Losing Grandma

It is rare that a phone call at 8 am on a Sunday morning is a good one. This past Sunday was no exception.

We got the word that Tracy’s grandmother, Marie Berklich, passed away in the night at the age of 95. It is hard to say that there is anything extraordinary about the loss of someone who is 95, but that does not necessarily dull the sharp nature of the moment.

Tracy and I both lost grandparents in 2001. At that point, we realized a harsh reality of life:  We were at the point where we would lose more people than we would gain. It makes the losses that much more painful, but it also makes the importance of true friends and family that much more important. And the memories are much more cherished and appreciated.

When she came to visit in South Carolina, Grandma greeted my son Spencer with a “Good morning!” He then began calling her Grandma Good Morning, and that’s what she will forever be to our children.

Neither Spencer nor my daughter Abbie liked soup…until they tasted Good Morning’s chicken noodle, a recipe that stands as a household staple. Abbie loved to visit her and get a helping of soup, read books and watch game shows.

She preferred the quiet of her home, and her favorite hosting was for her family. There were always Klondikes in the freezer or other-worldly chicken soup to warm up for anyone who came through the door. She kept her mind sharp by reading books (especially those written by anyone Croatian) and working crossword puzzles.

She loved to cook amazing things for her family, especially on holidays. Grandma’s house was baked chicken and pork roast and a bread ring, followed by her trying to get you to eat a Klondike. After devouring any holiday meal, we would fight for one of the recliners in her TV room to doze while watching football.

If you needed an escape from anything, her house was the place to go. You would feel welcomed and you didn’t have to discuss whatever it was that was bothering you. She was perfectly satisfied to let you doze in one of those recliners while she heated something to eat, and you always left relaxed and well-fed.

Many of us lived with her in some form or fashion, at least for a little while. We stayed with Good Morning for two and a half weeks when we moved to Pittsburgh in 1995. I gained 16 lbs., and she did her best to push that higher. She kept a freezer full of Klondike bars and you were not allowed to leave her house without having one!

Grandma and I formed a bond over football. Nothing comforted you through a Steeler AFC Championship Game like Grandma’s Sunday dinner, followed up with a Klondike (or two if the Steelers lost). If you wanted to have some fun, you could ask her what she thought about Ben Roethlisberger. Or better yet, mention Kordell Stewart and Neil O’Donnell. Of course, no Steelers played defense like they did in the 70s.

We talked some about faith, although we came to Christ from differing perspectives. She held tightly to her Catholic upbringing, but believed that her faith belonged to her and was not to be forced on others. About a year ago, we even discussed heaven and the afterlife–a most enlightening discussion with a 95-year old!

I am not writing this to wow anyone with stories of Grandma Good Morning’s greatness or overwhelming acts of faith. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. This is a reminder that those who are closest to us will often recall our lesser-known acts of loving kindness, offered to those that we love–and who love us–the most.

Grandma did not have medals or awards or walls full of degrees (although she proudly displayed a mug of every university attended by her children and grandchildren). But we will cherish the table that she always set for us, her hilarious bluntness, her asking “Huh?” every time we said something, her comforting recliner, and the glorious aroma of garlic pork roast that we could smell from the sidewalk. Her life and her home offer the memory of all the things that are good about family and Grandmas and loved ones that are separated by time and distance, all contained in a small house on the hill in Trafford, PA.

This is a reminder to me, my family and dear friends, some of whom have recently lost parents and grandparents themselves. We cannot hold on to the ones that we love forever, but precious memories of life and love call us back to them. These memories remind us that our rifts and differences are rarely worth the painstaking walls that we build between one another. And these walls are often an insult to the ones that have gone on before us.

Our families and loved ones are always less than perfect, just as we are. It is naively idealistic to think that all family rifts can mend or that we can all just get along. But events such as losing Grandma are swift and painful reminders of the importance of those who love us at our worst so that they can celebrate us at our best.

Like all families, we will gather this week and talk about how we should get together more often, at times other than mourning. Chances are that we will rarely do this, since most of us are separated by thousands of miles. But perhaps it will help us to remember that Grandma Good Morning taught us to live simply, love family, and always practice hospitality to one another.

My most treasured memory of that hospitality was our first Christmas together in 1991. Grandma always kept a picture of that event, because it includes almost every aunt/uncle/cousin and newborn in the family–including a very nervous new family and their newborn son. It is a privilege to know and love one’s spouse; but it is an honor to know and love her family as well.

That first Christmas introduced me to the glorious aroma of pork roast and potatoes, that hit me the minute I stepped out of the car. Uncle Bernie forced us to sing The 12 Days of Christmas around the table as he tried out his new video camera. Tracy’s cousin Kara and I got to know each other over post-dinner dish duty, including an explanation of why Mario Lemieux was better than Wayne Gretzky (her brother Brian chimed in on that one). We sat around for hours eating cookies and telling stories and watching my son Spencer play with his new toys (after all he was the new baby in the family).

And I remember thinking how welcomed and at home I felt, in a situation where I might have easily felt like an outcast.

That is the lesson that Grandma taught us–to be a gracious host, and value our family both old and new. The memories she gave us call us back to one another, to reconciliation, and to cherished memories.

Rather than holding to our pride and following our ego, may we all learn to seek to love one another and hold tightly to the simplicity of God’s graces. As Grandma taught us to do.

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