Nana ~2, part ii

Nan did lead a life of privilege, but it was not a life without pain and sorrow.

Her mother suffered from bipolar disorder.  Nan said little about that, other than an occasional reference to having accompanied her mother to Baltimore many times, where she had entrusted her care to a college classmate who had become a psychiatrist at Johns Hopkins.  My dad had memories of seeing them off at the train station.  Her mother ensured that her daughter had the college education that her own parents had denied her, and maintained a gracious Victorian home on a shady street, but her illness cast a pall over the lives of her family, especially after she was widowed in her fifties.

My own grandfather suffered some sort of mental breakdown that prevented him from returning to college for his senior year, and another one less than a decade later, during the Depression.  I believe that that experience was the catalyst for annual trips to Florida.  Nan packed her family up, put what cash they had into a suitcase, and directed their travel southward, hoping that the warmth and waves would have a soothing effect.

As a young grandmother of fifty-four, my grandmother would stand in her picture window with a cup of coffee one morning and watch our car head down the hill, only to hear a thundering crash a few moments later.  Calling for an ambulance and racing down the hill and up the road in her dressing gown, she would be the one to discover the head-on collision that had already ended my mother’s life and would, a few hours later, claim my baby brother’s.  Living nearly five more decades, she would see my father widowed again, divorced, and widowed a third time, and her eldest son widowed and divorced as well.

Her presence next door (and since we lived in the country, “next door” meant that a gravel lane separated our houses on top of a hill, ours behind hers) was the saving grace in our lives in a family marred by repeated experiences of sudden loss.  We seldom spoke of what had befallen us all, but she and my grandfather were the rocks of fortitude who ensured that we all survived.

Grey’s Ministry (Spoilers Abound)


Last night’s Grey’s Anatomy was, indeed, the powerful episode that had been promoted all week.  As Dr. Jo Karev begins to come to terms with the discovery that her biological father had date-raped her birth mother (news which she has not been able to bring herself to share with anyone, including her husband), she is drawn into the case of a woman who has been brutally raped and beaten in a dark alley.  The woman requires considerable counseling from her three women physicians before she will permit a rape kit to be performed, which is accomplished in a somewhat graphic scene, itself profound in the dignity and compassion afforded the patient by her doctors.  The real viewer tears come a few minutes later, when the patient, who has been shaking uncontrollably at the thought of leaving the confines of the examining room, is rolled down a long hallway lined on both sides by the women of the hospital, silently focusing their respectful and supportive gazes upon her in a way that causes her visibly to regain a sense of power and selfhood.

That said . . . one of my quarrels with medical shows (and Grey’s is the only one I watch these days) is the near complete absence of chaplains or other religious characters.  In real life in a large and busy hospital such as that featured in Grey’s, it would be far more likely for the chaplain to provide the many hours of support offered by three busy fictional surgeons, and far more probable that a chaplain would have organized some sort of ritual to empower a physically and emotionally battered patient.

But my real question, for those of us pastoring churches, is: Do we do this?  Last Saturday as I conducted a funeral for a woman I had met only three times, and then only after she had suffered the stroke which had transformed her from a vibrant, independent woman headed for a winter in Florida to someone in need of round-the-clock care, I thought to myself, This is something we do well, we in the church.  We make it possible for family and friends and strangers to come together to mourn and to be comforted, knowing that they are held in the arms and prayers of a community greater than themselves and of a God who has already welcomed their loved one into the presence of ultimate love.  And we also create community and ritualistic reminders of God’s love around baptisms and weddings, and we provide joyful blessings for graduates, and quilts, and holiday food and gifts.

But what about the crises in human lives?  Where are we with our rituals and public affirmations then?  Of course, many of these events are guarded as private and personal, and it is not our call to invade those spaces.  But, just I frequently note that people today, whether connected to communities of faith or not, tend to turn to medical doctors and therapists (and rightly so) for matters once exclusively the domain of the priest, so we see in dramatizations such as last night’s that the possibility of a faith dimension to trauma is not even a consideration.  And while people often come to a pastor for comfort and prayer, and sometimes even practical assistance, in connection with personal and family challenges, I don’t recall having ever stepped into the breach with a religious and community ritual for such an occasion.  A return home from a long recovery, a move to assisted living, the commencement of hospice care, a divorce, and yes, a case of assault ~ I’m sure there are countless other occasions where community and prayer could create a new sense of power and connection for a stressed or heartbroken individual.

The closest I have come is something long forgotten, a liturgy for cremation which I wrote after a long four hours at a crematorium, much of it by myself, watching over the final disposition of my son’s remains.  Someone mentioned a couple of weeks ago that her family had just used it, which brought back the memory, and gave me a sense of deep gratitude at having had something to offer out of that terrible morning.  I think that now I will ponder other occasions more carefully, and perhaps find ways to make something our of what might otherwise be nothing.


Nana ~ 2, Part i

Nana ~ my paternal grandmother, “Na-naw” to my brother and me when we were children and then “Nan” by the time we were adults, is my model for nana-hood, and the reason I have always looked forward to that role.  We were exceptionally close, pushed together by physical proximity, life circumstances, interests, and attitudes and, while she was no more perfect than I am, she was an extraordinary woman in her brilliance, her inner strength, and her graciousness.

Nan’s life was structured by privilege.  The only child of a successful businessman in a small city in southern Ohio and of his troubled wife Robin, she attended a private girls’ high school and then a Seven Sisters college, leaving a stream of academic honors in her wake.  She exemplified the tensions between family and career experienced by women long before the 1960s; her decision was to marry my grandfather on the same day on which she became a college graduate, and to return to Ohio and a life as wife of a small town grain dealer and mother to three boys.  In the second half of her life of 100 years, she often sighed over her college alumna journal, taking note of the many of her classmates who had become scientists and physicians.  Her own life was filled with three generations of children, women’s clubs, gardening, volunteering in classrooms and with Girl Scouts, “raising” monarch butterflies, maintaining a few essential friendships, and keeping up with the study of nature, art, and literature.  She made use of the latter by taking all of her grandchildren on a series of elaborate and extravagant trips ~ first within the United States, and then to Europe, Africa, and Australia ~ on which the other travelers she encountered often thought that she was a college professor.

Widowed at about eighty, she had a hip replaced and managed one more international birding trip before retiring to a quiet life, first in her home and then in an assisted living apartment.  As deafness and near blindness descended upon her, she became isolated and profoundly lonely.  Her mind never failed her, but her inability to communicate was devastating.  Like so many older people, she had to endure the gradual constriction of her life to a small circle of people she could barely understand ~ a heartbreaking end to a life always lived with others in mind and consumed by a variety of interests.

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