My grandmother used to bake one pecan pie a year. Using her own pecans. From her own tree. Which she guarded with her very own rifle. She said she shot any crow that messed with her precious pecans and threatened that pie. Somebody might steal a scarecrow, so she figured she could do the job herself.
Memommy was as tough as nails, but she labored 24 hours a day, humbly and faithfully, to serve her family. She cried in her last days because she’d never been gone at Christmas. She held her namesake, Marie, our fourth daughter, only once, and I promised her that this two month old child would know all about the strength of her great-grandmother.
Then there was Granddad, her husband. They lived all their 60 plus years of married life on the same original 600-acre Texas land grant that belonged to the family. He’s the man who let us grandkids stand next to him in the pick-up truck with our arms around his neck as he drove us out to “Wild Kingdom” to shoot rubber band guns at frogs. He wore a Stetson® cowboy hat, real Dickie® overalls, and long sleeves all year long in the Texas heat.
I never heard him yell once, probably on account of his sweet tooth. That man put pancake syrup on everything. I mean everything – not just dessert. To help save for college, he gave each of us grandkids a cow, and each spring the calf was auctioned off to build a savings account. Cows sent us to college. Taught me how to fish with a homemade pole, widdle wood with a pocket knife, and shoot a rifle too.
There was my graceful maternal grandmother, who wouldn’t have been caught dead with a rifle or a fishing pole in her pretty diamond-bedecked hands. She waited and waited for one of us grandkids to name a child after her, and even though I had seven babies I never could find a way to make Fannie Mae sound good in this day and time. She collected Precious Moments dolls and precious moments in the real sense.
She taught me how to read my Bible every night and bought me fancy prayer journals. I read the Bible three times through and have the majority of my childhood recorded in day-by-day entries that begin, “Dear Jesus, please help me…” She died six weeks after my grandfather, and on the day before she died she emailed everyone in the family a poem titled, “The Greatest Day of My Life.” It was about the sun and stars, flowers and butterflies. She died in her sleep dreaming of God. She just couldn’t live without Daddy Dan.
Daddy Dan was her high school sweetheart and he called her “Little Girl” until his dying day, also through 60 years of marriage. He was diagnosed with heart failure and only supposed to live four months, but Fannie Mae nursed him for 14 more years before he died. He would have swum across a river of rattlesnakes to get her a glass of tea, and she would have sent him back with a tongue lashing for more sugar. He loved music and often accompanied me, a guitar and a violin duet, in family performances. I can still hear him sing “Our Father.” They played a recording at his funeral.
You see, along with my parents, these are the people who first taught me about Christ. They were all Protestant, and although I converted to Catholicism, I realize that they were the foundation of my childhood faith formation. I rejected religion as a young adult because, arrogantly, I saw no reason to leave my bed in the morning to go to church and dress up for social activities. Thinking myself a high-falutin’ college girl, I left the pot lucks and Sunday socials behind. I was very confused and later lost as a young adult.
Over time I realized that what my parents and grandparents taught me was something deeply Christian. They didn’t use words like “virtue” or “Confiteor” or “Advent” or “liturgy,” but I witnessed in them what virtue is and what it means to be accountable for my actions. They taught me how to ask forgiveness and to forgive. They taught me how to commit to family and to respect the specialness of our common language. I know they loved Jesus, even if they may not have known the Beauty and the Fullness.
The time and culture in which they lived hadn’t told them about the Catholic Church, their parents raised them to be Protestant. They didn’t care who Martin Luther was or what caused the Protestant Reformation; they were simply who they were raised to be. I don’t wonder if my grandparents are in Heaven because I know that what I opine doesn’t matter. What matters are my prayers, so I pray for them all like they prayed for me, and I hope for them – I hope they found what they anticipated all their lives because I know they were sincere in their faith. Christians are a people of hope.
At first after converting I was so full of pride and self-righteous indignation when I realized how myopic Protestantism is, felt sort of cheated. I rolled my eyes a lot and pitied the poor souls for not getting it. I tried to explain why we baptize the babies, why we kneel, why we make the sign of the Cross, why the Eucharist is the real presence, why Marriage is a sacrament, why we are supposed to be One Body; but my family was only interested in the answers to make sure I wasn’t hopelessly lost to a cult. We communicate, and they realize that is not the case, but still there is tension.
When they visit our family, however, my big-hearted parents graciously attend Mass with us and I am so grateful that they do that. I focus on my own sins and let them talk to God. You know, it’s mighty big of them to come with us, considering how different it all must seem. I know they aren’t comfortable, but they don’t make it all about themselves – they are there for Christ.
And well, OK.
Sometimes I think I know so much, but I learn over and over again that there is wisdom in the things my parents and grandparents taught me. I still have so much to learn about life and faith. Sometimes, too, when I hear about the struggles in their lives I think, “Hey, the Catechism explains that!” But instead of lecturing, as I’m wont to do, I push myself to actually learn those answers that are in the Catechism so I can be a witness by the way I live. The wisdom of Truth, through the grace of the Holy Spirit, will speak for itself. As St. Francis said, “Sanctify yourself and you will sanctify society.”
Maybe someday my cradle Catholic children will give their grandparents the greatest witness of all through their own lives. And maybe someday my grandchildren will tell their children about my idiosyncrasies, and tell them how much their Catholic great-grandmother loved her family and loved Christ and His Church. Maybe they’ll say: “My grandmother used to bake one pecan pie a year. But she prayed the Rosary every day.”
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