Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Grandma and Gratitude

Today is my grandmother, Elda Capra’s, birthday.  I’ve always connected her birthday with Thanksgiving, since we often celebrated both together. Eight years ago, for her ninetieth birthday, we had a grand Thanksgiving/ birthday celebration, complete with pie, her famous cheesecake, and every other celebration food we could think of. Seven years ago, just weeks before Thanksgiving, we celebrated her life, and the fact that she had been granted her wish to be in heaven before her next birthday.

She was my best example of gratitude, and a reminder, even now, of what it means to find joy in a place of obedience to God’s sovereignty and provision. By any worldly standard, she never had much. She quit school after just a few days of ninth grade, embarrassed at the fact that she had only two threadbare dresses to wear. She left home in her early teens, and supported herself until her marriage at 16 to an often abusive man ten years older. She parented four sons, then, months after the youngest started college, took on the burden of four grandchildren.

Elda grew up in rural Oklahoma, honed her housekeeping skills during the depression, never fed her family packaged cereal, baked her own bread long after, and long before, home-baked bread was popular. She worked hard into her eighties, grew her own tomatoes whenever possible, harvested wild raspberries for jam, fell several times in search of wild watercress for her much-loved watercress sandwiches.

Grandma rarely rested. But when she did, it was with a sense of celebration. When she pulled two chairs under her massive lilac bushes and poured the iced tea, it was a party. When she took off her shoes and put her feet in a stream, it was clear: Sabbath is here.  Simple picnics, with Grandma, were an occasion, a celebration, a time to pause and give thanks.

Elda believed, wholeheartedly, unreservedly, in God’s provision. She was fifty-six when her husband sold the house we lived in and she found herself piecing together a life for herself and four grandchildren. I remember her saying, when people asked how we would manage: Sometimes at night my mind gets going, but then I review scripture, and I go right to sleep.  

She had many passages about God’s faithfulness and provision stored away in her memory; they found their way into her conversation, and it was rare to discuss anything of importance without some direct quote from the Bible. Her Bible was open on the kitchen table every morning before breakfast, and most days started with some observation or question from that morning’s study. She was a gifted Bible study leader, and in her sixties and seventies led well-attended studies in homes of people she had introduced to Christ.

For Grandma, riches had nothing to do with things, money, leisure, travel. She marveled at the complexities of seeds and buds, the songs of birds, the colors of fall leaves. She loved conversation, meeting new people, looking for ways God worked in people’s lives. She enjoyed hymns, momentos of God’s faithfulness handed down across the centuries. And she treasured the Bible, every word of it, puzzling over the harder passages, looking for themes, patterns, instruction, wisdom, reminders of God’s love.

This past week, reading poems about Thanksgiving to the smallest family members, I was struck by the reality of the Pilgrim’s celebration. They had stared death in the face, they had weathered a hard winter, they knew how precarious life can be. Yet, they could see evidence of God’s goodness: unexpected, undeserved friendship; unfamiliar, filling food. They weren’t out of difficulty, but they could look back with gratitude, and look ahead with hope, knowing that, as William Bradford wrote, “they found the Lord to be with them in all their ways, and to bless their outgoings and incomings, for which let His holy name have the praise forever, to all posterity.”

Our extended family will be gathering this Thanksgiving, carrying on the heritage of Grandma’s pies, celebrating God’s blessings through the past years and his promise of provision for the years ahead, the beauty of his creation, the glory of his plans, the incredible complexity and richness of his work in us, and in the world. 

To quote Gerard Manley Hopkins in "Pied Beauty":
    Glory be to God for dappled things—
        For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
            For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
    Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches' wings;
        Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;
            And áll trades, their gear and tackle and trim.

    All things counter, original, spáre, strange;
        Whatever is fickle, frecklèd (who knows how?)
            With swíft, slów; sweet, sóur; adázzle, dím;
    He fathers-forth whose beauty is pást change: 

                                                Práise hím.