Saturday, October 11, 2014

St. Margo of the Cherry Hills

"You're a good girl, Maggie." She'd tell me.
"Gram, how old do you feel today?" The answer always varied: "Three." "Twenty-five." "Fifty." (That was on bad days.) If you told her her real age, she'd respond in disbelief, "98! That's almost a hundred!" If you kissed her on one cheek, she'd offer the other one, saying, "Balance me out."

Gram passed away almost two months ago.

I lived beside her for 8 years, after she moved in with us in 2002, and before I moved to Korea in 2010. When I was home for visits, I loved to snuggle beside her, repeating the same lines of conversation over and over again.
"Morning, Lady."
"How are you, Maggie?"
"I'm pretty good, Gram."
"What did you say you do?"
"I'm an English teacher."
"Where do you live?"
"I live in Korea, Gram."
"Korea! That's a long walk."
"Yeah, it's a long airplane ride, too."
"Do you have a boyfriend, Maggie?"
"Nope, not yet. You?"
"Nope. We should go out there and find ourselves some nice boys. ... So, how are you, Maggie?"

Gram loved to sing. An experienced church alto, she didn't need words or music to ring out the (gradually out of tune) alto part in hymns. Sometimes, she was fixated on songs, Easter songs, old radio jingles, even an old nonsense tune her Italian brother-in-law taught her long ago. It was Chinese, he'd told her. My sister's Chinese students denied it.

She was Dutch. The daughter of a nurseryman (who raised roses and azaleas, in particular) in central Holland, she immigrated with her mother, sister, and brother to join her father in America in 1925. She was ten at the time. She taught us that the cheese names were pronounced hauda and aedahm, never gauda  and eedem, and certainly never goda or gooda. She also coached us to properly greet someone in Dutch, and how to pronounce her family name, Kersbergen, (Cherry Hills) in the true Dutch way. If you asked her, "Do you speak Dutch?" She would tell you, "No." But when students from the Netherlands Antilles spoke to her in Dutch, she'd reply in kind. They loved it, and so did she.

She knew Spanish, too. She and Grandpa Jack were pioneer missionaries to Paraguay with New Tribes Missions, and they'd spent two years in Mexico before going to Paraguay, learning fluent Spanish. Mom said that she learned Spanish from hearing her parents tell secrets in Spanish, as well as listening to her mom teach Spanish Sunday School. Even in her last year, Gram enjoyed accompanying Mom to a local church's Spanish service.

Sure, she was old, and the last time I was home, it took her awhile to recall who I was, but she rarely acted old. She was nearly a 5th sister, occasionally tattling, "Ma! They're pickin' on me!" while blowing raspberries at us (and let me tell you, she could blow some serious raspberries). If she wanted to steady herself on your arm, she might ask, "You like chicken? I'll take a wing." If you told her she might want to go to bed, she'd retort, "Pig's tail. Twirly." Gram Taking Pills was a one-woman theater production, if she knew she had an audience. I use a lot of the dramatic expression I learned from her while I teach squirmy elementary students across a language barrier. Sometimes, she'd interject a well-timed crack into the conversation flowing around her. If you were sitting by her, and your bare feet were on the couch beside you, she would get a gleam of mischief in her eye, and slowly reach over to tickle the exposed targets. Mom would say, "Kids, this is not the woman I grew up with."

Gram was a romantic. She would tell us about her old boyfriend, Bob Cressy, Grace Livingston Hill's secretary (Yes, the Christian author. "She was a very gracious lady." Gram said of meeting her.). She also enjoyed reminiscing about meeting Grandpa Jack: "That night, I went home, and I called all my girlfriends, and told them, 'Girls, I've met the man I'm going to marry!'" A long-time widow (Grandpa Jack died soon after Mom and Dad were married.), Gram often entertained aloud the idea of finding a boy, and, when the mood struck, shamelessly flirted with boys 75 to 95 years younger than her. She also occasionally picked out dime-store romance novels (which, if caught in time, we would return) because she loved a good love story.

I felt protective of Gram. Sometimes people would fawn over her or tell me, "You take such good care of your gram." Well, of course. She's my gram, and I love her. Aye, I loved her, and the better I knew her, the more I loved her. She loved me, too.

Even when I didn't know her well, I still knew she was a good Grandma - not only would she send us a present at Christmas, and two presents on our birthdays, she'd also include a present for each of us on a sibling's birthday. While visiting her home in IL, she taught me to make white sauce and Eggs Goldenrod, and I, mindful at 11 that I may not have long with this old lady, made a point to hug her, spoofing McDonalds by asking "Have you had your hug today?". On one visit to our home in Pittsburgh, soon before she moved in with our family permanently, she entertained us by tossing out a 'yinz', claiming, "I'm a fast study."

Gram loved God. That was about the most defining feature of her life. All silliness fell away if a spiritual matter came up. She knew the Bible well, and her theology was sound. On mornings I needed to board a plane to return to my Eastern hemisphere, knowing this may be my last chance to see her in this world, I would crawl in bed beside her to tell her goodbye and I love her and ask her to pray with me and for me. She was always ready to pray, and her prayers on our behalf were fervent.

The morning after her funeral, I walked into her room to wake a sister in the other bed, and was slammed with grief when I saw her empty bed. It was time for me to fly out, but she wasn't there to say goodbye. I sobbed, bereft.

Gram played a big role in my life, a much bigger role than I would have expected when I sassed her at the age of five, and her influence in me will emerge, I'm sure, in various ways throughout the rest of my life.

"There's a part of her that will always be with me." I told my mom. "That's right." She answered thoughtfully. "Particularly my nose." I grinned. I'll be proud to pass this Dutch nose on to my own grandchildren, and tell them tales of my grandma, the determined, clever saint from Holland.