My grandmother passed away yesterday… on Thanksgiving. This isn’t exactly the hook line you’re supposed to start with to grab someone’s attention, but I realize this is less about how many people read what I write and more about taking the time to honor a woman I love who didn’t receive much honor during her lifetime.
I recently published a book and I only say that to say I wrote a chapter about her, about getting to know her later in life and how much I had grown to love her (you appreciate so little when you’re young). My plan was to give her a copy for Christmas. She lived a quiet life, often afraid she hadn’t done enough or loved well. She was my mom’s mom, which is why we called her Mommom. My Dad’s dad (we just called him Papa cause DadDad sounds weird) passed away just before Thanksgiving about three years ago. His death was national news, and while only certain groups may have known his name, his name was in the headlines, highways in Charlotte, NC were closed during his processional, and hundreds upon hundreds of people attended his funeral.
Sometimes I think Mommom felt inferior to my dad’s limelight side of the family, but she never said so. A lot of people say I get my stage presence from my dad’s side of the family, especially my grandfather- he had it (as well as my dad). But I know for a fact I get my witty sense of humor from my mom’s side- not only my mom, but as I spent more time with my grandmother later in life, I realized my mom got it from her. She was so funny, so witty, even at 97 years old. Just before she passed on Thanksgiving she reminded my dad to wait until the turkey was cooled before he carved it. When asked how she was feeling she said, “at my age everything hurts, and if it doesn’t hurt, it isn’t working!” We laughed A LOT with Mommom.
I mailed her pictures from when I got married this year and she beamed with pride. Josh and I went to visit her while back in South Carolina and she had our pictures proudly posted in her room. She called him my “lover boy” and said she was too short to reach his cheek so he’d have to bend down for a kiss.
With every visit we played cards and parcheesi and she was impossible to beat– at first it was like “go easy on her, she’s old,” but my siblings and I quickly learned she was ruthless and even in our best efforts to take her down in cards, she’d have none of that. I’ve only beaten her one time and I recorded it because I knew it would never happen again.
I wasn’t always as close with Mommom growing up. In fact it wasn’t until fall of 2015 that I really got to know my grandmother, as a friend, not just a relative. I’ve been going through old pictures and journal entries and I found this unfinished entry during that time…
Today I rubbed lotion on my grandmother’s legs. Prior to this I don’t think I have ever touched my grandmother’s legs, be it because that’s normal to not go around touching an older person’s legs or because I never thought I had a need to, it struck me as odd that at 32 years old I didn’t even know what my grandmother’s legs looked like before today.
When I think about it, I guess I do notice much of the older population tends to stick to pants when it comes to getting dressed for the day. I remember my little sister crying in her bed one night. Mom and dad came rushing in, “honey, what’s wrong? what’s wrong?”
“I don’t want to get old,” she cried while my parents tried not to laugh, “why?” they asked. “Because then I won’t be able to wear shorts,” she cried, terrified of having old legs that needed to be hidden under pants. We still laugh about this incident.
I thought about that night as I rubbed lotion on my grandmother’s legs today. I noticed her getting fidgety in her chair. She was trying to take a nap in her lazy boy but she kept rubbing her legs as if they were aggravating her. She’s in her nineties and uses a walker to get around but the only places she gets to are the kitchen and the living room. She can’t hear very well anymore and doesn’t always feel great, but she credits much of that to a default of being alive for ninety plus years. She spends most of her days alone in the house as everyone is off at work, or in my case, finding something else to do since I’m visiting and don’t want to be cooped up in a house all day.
As the holidays have approached I’ve begun thinking about what I could do to help people, what could I do to step outside of myself? I’m better at helping people during the holidays, I’m not proud of it, in fact I don’t think I even realized it until I started writing this, but if I look at my track record, I’m much better at helping people during the holidays when everything feels all warm and fuzzy and the need seems to be more clear. It’s as easy as filling a shoebox with gifts or pulling a name off a tree, maybe showing up at a shelter to serve a meal.
Geez. I hate re-reading about my selfish nature sometimes, but at the very least at least looking at it helps me realize what needs to change. Things did change that Christmas. It was my first Christmas in two different homes as my parents divorce finalized. It’s still weird to process divorce as an adult, you think you’re supposed to be stronger than a child, not be as sad, but acting stronger doesn’t make you stronger, it wears out your energy until you’re weaker than you thought possible. Just let yourself be sad about stuff, it’s okay.
And that’s what I had to tell myself as I processed the death of a 97 year old woman that I knew was coming if for no other reason than age alone. But it doesn’t make it any less sad to lose a life, especially a life you didn’t feel got it’s due credit and that you waited much too long to know it’s value. I’m at peace with my Mommom and I’s relationship, I grew to love her probably more than she knew, but with death comes the thought, “if I had only sent one more letter or called one more time… I hope she knew how much she was loved.” More and more I want that for people, to know their worth and value, to know they are loved. I can’t be that person for everyone, I’m only one person and I’m still trying to figure out how to get good at it in my own family, but I still want everyone to know it to be true for themselves- you are loved. You are worthy.
So today I honor my Mommom by sharing this chapter I wrote about her, because she’s worth reading about, whether by many or by a few loved ones, she’s worth taking the time to talk about, and perhaps that’s how I will let myself process my grief. Her death will not make national news, but that doesn’t make her any less important to those who knew and loved her. And I never got to tell her, “Mommom, I wrote a book, and you’re in it!” I’m sad about that too. I wanted her to feel a little bit of the limelight just once in her life, I wanted her to know her granddaughter loved and admired her.
“it’s called a spade” by JJ Barrows
We don’t have a Christmas tree this year. I suppose at 32 years old and with all that is going on in the world, it isn’t the biggest deal that we don’t have a Christmas tree this year. In the grand scheme of things, it isn’t a big deal at all. Plenty of people either don’t have Christmas trees or have never had one, so who am I to complain?
And yet I’ve been thinking (shocker), if I can so easily dismiss my own feelings about not having a Christmas tree this year, I can just as easily dismiss someone else’s feelings about not having a Christmas tree this year, which is to say I can easily dismiss their story without a care in the world as to the reason why they don’t have a Christmas tree this year, or maybe why they’ve never had one at all (if they do in fact celebrate Christmas).
Perhaps it’s not so much about the Christmas tree as it is about the why behind it. As with many things in life that may seem like “no big deal,” perhaps the small things are a big deal because there is a “why” attached to those small things, a story unheard due to assumption.
I’ve always been obsessed with Christmas. I was the kid who was preparing for the arrival of December 25th the day after Halloween, and honestly sometimes even before then. My goal was to turn our house into a winter wonderland no matter how tacky everyone else thought it to be. I hung lights anywhere my mother would allow it and spent any extra money I had on decorations.
As a preacher’s kid I understood “the reason for the season,” but as just your average kid, the manger scene was more of an epic center piece for Christmas dinner. I was grateful Jesus came to earth in the form of a tiny little baby, mostly because it gave us a reason to have Christmas- the ultimate birthday party.
When I was real young my gifts consisted of coupon books, ones that included free hugs, a three-minute back rub, being nice to my sister Betsy… stuff like that. When I got older the coupons got more serious; extended free hugs, ten-minute back rubs and kisses for the whole family even when I didn’t feel like kissing them. My mom still has the coupons.
In college my gift to my parents was my presence at home because like your average college kid, I was broke. But with my presence came my Christmas spirit and ability to decorate. I’d stay up late on Christmas eve (after the roles reversed and the parents were the first to go to bed) to clean the entire house, set and decorate the kitchen table for the Christmas meals, and prepare an overnight breakfast casserole to be served alongside Jesus’ birthday cake in the morning.
When I started working the presents came rolling in and without the excuse of being a kid, I lost complete sense of what Christmas was all about. I tried to make the day last as long as possible by getting as many presents as possible. The longer we all sat around the tree and opened presents, the better Christmas seemed. Maybe somewhere deep down it wasn’t so much about the presents, maybe it was just wanting my family to sit around together for an extended period of time in which they all seemed happy, and maybe without the presents, I didn’t know how else to make that happen.
The Christmas of 2006 was the worst Christmas I can remember, largely due to my eating disorder and inability to fix it with the Christmas spirit. I racked up a great deal of debt that season because shopping kept me from binging and purging on the Christmas cookies I made in abundance (because one batch of cookies is never enough for a bulimic). My old friend anorexia would sometimes come to visit and on those days I felt powerful and in control, but my newer friend bulimia liked the holidays more than anorexia, and so bulimia is who I spent more of my time with that holiday season. I tried so hard to make Christmas perfect that year, and all I can remember is how miserable I was.
After going off to treatment in 2007, it would be a couple of years before I returned home again for Christmas. In 2009 when I finally did go home I was unaware it was going to be the last Christmas in which my whole family would be together, my parents still living under the same roof. I was sick and slept through Christmas dinner. My boyfriend at the time had flown in from Chicago to surprise me but seeing as how I was passed out on the couch, he ended up spending most of his time talking to my grandmother, an often forgotten family member.
After moving to Portland, Oregon in the fall of 2010, I spent the following Christmases out on the west coast with friends. Friends are often easier than family and much cheaper than a round trip ticket across the United States, so my excuses to stay away from home were valid.
Last year I returned home for Christmas and it was the first time members of my family would be celebrating in two different houses due to my parents’ divorce. I didn’t know how to feel about it. I tried to “make the best of it” as I was advised to do, but what about the reality of it being sad that we weren’t one family anymore? I mean sure, we were, but we weren’t.
I didn’t think I would be back home for Christmas this year. It was not a part of my plan, funny how that works. I’ve been living in San Diego, California over the past year and San Diego is perfect for escaping life’s problems, except for the fact that you never escape life’s problems no matter where you go. After going on a trip overseas with my mom and brother, I returned to South Carolina with them. That was in October and I’m still here… at Christmas.
I’ve spent the last few months helping my mother move out of our family home of 35 years. The house is on the market and if ever there were an empty nest, it is that house. Day in and day out my mother, brother and I have stripped the walls and packed everything away, taking car load after car load over to my mother’s new condo. It’s been a slow process and I’m exhausted. “Make the best of it,” I hear a voice play in the back of my mind, and so I’ve been trying to do that- make the best of it, offer help, cook food, be present, be strong, be 32 and not in need of a Christmas tree.
A couple of weeks ago I was in the empty house by myself. I turned on Christmas music and I let it echo through the empty halls. I danced and I was happy. Then I sat on the floor of the larger than life empty living room and watched memories flash across the walls as if they were movie clips, and I cried. For the first time since my family split up, I uttered the words “I miss my family.” I laid on the floor and I cried as I let myself miss my family. “I wish we had a Christmas tree,” I cried, but I knew it was about more than just the tree.
It’s no secret I’m an advocate for feeling your pain, in part because I’ve spent a good portion of my life avoiding it. But as of recent I’m sick of feeling my pain to the point of not being able to see other people. I’m still trying to find the balance of feeling your feelings without getting stuck in them. And so while I’m bummed we don’t have a Christmas tree because my mom’s condo is too small, our old house is too empty and I’m still not quite sure who to spend Christmas with or how, this doesn’t have to be the Christmas that gets remembered as the one without the tree.
In the middle of all the moving and family drama and stress of holiday expectations, there is someone I overlooked along the way, someone I’ve overlooked along the entire way, as in the span of my entire life.
My mother’s mother. Mommom, we call her. My grandmother.
My grandmother still remembers that boy who talked to her at Christmas dinner in 2009. She asked about him the other day and when I told her we had been broken up for five years and he had been dating someone else for the last three, she responded with “aww shame, I always liked him.” I found her response to be funny seeing as how she met him only once, but at the same time I knew why she felt this way. She felt this way because even if it was just for a short while on a night five years ago, she felt seen and noticed and paid attention to. No one forgets that feeling.
I have spent the last couple of months getting to know this forgotten member of my family, my grandmother. She was always present at holidays, providing shrimp on Christmas eve, gifting us with at least two dollars for each kid so we could “treat ourselves,” and snoring on the couch in the late afternoons. I have memories of her in the background, but for the most part that is all.
One morning I was trying to figure out how I could do more to help other people, to step outside of my own selfish head and meet the needs of others. I knew I was limited as to what I could do financially, but relationally I had something to offer, which is sometimes the harder thing to give. Handing someone money or a piece of pie is often easier than sitting down next to them and trying to figure out what to talk about, especially in this day and age where everyone has to be so politically correct that people are afraid to talk anymore, not to mention the distraction of cell phones which has left this generation of teenagers crippled from being able to make eye contact.
And let’s be honest, it’s not just the teenagers. I see kids playing at the park while their parents scroll through their Instagram or check their email on a park bench. I myself will sit next to my grandmother with my head buried in my phone, clicking like on pictures of people helping people while I’m ignoring the lonely woman beside me.
And such was the case that morning when I was admiring others on social media for do- ing so much for others while I sat on a couch next to my grandmother who was staring at the wall. I immediately started to look up ways I could volunteer, especially over the holidays. It did not cross my mind that sitting beside me was a woman in need of love and attention and eye contact just as much as people in the nursing home or on the street. The ugly truth is, it didn’t feel as good to help or even love my grandmother as it did to help or love other people I had no history with who would praise me for my efforts.
After spending the day looking up good causes, journaling, praying and trying to “get right with God,” I decided I would go for a run at sunset. It seemed to be just what I needed. As I passed through the kitchen to grab some water before heading out, I noticed my grandmother trying to cut an onion. I asked her what she was doing and she said she was trying to make dinner. My mom wouldn’t be getting off of work until around dinner time and Mommom sometimes tries to cook on designated nights to help out.
Assuming Mommom wanted to feel like she was contributing, I let her carry on. I so often function out of assumption, I think we all do but I’ll speak for myself. I’m embarrassed to say it, but multiple times I have walked past my grandmother trying to chop an onion in the kitchen while thinking to myself “good job, Mommom,” instead of, “hey, can I help?” And I get it, not everybody wants help, some people want to chop their own onions and show the world or at least their grandchildren that they are capable of chopping their own onions, which is great, chop away! But I think asking if help is needed, which is just initiating a conversation if nothing else, is worth the risk of your offer being rejected.
I grabbed my headphones and running shoes and walked back through the kitchen. I sat at the table and looked at Mommom, barely five feet tall, her white bushy hair giving her an ex- tra inch, hunched over the kitchen counter trying to chop an onion. I watched her as I put my shoes on. She moved slower than I remembered. I lingered for a second, which is sometimes all the time that is needed to grab your attention.
I wanted to offer her help because I knew it was the right thing to do, but truth be told, in getting back to the basics of calling a spade a spade- I didn’t want to offer help because it got in the way of my plans.
I didn’t want to offer help to my own grandmother. And even if we weren’t related, an elderly human being. And even if she weren’t elderly, a human being! In that moment of hesitating to offer her help, the content of my character was revealed and I realized I didn’t actually want to step outside of myself and help people. I wanted to feel good about helping people so long as they didn’t interfere with my plans. I still wanted life to be all about me. No matter how many times I learn the lesson, my wayward heart sets itself on myself and I forget that people matter.
Sometimes I forget that I matter and I wear myself out in an attempt to do everything for other people. And once I’ve burned myself out I jump to the other extreme, forgetting that other people matter, writing them off in an attempt to only take care of myself. I struggle to find the balance between the two. The simple balance of all people mattering- other people and myself.
I watched my grandmother struggle to chop an onion. I stood up, picked up my iPod, took a deep breath and set it back down. “Do you need any help, Mommom?” I asked, honestly kind of hoping she would say no so I could still go for a run and feel good about offering help. She didn’t respond. Between my hesitant attempt to gently offer help and Mommom’s hearing aides not always working, I realized she didn’t hear me. “MOMMOM,” I yelled, “DO YOU NEED ANY HELP!?”
Mommom turned around to look at me, “did you say something?” she asked. I laughed a little to myself, “YES,” I yelled, “I ASKED IF YOU NEEDED ANY HELP!”
Mommom’s face lit up, “ohhhhhhhh!” she said excitedly, “wow-wee, that would be wonderful. I can’t move as fast as I used to. We might never eat at the rate I’m moving.” I laughed but I also felt a few degrees more horrible for not asking before then if she needed help. I knew I wasn’t going to get my run in that day, but I also knew something else mattered more, even if (for as much as I hate to admit it) helping with dinner didn’t feel like it mattered more in the moment. I am selfish through and through, to the point of it blinding me to help the old lady struggling right before my eyes.
For some reason it’s easy to dismiss helping the old lady when she is my grandmother, assuming she will always be there and she can hold her own. But there will come a time when she won’t always be there and she can’t hold her own anymore, in which case I have to ask myself, am I going to run away because it feels better, or am I going to step into someone else’s struggle… just because.
I began to cut the onions, mash the potatoes and set the table, all the while making jokes with Mommom and repeating them louder so she could hear me. As I helped with dinner that night I knew a friendship was being formed, as well as the realization that even when I think I have nothing to give, I always have a helping hand to offer and a really loud joke to tell that could bring a smile to a weary soul.
At 32 years old my friendship with my grandmother began. We’ve always been related, clearly, but we’ve never actually been friends, in part because I had the shocking revelation that I’ve never actually sat down with my grandmother and said “tell me about you.” I began to ask my grandmother questions, first over time spent making dinner, then over time spent having tea in the late afternoons. Mommom would talk about her own mother with a smile on her face and it was clear she loved her mother very much. It was the first time I saw my grandmother as someone’s daughter and not just a distant relative.
As I began to see my grandmother as someone’s daughter, I realized I could relate to her because I was someone’s daughter. The more I listened to Mommom’s stories, the more affection I felt for her. I began looking for ways to help her, going out of my way to ensure her comfort, not just because she was an old lady but because she was my friend.
I didn’t hear Mommom say “I love you” very much while I was growing up, which isn’t to say she didn’t love us, some people just never learn how to express love, or they learn and then somewhere along the way of life throwing a few heavy hits, they forget. The few times I remember saying “I love you” to Mommom were only slightly less awkward than her reaction, “okay, you too.” Some people don’t know how to receive love either, and after you hear their story, it makes sense as to why.
As my affection has grown for my grandmother over the last three months so has my ability to communicate my love for her. “I LOVE YOU, MOMMOM,” I yell (so she can hear me) before leaving the house. In the beginning she’d respond with her awkward quiet whisper “okay, you too.” Over time she progressed to awkwardly whisper “love you too,” as if she were unsure she could say it or not. Whether or not I got the response I wanted, I continued to tell her I loved her because I did, and it mattered less and less what the response was. I’d rub lotion on her legs, drive her to the doctor, carry her meal tray to the table, put a sweet treat on her plate and looked for little ways to not just say “I love you” but to show her.
Over time those little things have added up, and Mommom growing more and more into knowing she is loved and cared for has begun to liven up in a way I didn’t see while I was grow- ing up; in part because I didn’t really see her, and in other part because some of her difficult experiences in life added up to her being unsure of how to give and receive love. Now before I leave the house Mommom yells with confidence, “I SURE DO LOVE YOU, JJ.” I kiss her on the cheek, look her in the eyes and say “I love you, Mommom.”
Love is hard, and I don’t mean that in a cliche way, although maybe it’s cliche for a reason- because it’s true. When you really stop (really, stop) and think about living out the task of loving someone no matter what the cost is to you or whether or not you get it back, and you do it day in and day out all the days of your life… love is hard. We all know by now that love isn’t a feeling, and I know people need things to be defined so they call love a choice (since it’s not a feeling), and yes it is a choice, choosing to act out love even when you don’t feel it, but I think love is even more than a choice. I think love is so much grander than we could ever imagine or hope to express or receive that quite simply there isn’t a category to put it in or another word to define it… it just is. Love is what it is- it’s love. Love surpasses all understanding, all realm of thinking, all reason, all logic, and honestly, makes no sense.
But for as hard as love is, I honestly believe it’s worth it. I believe that love is hard and life is good, and that love is good and life is hard. I believe that it’s both for everyone and that it’s okay for both to be good and both to be hard.
A few months ago I set out to travel and be adventurous and meet new people because to me that was the definition of life being good. Instead, I somehow managed to spend most of that time at home, my very definition of life being hard. But I found out that whether you are traveling or stationary, life is both good and hard, and wherever you go, there you are. While I haven’t traveled as much as I’d hoped these last few months, I did make a new friend I didn’t see coming- my grandmother, my Mommom. It has been since being at home that I’ve realized if you try to avoid the hard parts of life, you’ll end up missing out on the really, really good parts.
It’s not like everything is fixed at home, nor is it a Cinderella story of happily ever after, we still celebrate Christmas in two different houses, but it’s a hopeful story of no matter my circumstance or how hard life and love may get, it is well with my soul…
and well worth the journey.
I actually say this when I’m performing and I mean it sincerely, I don’t normally “should” on people, but if you have elderly family members or friends, you should call them or go see them. They are way cooler than we think they are. It’s gets harder for them to remember things as they get older, so it never hurts to remind them that they are loved.
I’m so grateful for your life, Mommom, and I’m so glad I’ll always have your sense of humor and your stylish green sweater to always take with me. I love you. JJ