We laid to rest my 96 year old great grandmother last week. I was asked to give a eulogy, which to try to encapsulate 96 vibrant years in a few tear soaked minutes, is never easy to do. I always feel like we owe it to someone who has made an investment in us, whether with their time or love, to show them the returns on that investment. I hope that my eulogy fit that bill.
Much of this is lifted from previous letters to my grandmother. After funerals, I never thought that it was polite to articulate your heartfelt vision of who a person was when they were not around to hear it. As Nana had been the oldest person I’d known for over half of my life, she got her prospective eulogy twice, as I never wanted her to leave this earth without knowing what she meant to me.
I’m sure that frequently eulogies of 96-year-old women tell of sweet old women, who loved their families and had a few hobbies that bordered on passion. This will not be one of those.
My grandmother was a genuine character, not a living prop. She lived and died in order that she could shape the story, because the force of her personality would allow nothing less.
Nana was born in 1919 here in Indianapolis to a pair of Swedish immigrants. Her father came across to live with distant relatives when he was a mere 15 years old. After his arrival, he worked as a hotel bellboy, a mere teenager trying to find his role in the American dream. At 96, we sometimes forget that Nana was the bridge between immigrants who showed up in the belly of steamers, with only the benefit of scraps of printed documents about the land that they would soon call home.
Marrying another recent arrival from Sweden, Charlie moved to Indianapolis and built himself an empire the only way he knew how, with the sweat from his brow. One of the pictures displayed tonight was of my grandmother and her sister dressed in feed sack dresses sewn from the products of their father’s feed store. Nana talked occasionally of the family poultry business, and the rush around Thanksgiving and Christmas time as if it were a completely different world.
That immigrant dream flourished, and was subsequently built on by future generations. She assisted both her father and brother in the building of a family business whose revenues masked those humble beginnings.
Nana did not lead a fairy tale life, she lived a Jane Austen novel. She got married young, to an alcoholic who eventually became emotionally abusive. Unlike most women of certain means in those times, she did not let it define her. She extricated herself from a bad situation, demanding more from life than any possibility those circumstances would allow.
Hers was a stoic treatment of death. She was a widow for almost 30 years, she was predeceased by her near Irish twin sister and baby brother. She lost her beloved stepdaughter and two of her nephews. In her last month, she stoically looked at death as a known entity, with a quiet dignity and grace rarely seen.
She remained single for many years, choosing a life defined by something other than motherhood.
I never asked whether she was actually looking when she met my great-grandfather DB. He was a man who had lost his wife after a brutal run of tuberculosis to raise his young daughter alone, only to date another woman for several years who died tragically. He said himself that he was very close to suicide in those dark days after it seemed that life constantly conspired to deny him the women that he loved.
Then there was Nana, and DB was transformed from a man on the brink to the loving companion that Nana had yet to find. He became the loving grandfather known by his grandchildren who sit amongst us. She transformed a nearly broken man into the love of her life.
And it was a love to aspire to. Looking back through her carefully folded letters, I found this note that she sent from the Imperial Hotel in Japan back home in Anderson to DB, in 1977.
Tomorrow is our anniversary, and I am really enjoying the very thoughtful anniversary present you gave me. The years we have had mean so much to me and you are very dear to me, my sweet. Love, Helen.
This was a woman that saw in her future happiness, and relentlessly pursued it, even if it took her 40 years to find it. The rocky road that lead her into my life was the right one, and it was traveled with intention and the courage never settle.
My grandmother shaped stories.
She married into the Moorman/Burnett family as a grandmother. On her wedding day, her dowry was my 5-year-old father and his near Irish twin sister Melinda. Over subsequent years there would be Andrew and Suzanne, and suddenly a woman who had never been a mother became a de facto matriarch of a growing family.
She helped shape, from what can in its most polite terms, utter chaos, into a family where she could transmit her own noble values.
There was no DB by time my memories began, he was a pictured memory who gave in his final bequest, the greatest asset he had. A man whose reality to me is only the ink on a photo and the stories of my elders, gave me the thing he loved the most, and told me to call her Nana.
Very few people get 30 quality years with their great-grandmother, so in that respect I am very blessed. We are all very blessed, and she would want herself included in the counting, that she was given 96 years of health that allowed the contents of her mind to be a gift to us all.
Even though my family moved several hours south, nearly every trip back to Madison County that wasn’t in the winter months included a trip to Nana’s house.
For all her means, she lived in a modest two-bedroom condo when I was growing up. That small space, in my youth, was a castle full of worldly adventures.
I can remember her returning from trips all around the world. South Africa, Egypt, Sweden, Japan, and Russia were just a few that I remember. Her trips inevitably resulted in the procurement of some treasures. Whether papyrus paintings from Egypt, or Russian nesting dolls kept in her marble entry cabinet. The sheepskin from her relative’s farm that she would throw over me with such love as we watched a documentary about a railroad she’d recently travelled, or a Japanese book made of incredibly fragile rice paper, full of markings that neither of us understood.
When I was small, I was always most excited to go to the pool where she swam almost daily until the age of 80. As I grew older, it was the ability to talk to a walking history
She travelled more than anyone I had ever met, and she transmitted in me a love of the world. There were endless stories over oatmeal at her table about the culture of this place or the things that they eat in that. More than any person in my life, she fostered a constant longing to know those things through your own eyes. Her sense of responsibility remains etched on that heart, as does the fluttering circuit of the heart when stepping onto a jetway bound for a faraway place.
She let me see the world through her eyes; eyes that had seen both the throne room of upper class society and the poverty of countless nations. She gave me her own generous spirit, best articulated by the Jansen maxim of: “Those who can help must.” My inheritance from her was bequeathed not through the happenstance of genetics, but the intentional imprinting of her ideals upon an impressionable young boy through the oft neglected methods of love and time spent.
My grandmother shaped MY story.
She ended her time on this earth in the digital age, but hers was a world of the physical. Typewriters and postcards, film and leather bound photo albums, newspapers firmly creased and books on the shelf. Looking through her carefully categorized letters, I could see a life lived and shared intentionally, so unlike the Snapchat generation that I call my own.
Thumbing through 7 decades of passports, I could feel the inevitable chill that goes through any traveler’s spine while standing at Russian customs in the 70s, “Will I be allowed in?” The ink from those stamps yet another physical reminder of a feeling experienced. .
She travelled in a well-appointed fashion, but she traveled many places that were not “on the standard tour.”
My grandmother lived intentionally, right down to her penciled wishes for this service. She was the tall Swedish line that separated the Moorman’s from allowing decades of dysfunction to define following generations.
She leaves this world without hereditary issue, but she shaped a family in her own dignified way into a legacy.
I do not share my grandmother’s eyes or her smile and most certainly not her height, but she gave me her heart, and that I believe, is a legacy worth having.
I think she would agree, because the heart is what shapes the story.