My last surviving grandparent, Doris Wills, passed away March 9, at age 94. Her ashes will be taken back to Rhode Island, where we all came from originally. We plan to see her again at the resurrection.
She was one of the Swedes in our family, the daughter of emigrants Henry Swanson and Claire Ahlstrom. Doris moved with her family to South County Trail when she was a teenager, and she met Walter on the van that served as a school bus. He grew up on a farm on Frenchtown Road, which they took over when they got married – it now lies under an off-ramp for Route 4 on a busy highway; in fact, too much of my home town is paved over or developed.
My fondest memories of her are from the last few years, but also, I cherish images from my earliest childhood, when we visited them on that farm.
We always referred to her as “Poppy Nana” and grandmother Shogren as “Bobo Nana”, identified by their dogs’ names. I reminded Nana of this the last time I saw her, but she corrected me – “No, we never had a dog named Poppy on the farm.” “But I’m sure you did! He was black and white!” “No, his name was Snoopy.” Then why do I remember Poppy? “Because when you were little he would jump up on you, and you would scold him, “Bad puppy, bad puppy!” The name Snoopy suddenly made sense: Nana’s dog looked a lot like Charlie Brown’s.
And in my mind, frisky Snoopy tugs me back to the Wills farm – the memories are blurry, so I checked with my Mom to get the details right.
East Greenwich was still a dairy town, and Nana’s neighbors kept cows – we would climb over the stone fence to see them. Or cross Frenchtown to visit the neighbors. I remember being on Nana’s couch, watching Kennedy’s funeral, while across from me sat Mom with my 7-day-old sister Kim on her lap. The summer clambakes on picnic tables outside, with Rhode Island style tomato clam chowder, fried clam cakes, steamers and melted butter; for the kids, a bowl of Zarex punch (popular in New England for many decades, it’s a syrup that you add to water). The night Poppy Nana encouraged me to recite aloud the poem we had memorized in school about the beauty of snowflakes. Asking to hear yet again Dean Martin singing “Nothing Could be Finer” on the stereo. The smells – the one that only barns in summer have; the smell of potatoes fresh from the warm ground, and the Concord grapes from around back of the barn. Her dining room which for some reason I revisit in my mind whenever I smell dill weed.
Even more satisfying are memories from the last 20 years, when I was able to relate to Nana adult-to-adult. She was the only person I actually wrote letters to, given that everyone but she had email. Very occasionally we could get together in Florida. Much of my talk with Nana was nostalgic. She drew descriptions of me as a child which I more or less recognized. One vivid event that we shared in common was that my grandfather (Bompa Wills) became a Christian at the age of 79, after long decades of bitterness against all things religious, blended with consternation over how I was throwing my life away when I could do something else and “earn big dough”. He and Nana and my mother and I shared that moment in time: “We were there, together; I remember where we stood, what people said. And Gary went out and bought him a study Bible, and how Bompa started to read it every day, and later he got baptized.” It was a “Where Were You When __?” moment.
We were already getting reading to go to Costa Rica as missionaries, and from that day on, both grandparents were firm supporters of how we were serving the Lord. When it was hard to learn a new language, when it was hard working in a different culture, we knew that they always stood behind us with inspiration and prayer. They were not just the older generation of the family, they were co-members of God’s people. And after Bompa died, Nana kept up with the regular encouragement, until a few days ago.
Not everyone is able to spend time with older relatives; for many, they pass away before we could interact with them. I wish that those who have the chance will take advantage of it while they may.
And as we all get older – and our lives move only in one direction along that track – let’s all remember that a word of encouragement to a family member will outlive a word of bitterness; that prayer accomplishes things better than does condemnation; that any moment in the Lord’s presence beats out wistfulness about the past; that the fruit of the Spirit is sweeter even than the memory of…Zarex.
“Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing.” (1 Thess 5:11)