100 Years of Furious Indifference

My maternal grandmother died three years ago, January 20, 2011, at the age of ninety-nine. She would have celebrated her 100th birthday May 1st, 2011 so I’m rounding to 100.

I miss her…miss seeing her, hearing her laugh, gathering counsel from her like a bee gathering pollen, sometimes even unaware that I was growing wiser just by being with her.

G. K. Chesterton, the British writer and Christian commentator, defined spiritual courage like this: “Courage is almost a contradiction in terms. It means a strong desire to live, taking the form of a readiness to die. “He that will lose his life, the same shall save it” is not a piece of mysticism for saints and heroes. It is a piece of everyday advice for sailors or mountaineers (or Grandma Mildred)…(she) must seek her life in a spirit of furious indifference to it; (she) must desire life like water and yet drink death like wine.”

That was my Grandma Mildred and she completed 99+ years with this furious indifference to death, gulping water and vitamins with gusto, worried about everyone but herself, finally drinking death like wine, with grace and dignity after almost one hundred amazing years.

It was an honor to speak at her funeral three years ago. Here is what I said.

January 24, 2011
If I did the math right, in addition to six children, Mildred Davis has one hundred more grandchildren and greats. And I thought about how many babies have crossed her lap and been held in her arms and nurtured by her. If she did nothing else in her life, this would be a great legacy on its own. Most of us view her as a grandmother, but we shouldn’t forget her earlier years when she was a Mom and even a child growing up in a home, built by her father George Beck near Logan, Oklahoma. A couple of days ago, out of curiosity, I looked up the home where Mildred Davis spent most of her childhood. I did this using Google street view. And it was just as I remembered as a kid only more faded, overgrown bushes, weeds, weathered siding…and the windmill was gone. And it struck me as ironic that the very technology that allowed me to peek backward in time without the cost of a long drive was an expression of how the world has changed in 100 years. Mildred’s 100th birthday would be May 1 and one would be hard pressed to find a 100 year window in which more wonderful, terrible and amazing events have occurred. In a century of life Mildred heard FDR chatting by a fireside and she would experience the advent of television and jet travel that would one day carry her to the Caribbean and Africa to do mission work. She would watch Neil Armstrong walk on the moon in the summer of 1969 without her husband Jess who died in the spring of that year. She would see technology advance onward…telephones, computers, cell phones and the internet all of which she chose to ignore. In 1911 a twitter was a chirping prairie bird…there was no Facebook…but there was The Good Book.

Still, Grandma D never had an overwhelming sense of wonder about this world. She saw too much pain and blowing dirt and anxious hunger and worry about polio, war and a Great Depression…to be impressed with this world. Grandma Mildred never lost touch with the source of her strength.

In 1911, she came into the world surrounded by sod walls and dirt floors, by love and hope, by windswept fields of prairie grass, the world at her feet. On an icy Monday night two weeks ago she lay in her hospital bed and I stared at her feet. Nordeen thought she had cured her left side and showed Charlotte as she pulled back the bed sheets and tickled her mother’s feet, and I watched her left leg twitch as her daughters gently caressed her worn crooked feet. Looking at her foot odometer I saw the mileage and thought of Johnny Cash and Jesus.

Johnny hitches a ride with a truck driver who asks him if he’s ever seen such a dusty dirty road… Johnny says, “Listen, I’ve traveled every road in this here land!” I’ve been everywhere man, I’ve been everywhere.

And I thought of the words of Jesus on a mountain from Matthew 7: 13-14 which says: The highway to hell is broad but the gateway to life is narrow and the road is difficult, and few seem to find it.

Grandma seemed to have found that beautiful narrow road and you could sense that in her contented nature. Mildred’s feet plodded that dusty road…she’s been everywhere man…she knew the ruts and the ditches, the crossings and the detours…but she knew well the straight and narrow path that leads to salvation.

Those beautiful worn feet told the story of one hundred years of walking this earth, feet buried in the rotting fertile soil of a garden, feet that plodded the boards and tile floors of many kitchens cooking fried chicken, black-eyed peas and biscuits, feet that knew the drudgery of hard work sorting out weeds from tomatoes in a Heinz factory in California, feet that paced the floors and folded beneath her as she prayed for her daughter Becky when she battled polio and feet that bore the weight and burden of a family that had lost their patriarch.

She wasn’t always Grandma D. …she was a sister, daughter, wife, she was Mom, and then…she became Grandma D. We wild and wooly grandchildren sometimes taunted her by telling her she snored once recording the ruckus to prove it and played it back, to her chagrin when she awoke… and sometimes calling her a name she hated…granny. And sometimes we changed out of our long jeans to put on shorts in twenty degree weather just to see if she had anything to say about that. There was a reason she would say, “Mercy Mercy” when we acted that way. Because we were the ones that needed clemency, we just didn’t know it.

Somehow through it all she became Grandma D and she was Grandma D to all who needed a Grandma. She was Grandma D to those whose Grandma’s weren’t near because of death or physical distance or emotional distance…she became their surrogate grandma always ready with a smile, a hug and some practical advice like remove all the visible fat from your chicken, remember to take your vitamin C, pray everyday…and her signature phrase of peaceable behavior which Paul McCartney borrowed from her, LET IT BE.

Mildred was born in a place once called No Man’s Land near the eastern intersection of the Oklahoma and Texas panhandles which is appropriate because she became so familiar with the handles of pans as she prepared mouth-watering food for all those who graced her table. She spent the first four years of her life in a sod dugout at Logan, Oklahoma not far from Slapout. Surrounded by the good earth, her father George Beck, mother Gertrude, she was the second daughter of seven along with one brother. She never lost touch with earth, with soil, with the food and sustenance that flow from the it, she was in a phrase a down-to-earth lady. She would spend the balance of her childhood in a two-story prairie farmhouse surrounded by the bounty of harvests and the burden of howling cold winters and soil-cracking droughts. She would take a joyride in a plane with the pilot and another neighbor boy…as her fiancé Jess rolled up in his new Ford Model A. There wasn’t much Jess could say. Mildred didn’t shy from adventure.

She wasn’t always the best student. A report card from 1925 said that Mildred whispers too much and is inclined to mischief. Once when asked to spell the word tight at a school spelling bee she reeled off the letters, “TIT” She wasn’t perfect…she liked to have fun. And we saw that many years later sitting around the Wahoo board or a table speckled with Chickenfoot dominoes. We loved her because she was real and fun to be with…but she expected us to behave and be Christian in our behavior.

She married Jess Robinson Davis on August 17, 1930 in Southflat, Oklahoma. Somehow Mildred managed to marry a man who would develop an asthmatic condition during the Greatest Dust bowl ever, a farmer who was allergic to the very things that paid the bills… the hair and sweat of livestock…and the blowing dust of the plowed field. Mildred learned how to manage a family in difficult times and so Jessie, Charlotte, Nordeen, Becky, Kathy & Bud all learned life under her steady calm influence. They would live in Oklahoma, Arizona, California and back to Oklahoma where Jess went to meet his Lord in 1969. I saw my Grandma in a different light after Grandpa died. She knew only one way to deal with the loss of her Husband when she was only 58 years old. Take care of her family, work hard and be content…God will take care of you. She would live almost 42 years more with her daughter Becky, who was no longer just a daughter, but a provider, a companion and a caregiver. Her oldest daughter Jessie Lea would join them later and they would form the threesome known by many as The Golden Girls.

There was something about Grandma that said this world is not my home, I’m just a passin’ through…and the economic hardship of the Great Depression colored the lenses through which she viewed the world as she raised her children. Milking cows in brutally cold weather, wet compressed towels in the cracks of window sills and wasting nothing. In our world of paper or plastic, they lived green in a world of brown and gray. Nothing escaped the dirt…nobody escaped the hardship. And I know why she would take the chicken leg from my plate after I had eaten the bounty of it…she would grab it and ask, “Brentie…why aren’t you going to finish that chicken leg?” And she would commence to gnaw the life and gristle from that leg down to the marrow. I think about those times and how the Davis family was forged in the fires of hardship, tempered by grace, leavened by Jesus. Mildred was always calm and cool and strong. Once she tossed down the basement stairs a 50 lb bag of flour and a butcher knife to cut it open as a means to put out a gasoline fire which had ignited next to the generator. Calm under fire.

That’s just a small sliver of the story about how this child of the sod became a child of the heavens. How does a child become Grandma D? I’ve studied the Bible and learned words like justification and sanctification and glorification and I understand the theory of all that.

But I’ve learned something enduring from Grandma…we need less theory and more living…less hand cleaning gel and more dirt under our fingernails …more brokenness enlightened with laughter…more feet curled and aged by walking with Jesus…more perfect fried chicken…more pinches to our legs when our shorts are too short…more knee-slapping-one-eye closed laughter…more Chicken-foot and Wahoo and Woohoo!

God bless you Grandma D…you’re an American original…a Kingdom traveler…you’re headed home. Leave behind your chicken recipes, your vitamins, your black-eyed peas and Let it be’s. And leave behind your knee-slapping-squinty-eyed-laughter. We could use some just now.

A few days ago Aunt Becky handed me a bible class outline that must have been stuffed into Grandma Mildred’s Bible. And she had turned it over and written on the back, “Songs for funeral service (if any)… 1. Where the Roses Never Fade

My sister Debbie reminded me that when Grandma became emphatic in making a point she would gently clap her hands a few times. So she would probably say, “If you have a service and if you choose to sing a few hymns…” in her minimalist I don’t want to be a burden on you way. Well…we do choose to sing a few songs and make a few comments and remember a lady who would never approve of us doing so. And yet we remember because it’s part of what we are and who we are…the very fabric of our family. The stuff that keeps us from tearing apart…the beautiful embroidered quilt of family legacy that comforts us and shapes us and gives us hope for tomorrow.

While none of us were there when she entered the world in a sod dugout in 1911…her six children and others were there when she gently left us to go home. It’s been a great honor to call Mildred Inez Davis my Grandma… to share life with her. But I’m not troubled about her leaving us.

There’s a garden plot in heaven, tended by one of the new gardening saints…in a garden where hands and feet are being made new…and all the black-eyed peas and grapes and sweet potatoes are bursting forth from their vines and if you listen closely you can hear a new gardener singing about roses that never fade.

John 14 “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. My Father’s house has many rooms…and if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.”

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