A week ago today I stood in a small cemetery on the Oklahoma prairie to bury Sarah Victoria Bay, my paternal grandma who died at the age of 97. It was clear, sunny and 17 degrees. A slight breeze moved through my hair and I tightened the scarf around my neck before I moved closer to listen to the pastor and gather some warmth from members of my extended family standing beside me. Before the service began we stood quietly for a few moments, to gaze at my grandma’s casket, blanketed with pink carnations and red roses. Being as practical and uncomplicated as she was, I think she might have thought it edged on extravagant, but the color was a welcome relief to the plain of dead grass that surrounded us.
In February of 1980 the Bay family had gathered in that very spot to bury her husband John. I was a junior in college and could not afford to make the trip. But this time I was there, along with three of her five children, their children and grandchildren. The plot had been purchased when they were newly married. Back then she and Granddad made two assumptions that would astound most newlyweds today: you purchase a piece of earth well in advance of your death because death is a reality and remains are a part of that life experience. You must also take care of your affairs by ordering a headstone well ahead of the event and it should contain all the basic information minus the date of your death. After all, married couples are to remain united in life and in death and there will be but one marriage to acknowledge when it is all said and done.
Immediately before the pastor began his graveside remarks, I looked around at all who had gathered. There were aunts and uncles, first cousins and their children, and a scattering of some long-time family friends. Contemporaries were noticeably absent, for they had either died or were too fragile to attend. Some of us who made the pilgrimage had not seen each other in 25 years and because some live on the West Coast and others in Middle America, the cultural divides could have divided us, if we had let them.
But we did not. Instead we pushed past time and life experiences and approached each other with arms wide open. We wiped away each other’s tears and held hands in need of a clasp without the usual hesitancy. We read old family letters and diary notations. We traveled to the nearby town to gaze at the retirement home our grandparents once owned. We told stories and recalled conversations and adventures not discussed in years. We ate together, hurried between each other’s hotel rooms for not-to-miss moments together, sipped tea in the late night hours and read aloud to each other the tributes we had all written about our amazing Sarah.
For two solid days the world stood still for the Bay family and we allowed the strength of our grandmother to guide our conversations and our activities. Focusing solely on each other and those things we realized would unite a fairly diverse group, we bonded. Soon we were sharing our own life experiences and reaching out for comfort and support and wisdom from each other. We stood strong for each other as grandma would have wanted. We accepted of each other’s struggles, offering advice and help, as grandma would have expected. We made plans to stay connected, as grandma would have hoped.
And we came away with wisdom to be applied for the remainder of our lives:
l There is right and there is no wrong. No debate. No compromise.
l We must all choose a place where we can go to work out the matters of our lives. That place, for my grandma, was the garden. She talked to God, cried privately, rehearsed conversations, removed weeds and watered growing plants. It was in the garden where she faced life squarely and regrouped to face the people in her life.
l If you want something, ask God for it and wait. He loves you and will respond when the time is right.
l Find a way to give to people in quiet, dependable ways. Grandma chose food and it was her canned green beans and fried okra, her blackberry cobbler and fried chicken that served her family and friends in deep, almost mystical ways for nearly a century.
Just as I hoped, our family’s time on the prairie to bid our Sarah good-bye was an experience of a lifetime. I offer thanks to a great and loving God.