Thursday, March 6

Know Where You Come From

Dear Jacob,

When I was young I visited my grandmother in Southern California often.  My grandpa died when I was ten and she still lived in the house they had shared together, the only one I remember them living in. This was the house where the lawn was thick and prickly, the fish always needed to be fed "just a little," and the twin beds in the guest room could be pushed together to make a perfect tumbling mat. It was an eleven hour drive from our house to theirs, but if we left early enough we could be there in Orange County by dinner time.

My grandmother -- we affectionately called her Mema -- was an opinionated woman.  She had worked for the California Youth Authority for many years, and though she had an office job I think you had to have grit just to walk in the door there.  She was the one who told me about sex, smacking her lips when she reflected on her own fulfilling marriage to Papa.  She was the one who came to visit once and promptly rubbed her hands straight down my chest when I opened my arms for a welcome hug. "Just checking for boobs," she said.  She would have rules like, "No bottles of dressing on the dinner table, no cheating at card games if your name is Scott and no eating tater tots with your fingers.  And while it was fun to tease her just so she'd clear her throat and loudly proclaim in her broken cackly voice, "A- hem!! " we all figured it was also a good idea to obey her.  You know, out of respect.

She was just one in a long line of strong women that I come from.  Her mother had been some kind of an ambassador to the UN for the Salvation Army and she did some amazing things to promote the rights of women.  Her youngest daughter was a minister in the Salvation Army for forty years.  Her oldest daughter, your own grandmother, has lived a life of compassion for the disabled and has a generosity which, in my eyes, goes unmatched. So there's this stream of strength that I naturally draw from when I think about who I am and what I need to be paying attention to in life.

Mema was a really cool and confident woman.   When she laughed she made a choppy "git, git, git" kind of a sound and when she and I would watch The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson she would laugh a lot. She was a short woman who would pay her grandkids $5 when we grew taller than she was.  I think I surpassed her somewhere in Junior High.  When we each turned sixteen and had worked for at least six months straight she'd give us $1500 to buy a car.  And she always gave a million gifts at Christmas.  She made it really clear that when she wanted the family together it'd be a good idea if we all showed up and she bought us tickets to shows and restaurants and nearby islands to make the "invitation" sweeter.

She was also pretty sick.  Whenever I go to the doctor they ask my family medical history:  Cataracts? Heart Disease?  High Cholesterol?  Cancer?  I have to say yes and it all traces back to Mema. So, if you want to know why I work out it's because I know that this stuff is right behind me, biting at my heels. She suffered from angina attacks a lot and while I didn't know what that meant, I knew it had something to do with her heart and she literally spent those days in bed.  She had open heart surgery twice in ten years, double and quadruple bypasses. That first time I was in fifth grade and when I went to visit her afterwards I was the one she instructed to take all the strips of tape off her healing scars.  One ran all the way up her leg where they took out the vein to create the bypasses they sutured to her heart.  The other, of course, was a big slit all the way down her chest.  When I'd take off the tape, she'd tell me, "Do it fast, even if it makes me cry."  And so I'd try my best. And she'd cry.  And I didn't want to do it again.

One time, when I was finishing high school I asked her, really off-the-cuff one day, if I could move to Southern California to go to college and live with her.  She didn't ask my mother what she thought.  She didn't ask me a follow-up question.  She simply said, "Yes." My mother seemed a little stunned by this authoritative move so I think there was a little conversation that followed, but in what seems now like about fifteen minutes, my future was decided.  Mema figured it all out.  Because, like I said, she was smart and opinionated and we usually just found that it was better for all of us if we just did what she said.

When I moved in with her it was the greatest thing ever.  I was on my own, but I really wasn't. She found me a job that supported me through college for five years and she'd even cook for me sometimes. She flat out told me one night over dinner that I needed to break up with the boy I was dating because he wasn't right for me and she was afraid I'd marry him and he'd finish his forestry degree and take me off to the woods to waste away all my talents. Which I think was actually the exact same conversation she'd had with my mother at one point when Grandma was first dating Grandpa who was a forestry major back in the day.  So, I guess it was odd to her that I was doing the same thing my mother had done -- even though Grandpa never did take Grandma off to the woods. I did eventually kick that boy to the curb much later than Mema would have liked. I was rebellious a little and stupid in love a little and she was right but I wasn't going to admit it.

One day in March came the appointed time for Mema to go in for her second heart surgery.  She was nervous that morning.  I was a sophomore in college and had to go to class which made me feel conflicted. But Aunt Cyn had come to town to be with her and she took her to the hospital. Before she left she gave me a hug and said, "Good-bye, Angel," which was disturbing because ten years earlier when Papa was in the hospital after a heart attack I talked to him on the phone and he had called me the very same thing.  And then he died.  So, I said to her, "I'll be there right when I'm done with class."  And she looked at me calmly and nodded a little and the two of them left.

Those were the last words she said to me. It was supposed to be a triple bypass but they ended up doing a quadruple.  During the surgery her chest cavity swelled up and they couldn't close her up and something else must have gone wrong that I wasn't clear on, but nearly seven days later when she hadn't woken up they were declaring her brain dead and we were having to say, "Turn the machines off."  We buried her Easter weekend.

When someone formidable in your life dies it challenges our own mortality. And when that person is in your family line, the very stock of who you are, it moves you up a little in the hierarchy of responsibility.  Suddenly my mom became the family matriarch, so I only had one person keeping me from being at the top, being looked to to remember the stories, settle estates, and call the family together from time to time. It's unnerving. There are some people that you think are just gonna keep going on getting their way, who seem to have the power and will to create life.  Those are the people you want for your teachers and mentors and Memas. And when you get them, you pay attention to every quirk and every word and maybe you only pretend to listen, but still you let their courage and nerve melt into your skin and challenge your heart.

This is what you come from, Jake.  You come from a family of humanitarians --  people who help other people. Your people are the kind who endure their own health and hardships and still lean over and offer a hand to someone else right in the middle of it.  It reminds me of Jesus.  When he was hanging on the cross, suffocating and bleeding, he had a significant conversation with the thieves who hung next to him and he made sure that at least one of them was going to join him in the new world he was creating. Then he looked down at his best friend and gave him the nod to take in Mary, his mother, because he knew the other numbskulls he was hanging out with, and even his own brothers, didn't quite understand who he was, or what she would really need family to be in the days to come.

We can sit in the middle of hard things, and we often do, and we can make it not about us.  We can have swirling clouds of doubt and despair all day long, but we can step outside of it by keeping focused on who we are and who we come from.  In your case, you come from a father and a mother who know deep in our bones that you were made for a purpose, that there was some dark age you were born to change.  And you also come from a Father who loves you more than we ever could, who knows what it's like to grieve and wish that things were different and still not give up.

I believe pretty strongly that he wants you around.  He worked really hard in these other people's lives just to get you here. Trust him.