Recently, I faced the solemn task of trying to capture in words all that my grandmother meant to me. I felt honored to honor her at her funeral service, but I did worry about what to share; how much of my personal connection with my grandmother should be discussed versus an overall tribute that everyone would recognize as the woman they knew and loved? Ultimately, I decided that the same traits that made her such an incredibly loving force in my life would be instantly recognizable to others as what they knew about my grandma. Three of us spoke at the service, each with a different approach, and I think that, together, we did the best we could to capture the compassion, wit, and love that my grandmother exemplified. Some friends asked me to share what I wrote, so it follows here:
3 6 9 0 9 8 7. Imagine the numbers on a phone’s touchpad. 3 6 9 0 9 8 7.
“There’s an easy way to remember this if you ever need me,” my grandma told me.
She guided my tiny finger over the numbers as she showed me how the numbers 3,6,9,0,9,8,7 made a line down and back across the dial.
You see, I wasn’t always able to see my grandma as a child, but she wanted to make sure I remembered that she was always there for me if I needed her.
Of course I needed her. I don’t think a more loving, compassionate, talented, and incredibly beautiful woman ever lived.
I needed her to take care of me, and she did. She taught me how to cook everything from grilled-cheese sandwiches toasted with real butter, not margarine, to bacon that was crisp and very well done – the way we agreed all meats should be prepared. She gave me beautiful flowing nightgowns because she thought I should feel beautiful, even in my sleep. We visited Northpark Mall quite regularly, where we talked and walked – and walked really quickly, by the way. She might have had short legs, but we would weave in and out of slower walkers and she could run laps around people with much longer legs. On these excursions, grandma often insisted that I pick out a new outfit. Being very frugal, I would head straight to the clearance rack to try to save her money. She would get so frustrated with me because she wanted me to feel that I was worth more. “If you like what’s on clearance, then buy it, but don’t buy something you don’t like just because it’s a few dollars less.” Of course, the underlying message was always that I had value, and she didn’t want me to forget that.
I needed her to be a role model, and she was. No, she is. My grandma shared her stories with me but also listened to mine. I learned that despite our difference in years, we had a great deal in common. We joked about our Taurus traits – loyalty and stubbornness. When I admitted to her that I had skipped school one day to drive to Lake Murray in Oklahoma with Erik, she told me about the time she skipped school to go drag racing. We discussed serious issues and social injustices as easily as we discussed favorite colors and movies. She taught me to communicate – through song, if necessary. I learned that my propensity to alter the lyrics of songs to fit the occasion was a family gift that originated with her dad, who would often wake his daughters up in this way. Perhaps the greatest of all values that my grandmother instilled in me is the ability to put myself in the place of others and to remember that everyone is facing some form of adversity. She taught me that words are powerful, and that kind words can work miracles. My grandmother followed her heart and went after what she wanted. So when she decided that she wanted to sing on live radio and landed the job, she also found her accompanist for life in her handsome pianist. Several of us would not be here today if not for her passion for music and her tenacity.
I needed her to guide me, and she did. My grandmother exuded love and warmth every second we were together and made me feel secure – something that was lacking at home. In this atmosphere of safety, she helped me explore my interests and encouraged me to read. The copy of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn that she lent me taught me that my situation did not define or limit me, and that education would shape my life and provide new opportunities. I would not be an English teacher today if not for grandma’s encouragement and her passion for reading and insistence that I follow my dreams. I was going to say that any time I needed advice, she gave it to me, but that’s not quite right. When I thought I needed advice, grandma would talk with me until I clearly understood what I wanted to do and why I needed to do it. I don’t know if she learned stealthy counseling super-powers during the many years she worked at SMU’s mental health clinic, or if this, as I suspect, was a natural gift of hers, but I always felt more confident, empowered, and at peace after talking with my grandmother.
When I was 18, I needed her to answer the phone. A very difficult year left me estranged from my family, living overseas, and not knowing how to get in touch with anyone. And then I remembered.
The lesson she taught me as a child echoed in my memory as I looked at the phone and dialed: 3 6 9 0 9 8 7. My grandma’s warm, musical voice greeted me, and her unwavering love and support immediately healed all wounds. I have valued every year since, knowing her not only as a wonderful grandmother, but also as a friend. You’re all here not only because you know what an enlightening presence Melva was in this world, but also because we have all been blessed by how she enriched, and will continue to enrich, each of our lives.