Grammy Wanda and Not Doing Swimming Lessons

Grammy Wanda and Not Doing Swimming Lessons

“Well, eventually, I’m sure you will.”

Swimming lessons had actually never crossed my mind. My oldest was four years old, and I had two others still in diapers. After telling my friend that we weren’t signed up, her words kept cycling through my mind. ‘Eventually, I’m sure you will…’

What else was I supposed to have my kids involved with that I hadn’t thought of yet? I never had swimming lessons as a child; I just spent hours and hours in lakes and the ocean. I had just assumed that they would learn the way I did. But, as I pondered ‘I’m sure you will…’ I realized that there were all sorts of other assumptions about what it meant to raise competent, happy, socially adjusted children. It starts with swimming lessons, moves along toward t-ball and then by high school it’s a blur of activities and taxi-cabbing. That seems to work well for lots of families. But was that what we wanted for ours?

As I thought, and discussed it with my husband, we both really wanted to be intentional about how our family spent time, and not just get swept up in the wave of what is expected.  What if we threw out the playbook and dreamed bigger? What if our activities weren’t centered on our children, but what if instead we chose activities that helped our children become others’ centered? We started to brainstorm.

And that is how we met Grammy Wanda.

We lived in a town with a lot of young or middle-aged families and went to church with young families and college students. But, we wanted ‘socially adjusted’ to mean more than getting along with our peers or people like us. Our family, and grandparents, lived far away, and I realized that there was a huge gap in my children’s socialization… they weren’t spending time with anyone with gray hair! I remembered my days in college volunteering in a nursing home. I thought of how lonely some of the men and women were and how eager they were to just have someone sit beside their bed and hold their hand, or talk about the photos on their bureau with them. I had a priceless commodity to bring some cheer to a place like that… babies!

It was close to Saint Patrick’s Day the first time we drove across the long covered bridge into Vermont and visited the Davis Home. The owner was excited to have children coming to visit and told us to come after lunch when many of the residents were still in the common room. She brought out leprechaun and four-leaf clover crafts and my oldest two sat with some lovely gray haired ladies and a cheerful staff woman who helped them all stick pieces together the right way. I walked around the room with the baby and said hello to some of the other residents just finishing lunch or sitting quietly. There was one woman in particular who seemed excited to see the children. She quickly became known as ‘Grammy Wanda’.

Grammy Wanda had several children and grandchildren but they all lived a distance away. Her son visited her once a week, took her out to eat and shopping. She showed me pictures of her beautiful teenage granddaughters, saying sadly that she only saw them once a year because they lived so far away. She said she had been a physical education teacher before she retired.

She also told me that she loved us, and that she was adopting us.

We went to the Davis Home almost every Tuesday for the next three years.  I had hoped that visiting a nursing home would teach the children the joy of serving others. I realized pretty quickly that in reality they were just learning the joy of getting spoiled by Grammy Wanda. On her weekly shopping trips with her son she would buy goldfish crackers, stickers, candy and lots and lots of bubbles. Going outside and blowing bubbles together was a favorite activity of Grammy Wanda and all the kids. She would blow bubbles and the kids would chase and try to pop them, and then the kids would blow bubbles and she would chase and try to pop them, and we would all laugh ourselves silly.

There were difficult moments (like when one old lady was in a bad mood and called my kids all kinds of swear words…), but the far majority of the time, bringing the children to a home with lots of older people afforded lots of fun and sweet times. We celebrated a lot of birthdays at the Davis Home, with my two or three year olds being sung ‘Happy Birthday’ by staff and residents and everyone having the fun of watching a little one blow out birthday candles. I found that preschoolers and some of the residents  with dementia enjoyed the same types of puzzles and board games. They liked the same snacks (it was the only time of the week my kids got Kool-aid with graham crackers… they loved that!!). And, just having my children at a table coloring pictures seemed to be entertainment for the residents.  Watching a pudgy little hand placing a fresh crayon drawing in a wrinkled hand, and seeing the smiles on two faces, was precious to me.

I had another baby during those three years and he was admired by all, but especially by Grammy Wanda. She wanted to hold him right away; I wasn’t sure how strong Wanda was so I shot a glance at a staff lady as if to say, “Do you think this is safe??” She nodded back reassuringly and I handed my tiny bundle to Grammy Wanda. She held him close and breathed in that sweet baby smell. She closed her eyes and soaked him in. Then she carried him around showing off ‘her new grandbaby’ to all the residents in the room that were too frail to walk over or hold him. I held my breath the whole time and was thankful to get him back safe and sound. The rest of the day, and many Tuesdays after, he smelled like Grammy Wanda’s perfume. She was his biggest cheerleader when he was learning how to walk. Maybe it was the PE teacher side of her coming out, but she told him all sorts of motivating things and clapped with joy and to his delight at his efforts.

For those three years Grammy Wanda was part of our family (and we were part of hers). I’ll always regret that those three years didn’t stretch into ten or fifteen. It was just before I had my fifth baby that we stopped making that daily Tuesday visit. I had a seven year old girl and boys aged five, three, and one and a half. I was round and full of my soon to arrive baby girl and having trouble keeping up with my active boys, especially as the winter kept us inside. And, Grammy Wanda was going through some difficult times with her health. It was harder for her to get out of her room and I could tell she felt badly that she wasn’t up for chasing bubbles or playing games. I confessed to the owner that I was having trouble making it over with my active bunch and tired pregnant body every week. She understood. She said maybe this was the natural time to take a break, and that we could come back anytime. Grammy Wanda understood as well. She said, “Just know that I love you.” I brought the baby to meet her when she was a couple of months old. I could tell Grammy Wanda was tired. My oldest daughter came along as well and they visited but I was glad that I’d left the younger (wilder) boys at home. Life got so busy after that. I sent a couple of cards to Grammy Wanda, and children’s drawings, but even that eventually got forgotten in the rush of changing diapers, making meals, running the farm and homeschooling.

A year or so later I ran into one of the ladies that had worked at the Davis Home. I quickly asked her how Wanda was, but she didn’t know. Grammy Wanda had been moved to another facility; she wasn’t sure where.

I likely won’t see her again until Heaven. There’s something both grievous about that and something okay about that. I thought that visiting a nursing home would be a good activity for my children to do; I could teach my children to serve and to be others-centered.  In reality, we didn’t find a meaningful activity or a place to give sacrificially. What we found was a person to love and to be loved by. Something like that never goes away. A skill might be learned for a season, and fade, but loving someone will always change us forever.

Sometimes Grammy Wanda would go on little field trips with us. Ironically, one summer she came along to swimming lessons. I had finally taken the plunge and signed the kids up for swimming lessons with the recreation department. A few high school and college students were giving lessons to children from preschool to diving board ages. Grammy Wanda had given a lot of swimming lessons in her days as a physical education teacher. I could see her itching to jump in the water and use her decades of experience. We sat together at the pond’s edge and she watched the little ones splashing around and retrieving rings. She glanced over at me. “You know,” she said in a hushed tone. “I don’t think they’re learning much. They really aren’t teaching them a thing.”

I smiled. I know, Grammy Wanda. I know. You have so much more to teach us.

God’s Gentle Parenting (Or Why I Love the Bible)

God’s Gentle Parenting (Or Why I Love the Bible)

There’s a beautiful pick-your-own strawberry patch in Vermont that I love to visit with my children every summer. It’s been many years and many lovely trips, but there is one moment that will always rise above the rest as the most memorable. I had four little ones; a baby strapped to my back and three others under the age of five. We went early but still the strawberry patch was busy with mostly older ladies and couples who were all serious about getting their berries for the freezer and jam. A few gave the kids quick smiles as we passed and went right back to work. I got down to business as well and started picking as soon as I had everyone settled in spots with plentiful red berries. I kept my children in my peripheral vision and they all seemed content and plopped berries in their little boxes.  It was one of those ‘this is the way life is meant to be’ serene moments. Until, my oldest started yelling…. and I do mean yelling… “MOM!!! He’s peeing on the strawberries!!” I’m sure my head wasn’t the only one that quickly turned and saw my little country-raised three year old peeing across three rows of strawberry plants. The next fifteen minutes are fuzzy. Somehow four kids and a half-filled flat of strawberries made it into the van and part way home without me making eye contact with anyone.  I remember driving along thinking, ‘I can never go back there… ever…”

But, somehow, this week found me picking berries at the same farm, with much older children and a toddler (diaper securely fastened!).  My kids are great, hard workers, and they also love strawberry jam, so they were motivated. We were there at lunch time, and the field was full of children and their mothers. One little boy, uninterested in picking, had wandered off; it looked like he might have found a friend his age and started running around the field. His mother noticed and yelled, “Oliver… Oliver, get back over here!” Her voice was loud enough for everyone in the berry patch to hear and her tone showed her obvious displeasure. With drooping shoulders he slowly made his way back over to her.  She directed him back to picking berries. “See… look at those kids over there.” She pointed to my group of pickers. “Look at how those good little kids are picking berries. Why don’t you start picking like them?”  I cringed. I wanted to go over and grab Oliver’s small hands and say, “Little One, don’t feel bad. On a different day you might have seen these ‘good little kids’ running around like wild things and maybe even peeing on the berries.”

This time, we left with three full flats of strawberries and a few quart baskets held in little hands for the ride home. And, as I drove, my thoughts were still on Oliver and his mother. My thoughts were also on my own children and my own heart when I call them or need to correct them. I prayed for us; I want to laugh and play and rejoice loudly but when I need to speak harder words to do so with quietness and close proximity. When I call my children back from wandering, I want to use the same tone that I would use if it were their birthday and it was time to have cake and ice cream. I delight in my children, even when they are straying, and I want my voice to carry that truth.

As I drove, and pondered the value of quietly correcting my children, I thought of times when my husband has had to speak with one of our boys after church when they were getting a bit too rowdy. I’d see him draw the boy away from the crowd; a father’s hand on his child’s shoulder and his knees bent to look in the boy’s eyes. In that moment, his words aren’t heard by anyone else because they are low and gentle. Instead of seeing the boy’s shoulders droop, I’d see them get taller. I’d see him want to be a man and to do what is right. Most people don’t notice the interaction at all. There isn’t a scene, there aren’t raised voices.  There is no public shame. But the boy is noticed and spoken to and corrected in the quiet presence of his father.

And, I thought, isn’t this just what God does with us?

I spent the summer I turned fourteen with my grandmother. I had a little upstairs room all to myself with a window that looked out over a farm pond, a long field and the sunset. It’s the first time I remember really reading the Bible. I didn’t have commentaries, the internet or even a church family to learn from; just a leather covered New King James version and a lot of time on my hands. Maybe in hindsight it would have been good to start with one of the gospels, like Luke or John, that would have been easier for me to read and gain some context for understanding the rest of the Bible, but I didn’t do that. I just picked it up and decided to read straight through from the beginning.

And, miraculously, that young teen understood and fell in love. It was the start of not just time in a book, but of a relationship with the Author. They were my first moments of being that child with my Heavenly Father pulling me aside and leaning over me; telling me the hardest, sweetest, most beautiful story ever told. Pointing out the ways He’s seen my heart and my actions straying and correcting me with a patient gentleness; assuring me of His love for me now. And, I think most significantly, showing me His attributes and His character and allowing me to know Him. There in that westerly facing room, still a child and alone but for the Spirit of God, I fell in love with the Word of God, both written and manifest in Jesus.

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. John 1:14

I remember those moments so well that it’s hard to believe so much time has passed since that first summer. The other night my family was all outside playing; I had been tagged and was frozen. I stood admiring my family and the beautiful place we get to live. I looked up at the pointed fir trees, felt the glory of God in nature, and I wondered, ‘what would I believe if I had never read the Bible?’ I tried to separate out everything I had read from what I felt right at that moment. Later I wrote about it in my journal:

What if I didn’t have God’s Word? That is what I wondered as I stood frozen in our game of ‘ball tag’ tonight. I’d know that there is something more powerful than me. I would know that the world was designed and created. I would know there is a battle between life and death. I would feel it even in myself… the struggle to stay on the side of life with goodness and kindness. I would know that there is beauty… and that I can’t quite enter into it… that it is something outside of myself in an almost painful way.  I would know love… the deep love of a mother. I would see the amazing design in each of my children… I would know they came from me and yet I didn’t make them. I think I would know there is God because of prayer… I would want to speak to him and hear him. But I think I would be afraid. I wouldn’t know if God was good or bad or if He loved me. I would be so crushed by His power and the unknown.

And then, while still pondering, I thought of that little children’s hymn, “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so…” Just from studying his creation I would know a lot about God and myself. But I wouldn’t know the gospel… I wouldn’t know that God had entered into His beautiful and yet fallen creation in order to redeem us or of the staggering depth of his love. I might know things about him, but I don’t think I could really know or trust him.

After the game that evening, I sat by our small pond and watched the row boat that had drifted from shore. It was floating aimlessly. I thought of how without the Bible I would have been floating through life on the currents of my feelings. So often, my time in the Word has been that time of being pulled aside and corrected by my Father. The Word exposes my sin; not just the actions but my thoughts and the bent of my heart. I might come to the Word saddened by the evil in the world, or the wrongdoing of others, but when God speaks to me it’s about the tangled knots of sin in my own heart. It’s my own sin that I see crushing Jesus on the cross, and the work Christ did there becomes devastatingly personal in a heartbreakingly beautiful way. “But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace and with his wounds we are healed.” (Isaiah 53:5) God lifts my eyes to see not just my sin there with Jesus but the death inside of me dying with him. The Word made flesh, dying a fleshly death, so that in me, the Word can bring life.

I return to the Word, and to the cross, over and over and over again. This summer I’ve been reading through the book of Hosea, part of the Old Testament and written hundreds of years before the birth of Jesus. And yet it is all about Jesus. From beginning to end the Bible contains the cross, the ransomed life and the Father calling to his wandering children.

Come, let us return to the Lord;

for he has torn us, that he may heal us;

He has struck us down, and he will bind us up.

After two days he will revive us;

on the third day he will raise us up,

that we may live before him.

Let us know; let us press on to know the Lord;

His going out is sure as the dawn;

He will come to us as the showers,

as the spring rains that water the earth. (Hosea 6:1-3)

 

It’s raining again this morning as I sit here reading these ancient words. While the rain pours down outside my window, watering my tomatoes and green beans, the words from this long ago prophet are once again watering my soul.  Since I first picked up that Bible as a young teen, there have been a lot of spring rains, many wanderings and many returns. Throughout it all God has remained the same. He has never been the loud and frustrated parent. He has never been embarrassed by my lack of maturity or ashamed of my fumbles. But He has continued with his effectual call, desiring me to return to Him and to His Word. I don’t think it will ever cease to amaze me that it’s not just for our salvation that He calls to us, but it’s for our and His own delight.

The Lord your God is in your midst,

a mighty one who will save;

he will rejoice over you with gladness;

he will quiet you by his love;

he will exult over you with loud singing.

Zephaniah 3:17