A Cold January Day
To say that the wind cut like a knife would not only be cliché but it would be inaccurate. The wind cut like the edge of a thousand razor blades. The fine dry ice crystals that pretended to be snow swept over the unsheltered flat cemetery ground with an unrelenting belligerent attitude. As if to prove to the human beings gathered in a huddle that this was their prairie and that we were gathered there without their permission. The raw temperature was near 10 degrees (-12C) but with the wind and ice coming out of the Kansas prairie on the strictly horizontal— the cold froze your eyes until you wept and then your tears froze on your cheeks. The casket of my maternal grandmother Goldie rested on the hoist above the grave with its soft pink metallic shine turning white as the ice formed on its edges.
My first memory of her was in mid-summer when the temperature was at least a hundred degrees the other direction. As a boy, the sunflowers on the side of the house seemed 10 feet tall. I would look up at the big round tops and try to hide in their shade even as the sun blinded my eyes through the stalks. Her small bungalow was perched on a hill facing the Missouri river. The humidity that came from the river was an invisible fog that made the air heavy to breathe and seemed to oppress every step. To run and play meant inviting a wet t-shirt of sweat that refused to dry. Too poor for air conditioning, the only cool spot in the house was in the basement. Designed to protect from the threat of tornadoes, the basement could only be entered from outside with big heavy doors to allow the house to be carried to the Land of Oz while protecting those within. It had the musty smell of earth and mouse droppings but it was cool. I could sit there, read a comic book under a single bare light bulb and share the space with mason jars of canned fruit and tins of spam. Grandma Goldie had always been poor and this “pantry” assured her that she would not go hungry again.
She was born in Oklahoma Territory in a town called Pawnee, December 16, 1892. If a doctor had come to help in her delivery, he would have come by horse-drawn carriage. She lived to see a man land on a moon. I doubt that any generation will ever see such radical technological change. During World War I she travelled by train to New Jersey to live with my Great Aunt Elizabeth while my grandfather served in France. One can only imagine what a girl from the western prairie thought the first time she saw the sun rise over New York City. When the war ended she joined him at Ft. Leavenworth, where life was hard only until it got even harder. She was widowed and then she raised two girls in the heart of the Great Depression alone and then her eldest daughter (Aunt Mary) died of tuberculosis. She remarried and then was widowed again.
None of that pain and suffering was ever revealed to her grandson. We watched TV coming from Kansas City. I remember TV preachers, women's roller derby and local wrestling. She was equally enthusiastic about it all, shouting “Amen!” and “catch her!” and “get him!” to the small black and white television. She had learned to drive (badly) and we would take her small Plymouth with the Jesus on the dashboard to the S.S. Kresge downtown to buy submarine sandwiches and shop. We would sit at the counter and have a Coca Cola and eat our subs and watch the world go by. The brakes were pretty bad on the car because she didn’t worry about such things. “Jesus will take care of me” was her standard response to all trouble. I painted her garage with green paint someone had given her and she insisted on paying me. It was with money that my mom had given her that I just had to turn around and give back. There was only so much money, but we let grandma “spoil me.” As hard as her life had been she had tremendous faith and was easily affectionate and loving.
The funeral was small with a few friends and neighbors. She was buried near the small Baptist church on her block. She walked to church to save money on gas (when it was 35 cents a gallon!) I don’t remember the message, but I know we sang “The Old Rugged Cross.” I also remember farmers pulling off the road in their trucks as the funeral procession passed and taking off their caps and bowing their heads respectfully. And then we arrived at the cemetery to stand in the open field.
The heavy canvas flaps of the shelter banged against the support poles as the wind objected to any interference besides the stubble of corn in the nearby fields. The preacher spoke fast to protect his hearers from being hurt by the cold. The funeral director shifted his weight trying to keep warm. My ears hurt. And then she was gone.
I think she would sit proudly in a pew at Immanuel. She would want us to sing “The Old Rugged Cross.” She would answer me out loud, "I know", if I asked a question from the pulpit, and she would say “Amen” if she felt like it. And she would laugh and love and still drive with a plastic Jesus on the dashboard of her car. When we sing “For all the Saints” I see her and my mother. When I say, “with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven,” I see the faces of those I have buried in the faith. The beauty of our hope in Jesus is that we know He has conquered death and has given us new and eternal life in his Resurrection. Church is not just those we see but is all those who gather around the throne of the Lamb. We are a “great cloud of witnesses” who sing “holy, holy, holy.”