Beyond Outward Appearances

by Rebecca D. Higgins 

Perhaps it was the recent invitation from my alma mater inviting me to my 30-year class reunion at Homecoming this year or simply today’s date.  Whatever the reason, I found myself rummaging through my files today in search of something I had written a long time ago–back in college, to be exact!  I was a student at what was then Marion College (now Indiana Wesleyan University). One day as I walked across the campus in early 1985, one of my professors stopped me to ask if I was planning to enter the Paul W. Thomas Christian Writing Contest sponsored by The Wesleyan Church. “I don’t know anything about it,” was my response. She gave me the details and strongly encouraged me to enter. That was all the incentive I needed to sit down and write an essay that had been on my heart to write for some time. The following is the result. The bonus was that it won first place in the nonfiction category that year!

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Hands trembling, picking at imaginary threads, the wrinkled woman sits quietly in the rocking chair in the corner of the room. As I secretly observe her movements, I wonder what thoughts pass through her mind causing her to fiddle so industriously with the red and white crocheted coverlet in her lap. Turning from this occupationGrandma at Easter, she picks up the large-print Bible lying on the stand beside her and randomly thumbs its pages, pausing here and there to read a verse or two. She next peruses old church bulletins and missionary magazines—items she has read countless times before.

In the eyes of most people, this frail little lady is merely an old woman who has been robbed by time of her ability for rational thought. The sight of her stooped figure shuffling across a room with the aid of a helping hand perhaps would elicit some murmured words of pity. “What a shame! It’s too bad old people get like that.”

But I must ask myself, do I see her the same way others do? Will my memories be these last impressions of her as she is now in this the autumn of her life? Would that be fair? Hidden behind the wrinkled and shrunken exterior is the real identity of one of God’s precious children. Somewhere tucked into the recesses of her confused mind lie the remnants of yesterday’s beautiful memories—memories of the very full life that she has lived.

The room in which we now are sitting is covered with her treasures—pictures of her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. In the faces of these her family, I see the true meaning of what her life has been—an unselfish giving of herself for those she loves.

Born just two years before the turn of the 20th century in a farmhouse in Fairfield, Wisconsin, she has faced the anxieties of two world wars, a depression, and many personal battles.

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As a young girl she enjoyed school and after graduating from the eighth grade anticipated attending high school. However, that dream was pushed aside when it was decided she was needed at home to help her mother who was not well.

Later, after she had married and was living with her husband and children on another farm near Baraboo, Wisconsin, she sacrificed at mealtimes in preference of her family. She was the kind of mother who didn’t care for any pie when she knew there wasn’t enough to go around. When she served chicken, she always selected the neck or the back for herself so that her family could have the choice pieces.

She saw to it that her family was present in church Sunday morning and evening and every Wednesday midweek prayer service. Even in the midst of the Depression when money was so tight that they couldn’t afford a car, her family attended church services regularly.

The biggest sacrifice of her life was yet to come. Her oldest boy quit school after eighth grade and went to work. Her second son, upon completing his high school training, was offered a scholarship to attend the University of Wisconsin. She didn’t want her boy to go to a liberal state school and prayed diligently that he would choose instead the small Wesleyan college in Marion, Indiana. She desired that her children would have the opportunity of a Christian education that she had been denied. Her prayers prevailed, and her boy turned down the scholarship and applied at Marion College.

When the superintendent of the Baraboo schools heard what had happened, he made a trip out to the farm. “Now, ma’am, I don’t think you understand what a big mistake your son is making,” he said. “You’re wrong to encourage him to go to some tiny college when he has such a golden opportunity in the form of a scholarship at the University.”

“I’m sorry you made a trip out here to tell us that,” she answered. “I prayed that my children would have the opportunity to attend a Christian school. Now God is answering my prayers.”

“You’re making a terrible mistake,” the superintendent fumed. “I’ll tell you this! If your son goes to Marion College when he has a scholarship at the University, I’ll never recommend him for a teaching position!”

In spite of the attempt to dissuade the little lady from her purpose, her son left home and enrolled as a student at Marion College in the fall of 1940.

In his first year he was a typical farm boy away from home. His letters to his mother expressed his homesickness, but although she missed her boy, she was thankful that he was receiving a Christian education. How she wished that the rest of her children could do the same! But such a thought posed a problem. If she and her husband remained on the farm, they would be unable to finance sending their remaining three children to Marion College. A decision had to be made. As always, she disregarded her own feelings and chose what was best for her children. Packing what possessions they could, she and her husband forsook everything that they knew and loved and moved their family to Marion, Indiana in 1941.

A farm woman with only an eighth-grade education, she felt inferior to the college people in her new environment. However, she enjoyed the services at College Church, and very quickly the people welcomed her with open arms and made her feel at home.

Accustomed to hard work, she wouldn’t remain at home without offering her services to those around her. She volunteered to baby-sit for married college students who had children, and many a young man at Marion College at that time was indebted to her for doing his laundry. Those were the days before permanent press, and every shirt had to be ironed and starched. She performed these tasks willingly out of the goodness of her heart.

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In 1955 her husband suffered a heart attack and died. Suddenly, she was faced with responsibilities she had never had before. She received a job working in the college kitchen. Unable to drive a car, she sold her larger house to a young family and moved into a small house within close walking distance of the church and the college. There she has lived up to the present. The doors of her little home always have been open to special prayer groups and to the college family.

Even though she filled many new roles after moving to Marion, the most important title to her remained that of “Mother.” When grandchildren entered her life, they, too, received a full measure of her love. Her cookie jar always was filled with her yummy chocolate chip cookies; consequently, little feet made frequent trips to her kitchen.

Her family has always known that she is a loving mother, but when on Mother’s Day in 1966, her church honored her as the Mother of the Year, the fact was made more meaningful. To her family it was a once-in-a-lifetime privilege for College Wesleyan Church to bypass all the college-educated mothers and select their mother as the one to honor. The church celebrated the occasion by portraying a This-Is-Your-Life drama.  All of her five children and their families were introduced. She was surprised and happy to have all of her children with her at the same time. It was a highlight for the whole family.

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Of all of her deeds of kindness and Christlike characteristics, the most important aspect of her life has always been prayer. Anyone who has sat with her at her breakfast table has shared in family devotions. Even yet, though most of the time her mind refuses to cooperate in directing her speech coherently, she still prays with intelligence and faith.. For years her prayers have held the often-repeated phrase, “Help us to be overcomers.” What a wonderful testimony to have! To be an overcomer! In these her final days when heaven seems so much nearer, she can testify that with God’s help she has overcome the trials that have come her way. Through them all, she has remained faithful. God has been her very present help staying near her in answer to the quoted words of an old hymn that she often prays:

We need Thee every hour;
Stay Thou nearby.
Temptations lose their power
When Thou art nigh.

But now I must shake myself from my reverie. It is her bedtime, and I must help her prepare for bed. Time has brought a reversal in roles. She who spent the majority of her life helping others now must rely on their aid. I see her as she is today, but in this short evening of staying with her I wanted to take a look at who she really is—a woman of love, faith, and prayer—and go on record that I for one will not forget the memories.

After her clothes are changed, her teeth removed, and she is lying in bed staring at the flowered curtains, I ask her if she would like to pray. Immediately, her eyelids close over her cloudy gray eyes, and a brief prayer from her heart parts her lips:

We come to You tonight. “We need Thee every hour; Stay Thou nearby. Temptations lose their power When Thou art nigh.” We thank Thee for this. We’re thankful that You are willing to stay with us, and we don’t have to stay alone. Stay with Beth and Becky tonight, and help them tomorrow. Give them the courage to face the problems, and help them to make the right decision and do the things they ought to do. Amen.

My heart is touched and inwardly I muse,  “Thank you for praying for me. It’s the nicest gift you could give and the best memory I could have.”

Aloud, I murmur, “Good night. I love you!”

“I love you, too, honey!” she says as moisture gathers in her eyes.

Stooping, I kiss the wrinkled cheek and again whisper, “I love you . . . Grandma!”

–written in February 1985

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Postscript:

A few months after I wrote this article about my grandmother, we had to move her from her little house into a nursing home. She lasted there about a year.  During that time, a shortened version of this article appeared in The Wesleyan Advocate–the denominational magazine at the time. I took a copy out to the nursing home, perched on the arm of Grandma’s recliner, put my arms around her so that she could see the pages, and read to her what I had written. I didn’t know if in her confused mind she would understand what it was about. When I had finished reading, I asked her, “Do you know whom that’s about, Grandma?”

Reading Grandma Advocate article 2

“Yes, it’s about your grandma.”

“It’s about YOU!” I told her.

She teared up and patted my arm. “You’re so sweet!”

A number of months later after suffering some setbacks and being taken to the Marion General Hospital, she lay in an unconscious state for a few days. Many of us who were her family gathered in her private room. We talked to her, told stories, laughed, sang songs, and most of all told her how much we loved her. We learned later that often as we were singing, nurses would tiptoe down the hall to stand outside the door and listen.

Various family members took turns staying with Grandma through the nights. On the night of June 12, 1986, my cousin and I stayed with her. After Lisa had left the next morning to go to work, I pulled out this article and read it to Grandma one more time. I didn’t know if she could hear me or understand, but I wanted to tell her once again just how much I loved her and how much she meant to me.

That night, June 13, 1986, as family members gathered around her hospital bed and sang songs of the church, my precious grandmother slipped from our arms into the arms of Jesus. I like to think that the echo of our voices as we sang, “What a Friend we have in Jesus” simply faded away as she woke up to meet Him face to face! At her funeral in the chapel at College Wesleyan Church a few days later, I read this tribute about my grandmother once again at the request of the family. Today, many years after her death, I pull it out in memory and thankfulness for the indelible imprint her love and decisions made on my life. You see, her second son whom she prayed would go to a Christian college was my dad. She encouraged him to take the less traveled road–the road of surrender to the will of Christ. In the words of Robert Frost: “That has made all the difference!”

As I soon will make my way to bed, my thoughts of my dear grandmother cause me to whisper once again, “Good night! I love you . . . Grandma!” I say it, and yet I know that for her, my “Good night” is an eternal “Good morning!”