Wednesday, September 9, 2015

How Saintly Was My Grandmother?

Grandma Theresa, Modern-Day Saint

I once heard an All Saints’ Day sermon in which the priest defined saint as “an ordinary person who does extraordinary things.” I’ve never met an individual to whom that quote applied more than my grandmother, Theresa McConnell, who passed away on September 2 at the age of 88. People often use the term “saint” to compliment a kind person or action. Still, I’d argue that it’s an overused word and should be reserved for the truly special among us. With that being said, I’m confident that Grandma is the closest I’ll ever come to knowing a saint.

Let’s consider the first part of the priest’s definition of saint: an ordinary person. Grandma could easily pass as your average Josephine. Specifically, she loved the great human pastime of small-talk. When she used to drop one of her kids at the bus for morning kindergarten, it was not unusual for her to remain at the bus stop for hours in her night-gown, shooting the breeze with the other neighborhood mothers. Several times, they lost track of time and remained at the bus stop for the entirety of the school-day. I can only imagine the sight of a gaggle of pajama-clad housewives chatting for that long.

Yeah, Grandma could talk with the best of them. After she suffered a heart attack in the springtime, she found herself in the hospital, answering one of those patient questionnaires. You know the kind: Do you drink alcohol? How often do you exercise? The problem with administering this survey to Grandma was that she saw every question as an opportunity to strike up a conversation with her nurse. “Do you smoke?” the nurse asked her, expecting a one-word answer back. “Well, I don’t smoke,” Grandma said. “But my uncle…He never took the pipe out of his mouth. His wife hated it. Come to think of it, I don’t think I ever saw him without that pipe in his mouth…” And on and on it went, question after question.

At parties, Grandma was frequently one of the latest night-owls, staying up to chat with the more … um, lubricated … of guests. Grandma rarely imbibed, but she loved a cocktail party more than most drinkers. Then, in the morning, she’d recap by saying, “Oh, how we laughed…”

This past summer, as it became evident that her days might be numbered, many of Grandma’s loved ones came by her house to shoot the breeze. She was surrounded by her friends and family for two months, and since she couldn’t move around well anymore, there wasn’t much to do. No matter; as long as Grandma could converse, she might as well have been in paradise. Less than a week before she died, she turned to my mother and said, “We’ve had such a great summer.”

Related to her gift of gab, Grandma had a wonderful sense of humor. She liked to laugh as much as any ordinary person I’ve ever met. When she mailed me my allowance* during college, she’d staple an index card reading “NOT FOR BEER” to the crisp bills. In her last few weeks, she told more humorous stories than most people tell in a year.

*Yes, she sent allowance to each of her grandchildren every month for decades.

Another of Grandma’s “ordinary” characteristics: her one vice, gambling. Last year, I wrote, “My grandmother is absolutely ADDICTED to scratch-offs. Sure, she also loves slot machines like all old cooters do, but scratching like a fiend is the highlight of her day. Fortunately for her, she experiences the highlight of the day about five times per day because that's how often she goes out to buy a new round of scratch-offs.” My comment led to a sustained good-natured feud with Grandma, which led her to write me letters about why she gambled. She’d often tease me that buying lottery tickets was much less damaging than all the beer I drank. For her wake, her kids ordered a flower arrangement designed like a New York Lottery scratch-off ticket. Grandma would’ve found it hilarious.

To quickly rattle off what else made Grandma an ordinary woman: she loved People magazine, she hated going the doctor, she loved shopping, she hated politicians, and she loved hot dogs. Oh, and casinos — she really loved casinos.

Grandma was also ordinary in that she worked a series of run-of-the-mill jobs, including a book-keeping gig at a cemetery, of which she often recounted “how we laughed.” Soon after Grandma died, my wife Kerry said, “She lived the most incredible life I’ve ever heard of. For someone who didn’t have a special job, or travel a lot, or have money and fame, she might have enjoyed life more than anyone who ever lived.” Not to put Grandma on the same level as Jesus Christ, but Kerry’s comment reminded me of the James Allan Francis essay “One Solitary Life.” Here’s an excerpt from that piece:

“Here is a man who was born in an obscure village, the child of a peasant woman. He grew up in another village. He worked in a carpenter shop until He was thirty. Then, for three years, He was an itinerant preacher.

He never owned a home. He never wrote a book. He never held an office. He never had a family. He never went to college. He never put His foot inside a big city. He never traveled two hundred miles from the place He was born. He never did one of the things that usually accompany greatness…

I am far within the mark when I say that all the armies that ever marched, all the navies that were ever built; all the parliaments that ever sat and all the kings that ever reigned, put together, have not affected the life of man upon this earth as powerfully as has that one solitary life.”

So I guess the comparison of Grandma to Christ leads me to the second, more important definition of saint: one who does “extraordinary things.”

Let’s start with the basics here: Grandma had eight children, 29 grandchildren, and five great-grandchildren. And the last two of those figures still have plenty of room for growth.

Grandma was the most relentlessly optimistic person I’ve ever met. She swore that childbirth “didn’t really hurt.” When our family experienced the death of young people on several occasions, she always encouraged us to take solace in the fact that they “went straight to heaven.” On a lighter note, on a road trip from New York to Michigan a few years ago, my aunt’s car broke down in the middle of nowhere. Instead of worrying, Grandma entertained her half-dozen grandchildren in the back seat with such riveting activities as teaching them how to properly open a bag of cheese doodles. In retelling the story a few weeks ago, Grandma seemed surprised that anyone would have seen that situation as a negative. “We made fun out of it, you know,” she told me. “What else could we do?”

She saw the good in everyone, often saying that if we were all the same, life would be so boring. Her propensity for positive thinking was partly responsible for making her a medical marvel who didn’t take antibiotic until she was in her eighties.

In addition to making the best of a bad situation, Grandma could make a good situation great. At parties, people always flocked to the part of the room where she was sitting, not out of some sense of obligation but because Grandma was always the warmest — and one of the funniest — people there.

We’ve established that Grandma talked a lot. What I haven’t mentioned yet is that she’d make conversation with anyone and everyone. Grandma never met a person she didn’t have time for, calling even the most down-and-out stranger a “nice man.” She welcomed new neighbors to her block like they were old friends, dropping off dinners and greeting them with her incredibly warm smile. She also always had room at her already-crowded kitchen table, providing a meal to anyone who looked like he might need it. Her hospitality was legendary. One night, she had more than 20 kids from the neighborhood lined up in her kitchen and living room as she served up ice cream cones.

Considering her kindness to strangers, you can probably imagine the love Grandma reserved for those closest to her. She took in her own mother at the end of her life, and she basically ran a bed-and-breakfast in her home for the last 50 years. On countless occasions, my idiot friends descended on Grandma’s house for a weekend at the beach. When we’d come home from the Rockaway bars in the wee hours of the morning, we’d often find saran-wrapped dinners that Grandma left for each of us. In the morning, she’d always be ready to talk over a big breakfast of bacon, eggs, and English muffins. I don’t know many 80-year-olds who show such care to a bunch of 20-somethings that they’ve just met. Most of my friends called her “Grandma” after becoming so accustomed to her kindness. And the only room-and-board she ever wanted from them was a nice conversation.

In addition to catering to teenagers and college kids, Grandma cared for the elderly, even in her own old age. She picked up several of Rockaway’s old ladies every day to run errands with them or take them to various functions. Never mind that Grandma wasn’t exactly a Jeff Gordon-level driver by the end of her life. The point was that she gave her time and energy to those who needed her.

Even as she was dying, Grandma sought only to care for others instead of herself. After one heart attack, she told my mother to head to the bank and give each of Grandma’s children a huge sum of money. The last time I ever saw Grandma, she sneaked a twenty-dollar bill into my wife’s purse and told her to buy herself a soda. (It reminded me of those college allowances.) At her wake, people shared story after story of Grandma’s selflessness. Her elderly friends spoke lovingly about the friend who held their group together, who brought so much joy to their lives.

Grandma’s most extraordinary feat was teaching others how to live the best life possible. If you follow her template, you’ll make the most of your time on this earth. Laugh. Give your whole self to others. Talk. Remember that your family and friends are invaluable assets. Love. Stay up late and get up early. Live.

It seems like more than a coincidence that my grandmother shared a name with Mother Teresa, one of the holiest figures of the twentieth century. Both ladies were saintly in their own ways. Maybe Grandma never performed a miracle, per se, but she treated every day like its own small miracle. Whether you saw Grandma Theresa as a modern-day saint or simply a terrific lady, I’m confident that in her wonderful life, the extraordinary certainly outweighed the ordinary.

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