Three years ago this week I attended my grandmother’s funeral in Merced, California. The family-sitting-around-the-table time included a lot of stories about the trips up to Yosemite with the camping trailer and the four kids and even my great-grandparents. Our celebration of my grandmother’s life included the part in church (which was a huge part of who she was), and also included a trip up to Yosemite Valley – another huge part of her life. We just missed the firefall, but the weather was clement and we hiked up the sides of the valley past rotten snow and remembered stories of bears and cookies and pranks and times past.
My mom always had this t-shirt, a light heathered blue with dark blue trim, straight from the 70s. I still have it somewhere in a box. It said, “Go Climb a Rock” on it and I loved it. Climbing boulders at Yosemite was a favorite memory from my childhood too, although rarer than my excursions in the northern mountains. What a great commandment – “Go Climb a Rock”. Stop taking yourself so seriously. Just get outside and be a kid.
So on this trip, I bought a t-shirt of my very own that says this very thing, and remembers the four generations of mountain-loving women I come from.
Front Text: Yosemite Mountaineering School and Guide Service
Back Text: Go Climb a Rock
I just said farewell to my extended family, after several days of extreme togetherness for my grandmother’s funeral. We’re a farflung lot. We came from Boston, Minnesota, Iowa, Washington and California for the celebration of her life. I think that since my uncle enlisted in the Navy out of high school, the four siblings have never all lived in the same state. (Maybe briefly in the ’80s?) The far-flungness gets worse with my generation. (At one point, my family of birth lived in four households across all four continental US timezones.)
You might take from that an idea we don’t like each other. Nothing can be further from the truth. These people are awesome. They’re hilarious. Entire conversations were conducted entirely in pun. The jokes flew thick and fast. But, generally, they were kind jokes based on wordplay instead of insult. We spent a ton of time catching each other up on our lives – the full parts of them, including the complicated challenges and feelings. I’m related to some kind, intelligent people who are interesting to be around. They listen. I sometimes feel like I won the family lottery.
There are many ways the celebrate the life of a person who has died. With three pastors in the family, we did the funeral in grand style. (Although none of the three actually conducted the funeral. There was just a wealth of liturgical knowledge and some extremely moving speeches.) My aunt and I had a bit of a reunion tour – I rented a trumpet. She was often my accompanist in high school, and we played several pieces together which was awesome. Grandma had arranged much of her funeral (including picking her lavendar casket and the funeral home) but the only part of the service she’d specified was that my aunt sing “The Silver Cord” – a hymn I’d never heard before but which was a beautiful expression of faith. (I can’t believe there are Fanny Crosby hymns I don’t know! Few chances to learn them either – they’re no longer much sung.)
But in addition to the traditional services of the funeral, we remembered my grandmother – and each other – in other ways as well. We ate meals prepared with the loving hands of her daughters and daughters-in-law that were her favorites. We looked through pictures together. We told and heard stories of her, and the family. We read through some of her letters. We made jokes about a notebook that said “Ruth’s Notes” and was totally blank. (I used it to record the funeral planning.)
My favorite remembrance was heading up to a place that was very dear to her. A bunch of us went up to Yosemite to spend the day. Grandma had loved Yosemite, and a lot of the warmest stories came from camping trips (when she’d taken the FOUR kids up by herself, sometimes!) I am a mountain girl myself, and it was great to see the places of story in legend in real life. (The superb weather didn’t hurt either.) We even found the “Indian Caves” which have an oversized place in family mythology. It made my heart glad.
It was hard to take our leave of each other (despite the fact I am pretty sure we were all completely exhausted – it was as action-packed a funeral week as I could imagine). It was just that we enjoyed each other so much, and it’s hard to see how or when we might be together again. May we all be so lucky as to have families who we can spend a week in close quarters with and leave with only warm feelings and a wish to be together again soon.
In the years of the roaring 20s, Chester Finley and his sharp-eyed, capable wife Frances Finley were married. They had two young, bright sons – close in age – followed by a daughter Ruth. As young boys her brothers Russell and Richard started acting strangely. At the ages of about five and three (I think?), they stopped walking, stopped talking. They died not long after. I remember Grandma Finley showing me the pictures of them, dressed in their Sunday best, lying still in their coffins. She wept, sixty years later, for their lost beauty. What peace there might have been in that midwestern home was shattered. Frances – so strong and capable – could not bear the death of her sons and left her husband and quiet young daughter while she stayed with her parents. When I think about my grandmother, I think about this formative time. She rarely – never – talked about it. But I imagine that little girl with her patient, grieving father, and her lost brothers, and her missing mother.
I was told this story because there was a chance that the sudden lost of those two boys was a genetic flaw (four trouble free generations later, we suspect it was some sort of environmental poison they got into). Indeed, my great-grandparents never bore another child. They adopted Walter to help with the farm. Walter was mischief personified (from what I could tell) – a happy go lucky child in a serious family and it was my grandmother’s job to keep him out of trouble. Some jobs are impossible.
When the second world war put lie to the hope that the first had been the “war to end all wars”, Ruth was a young woman in a small midwestern town. The story here is shrouded, but my grandfather Virgil left for the war (he was a baker on the European front – but even the bakers saw some things that marred memories) with an understanding with one young woman. During the war, he and my grandmother (from the same small town) exchanged letters. After the war was over, the two of them got married. We have a beautiful hand-colored photo of them beneath a grape arbor, him in a dark suit and her wearing a simple white dress.
I have a story from her in a letter I cannot find (I probably put it somewhere “safe” – curse my bones!), where she talks of the post-WWII housing shortage. They lived those first year in a house that had been custom built for what she called a “midget couple” who had made their living in the circus. Grandma said she could cook dinner while sitting on the bed. I really wish I could find that letter.
In her own words… “Grandpa and I were not Christians when we were married. In our hearts we knew we would always feel unfulfilled as we were living. Then in January of 1948 our Wesleyan Church had a revival and we recommitted our lives to Jesus. Larry was born two months later – into a Godly home! We never looked back.” (April 11, 2006)
Larry Marcus was followed by Kathy Frances, who was followed by Renee. Each child was given the middle name of a grandparent, until they got to Renee. My grandmother could not stomach “Blanche” as a young girl’s name, even in the middle! (The result being that I don’t know Renee’s middle name! Edited: My mom says it is Evelyn, which was Blanche’s middle name!)
In 1954, the whole extended family moved to California in “Grapes of Wrath” type moment. (Well, everyone but Walter as far as I can tell.) They lived in a little house in Turlock California, with a big family and big garden. Brian Chester – the last of the children – joined them. My grandfather worked at an asphalt/construction company in accounting, and in 1963 my grandmother went to work, first at Farmer’s Insurance and then in the Merced Schools library.
My grandmother described the home in Turlock, “Your Grandpa and I loved fixing the house on Locust Lane in Turlock (My mom says the house in Turlock was actually on Mitchell St, but we may need a family conference to get this all right). Grandpa hired a carpenter to put in metal liners in two deep drawers. One drawer held 25 lbs of flour, the smaller one, 10 lbs of sugar. He put lazy susans in the corner. Grandpa bought a big electric stove – the oven held 6 loaves of bread. Oh, did I bake in those days. We had an acre of land with lovely walnut trees and two apricot trees. My folks, the Finleys, lived in a trailer next door. Grandpa Finley irrigated the whole acre as it was needed. What a wonderful place for the children.”
The young family years are filled with tales of camping trips to Yosemite, grape arbors, camping cookies and gardens. My grandparents were, from that revival in 1948 until their dying breaths, extremely faithful and devoted Christians, following a Nazarene theology. They supported the building of a new church, and my grandfather was the church treasurer. (He actually had an office in the church, which I remember being very impressed by.) It was a very strict practice (no movies, no rock music, no face cards, no dancing – certainly no alcohol or smoking or indecency). This made for quite a culture clash with the ’60s, when the older children were teenagers. If there was a saving grace in that conflict, from what I can understand, it is that my grandparents were willing to live by the strictures they preached. There’s an old joke that you should always invite two Nazarenes fishing with you. If you invite only one, he’ll drink all your beer. Your beer would have been more than safe with my grandparents, I think.
Around the time I was born, they moved as a family to a trailer park just off the freeway in Merced – my grandparents and their parents in trailers in the same park. My grandmother describes meeting me, “For some reason, I often think of you the very first time I saw you – at 6 months of age – at the airport. I as holding you while your mother and Grandpa collected luggage. Several people came up to us and commented on how pretty you were. You had such a dear perky way about you!”
We lived with my grandparents for a year, after we came back from Zaire. I turned four in their home, and remember it well. It gave me a familiarity with my grandparents I was lucky to have. I remember sitting for lunch at the long dining table, with the cold cuts and breads beautifully presented. Dessert was often sliced nectarines, or cottage cheese and jam mixed together.
My grandmother was very interested in people, and in their stories. Her letters to me are full of updates about the family, her neighbors, and friends of friends. (I always tried to write really newsy letters back so her letters to OTHER people could be about me.) She was very a very good cook, and preserved food. I remember an abandoned apple tree in a neighbor’s yard. She spent hours and hours laboring over a hot stove turning bushels of apples into applesauce.
She lived a life tending to others. I remember her as a caretaker to her mother, her mother-in-law, her great-aunt, her husband. When they left, she tended to the only-slightly-older folks around her.
When your grandmother dies, even at age 93, people often express their sympathy. I have often replied that in her death, my grandmother realizes one of her fondest hopes. One of her last letters to me, written in a hand turned shaky and short by neuropathy, ended with this joyful anticipation “I often think of heaven. It seems so close, so real. I often think of the loved ones who are already there. So if I don’t see you all again, let’s make a promise to meet in Heaven. Eternal joy! No more separation or pain! Bliss! I like that word. Much love, Grandma Jones”
I have created a shared album of pictures of grandma here. I’m pretty sure I’ve got some details that are missing – I’d love to hear the family stories!
Although the calendar informs me that there are several precious days of summer left, my updates are more sporadic than I might wish.
This summer was an exceptional one. I’m not quite sure how to articulate it, but it seemed like uber-summer — the kind of summer used to define what summer is. (Reminding me, in fact, of last Halloween). Perhaps it’s looking at the world through the eyes of my sons. For Grey, this summer might well define what summer is. It may be the thing he unconsciously expects for the rest of his life. (Note: my uber-summer was the summer I was nine and living in the fields and forests of Washington state. According to my memory, I spent the entire time wandering the woods, catching newts on the pond and watching clouds wend their way above dancing firs.) But this summer was one of those kinds of summers. It started early, in May. The weather turned exceptional after a soggy spell of spring and a less-brutal-than-usual winter. And it stayed exceptional. The summer made you comfortable and secure in its summerness. I forgot entirely about jackets. My sons wandered in sandals alone. The windows were only closed when it was too hot out. There was warm, hot, and omg.
This summer was also full of joyful adventures. We took three 4-day weekends to go camping with the boys. I watched my sons evolve over the course of those trips. I watched Thane learn how to entertain himself (and I learned what to pack so he would). Grey made friends with the kids next door, and ventured past the protective skirt of his parents to roam with the packs of children. (Well, he was more watched than he realized, but he never caught me tailing him. And he never needed me to be tailing him.) Both boys made a lot of progress swimming. (Thane would push himself along with his hands in the shallow water, saying “‘wim! ‘wim!” the last time I took him to the lake.) Heck, the boys even figured out how to sleep on their shared and bouncy air mattress. At the end of the summer, my husband and I sat in front of a roaring fire, our sons sleeping nearby, reading as the sparks flew to the visible milky way above.
There was my whirlwind trip across country with both boys to California. That had some very *important* moments in it, and some valuable ones. Those will prove precious, now and later. But I think my favorite parts were getting to know my young cousin and the brief hours we spent at Yosemite. There was a primal longing for me that was quenched, scratched, call it what you will. It was both deeply desire-inducing and deeply satisfying. It was captured by this moment, I think:
Of course, notable among the life-long-memories was the trip to Istanbul. The heat of summer was just one of the flavors of that journey — the clarity of the winds off the swirling straights, the competing calls to prayer from the minarets high on hallowed and historic ground, the delights to be found in aubergine… it was a week never to be forgotten and long to be savored.
Then there were the day to day things that came together to make it just and wholly summer. Every week I had a huge box of produce to find a way to work into my menus. Many a Monday night I stood at the sink peeling peaches, or stirring jam hot on the stove, my hair curling at the nape of my neck. My sons would ask to play in the park on the way home, and I would oblige. In the undimmed sunlight of 6 pm they would run and jump and climb and crawl. On Saturday afternoons, you might find me in conversation with a neighbor on the latest happenings on the street, or watching our children playing together. Most nights we slept with the windows wide to the light and breezes and air of a barely-cool summer.
It has seemed so long and glorious and full. It has been the epitome, the true expression, of what summer can be even in a life fully lived with jobs and kids and church and all those things that keep me on my toes.
Autumn is my favorite season. The crispness and urgency of the beauty catch me up short. The leaves (after a brief, drought-driven flirtation with color) have only now started to consider the possibilities inherent in changing their green gowns for gold and crimson. I traded out Thane’s 2T summer wardrobe for a 3T winter wardrobe this evening. It seems selfish to hope that autumn is as gloriously autumnal as summer was graciously warm. But oh! I do hope.
I rarely cite song lyrics, because I mostly listen to 16th century polyphony and that makes for really obscure allusions, but one of the few pieces of music from the last 50 years that I do know is the King Singers’ cover of “The Summer Knows”. It summarizes well the intentional seduction of such a warm and easy summer:
The summer smiles, the summer knows
And unashamed, she sheds her clothes
The summer smoothes the restless sky
And lovingly she warms the sand on which you lie.
The summer knows, the summer’s wise
She sees the doubts within your eyes
And so she takes her summer time
Tells the moon to wait and the sun to linger
Twists the world ’round her summer finger
Lets you see the wonder of it all.
And if you’ve learned your lessons well
There’s little more for her to tell
One last caress, it’s time to dress for fall.
And if you’ve learned your lesson well
There’s little more for her to dwell.
One last caress, it’s time to dress for fall.
Sometimes in life, you are inconvenienced by your “values”. You don’t dish some particularly juicy gossip. You help a friend move in 80 degree weather with 80% humidity. You buy a car that isn’t as big as you would enjoy but that has great gas mileage. Well, a month or so ago my mom called me up with a crazy plan. “I want to take the kids to see grandma in California”. Her version of the plan involved two cross country flights and a 16 hour drive from Washington to Merced for my little guys.
But the thing was, almost all my grandmother’s descendants were descending upon that Mecca of fig-growing, that irrigated paradise. And my mother really wanted her mother to at least get to MEET Thane for the first time, and to encounter Grey as a verbal and interesting person. She had an excellent point. I cogitated. Now, if asked to name some of life’s priorities, I’d probably include family among them. Or maybe I wouldn’t even… I’d forget to articulate it because OF COURSE family is one of life’s priorities. But the options for getting the boys out to see their great-grandmother were all difficult and inconvenient. Round trip tickets. Long drives. But the one that made the MOST sense was for me to take the boys out, see my own grandmother, and return with them. That was what living up to “My family is important to me” meant. But with the newish job and the merger and the trip to Istanbul in two weeks… I didn’t have a lot of time to take. Two days seemed like the most vacation time that I could scramble together.
So that is what I did. We left Wednesday night. The flight was a red-eye, delayed nearly two hours. I sang about 80 verses of “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” and blessed the fact that an empty seat meant I could bring Thane’s car seat. He’s still (barely) young enough to be a lap child, but that wouldn’t have been fun for anyone, including everyone in a four aisle radius. We finally got on board, and Grey went to sleep. Thane fell asleep too, but he woke up about ever half hour screaming BLOODY murder. The entire flight. The only cool part was the lightening. For the entire interior of the country, for about 5 of these wakings, the horizon flickered with the menacing lightening.
I arrived late and tired, and my folks picked me up at the airport. Thursday and Friday I spent with my family. There was swimming in the pool. I got to talk with cousins I remember from when they were tiny, one whose birth happened during Christmas at my house when I was 16. The one whose birth I so vividly remember is 15 now, and wants to learn about programming. It’s surprisingly flattering when one’s teenage hacker cousin seeks one out for technical advice and looks up to one as an Oracle because one is a real live programmer. It was really lovely to see my extended family again.
Saturday, we went to the airport by was of Yosemite valley. My only regret is that I didn’t have a week to spend in Yosemite. It was glorious and fantastic and amazing and deserved way more time than we had. We got the kids out of the car, and walking towards a stomping ground I remember, in 90 degree heat (Central Valley spent the week at 102 – 103). We walked past this shallow, pebbly stream in dappled sunlight. This was not to be resisted. We stripped the kids down and there was a great frolic in the river. It was awesome.
Then Saturday night I flew back home with the boys. It went slightly better. Thane only woke up every hour, and his screaming was diminished in intensity, until I woke him up to get off the airplane.
There are some things where the memories and the pictures are priceless. I got a picture of my grandmother with all but three of her direct descendants. I saw Yosemite for the first time as an adult. I got to spend an evening in a hot desert patio with my cousin, talking about his dreams and desires. I read the poem my grandmother wrote to my grandfather on their second anniversary. I gave her a hug and I told her I loved her. I had the best maple bar of my life.
These, my friends, are the things that matter. Not the red-eyes and crying babies and inconvenient schedules. I’m so glad and grateful that I had this opportunity.