My grandmother was born in 1924, the same year the lilting melody of “Rhapsody in Blue” by George Gershwin was first performed to a packed house in New York City. She shared a birth year with Jimmy Carter, Doris Day, and Marlon Brando. Republican Calvin Coolidge, “Silent Cal,” was in the White House. Meanwhile in Russia, Lenin’s death gave rise to a power struggle from which Stalin emerged the clear winner, a victory that would cost the people living under his iron fist an estimated 10 million lives. It was an era of social change and political upheaval; and so it has remained for nearly a century.
My Gran was too young to have been much affected by the ebullient optimism of the Roaring Twenties. In less than a decade the wealth of the country nearly doubled and then in a day came crashing down. She was five years old when the stock market collapsed one black day in 1929, ushering in the Great Depression.
But when I ask my Granny about her childhood, it’s not the political landscape she recalls; it’s the quiet of domestic life. She remembers the pound cakes her grandmother Kate used to make, a classic recipe crafted to be easy to recall—a pound of butter, pound of sugar, pound of flour. On baking days, she tiptoed around the broad wooden floor boards of the house to avoid making a sound so that the cake, precariously rising in a wood fired stove, wouldn’t fall flat.
My grandmother was still young when her mother died, so she was raised by her older sister. Together they managed to stay afloat through the Great Depression and the Second World War. Around the time Japanese planes bombed Pearl Harbor, Granny (she was called Daphne then) met a fresh-faced young man named Paul (with a pronounced chin that me and my cousins later inherited—the Moore chin). When he returned from serving with the Marines in the Pacific theater, they married. They danced through the years together—seriously, they were wonderful dancers. When I was in college they cleared out the furniture in the den at their mountain cabin to teach me and my friends the fox trot.
My grandmother is a member of the generation affectionately, nostalgically, deemed “The Greatest” by historians and celebrities like Tom Brokaw. And indeed, they are great. Great in endurance and quiet perseverance. Great in economy and industry. Great in generating wealth without giving into the consumption patterns that characterized the Boomers they birthed. Great at saving and giving. Great at loving long. Great at making a life that was stable and meaningful.
Lately every time I’m with my grandmother, I’ve noticed an intensification of tenderness in her interactions with her grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Just this past fall, I was sitting with my sister on the couch in my mother’s den opposite the fireplace. My Gran was sitting close between us and she reached out to squeeze both of our hands, telling us through tears that there is just not enough room in her heart for all the love she has for us all. It’s as if the love presses up against her rib cage flooding her slight frame—the love multiplying along with the number of her great-grandchildren—27 to date.
One thing that being around my grandmother has taught me is that presence means more than accomplishment. My grandmother has always applauded my successes, but I knew they were not the reason she loved me. The great gift of age is that the years strip away the appearances of things so that true value is more easily discerned. And I can tell that the thing my grandmother values most after 95 years of living on this good earth, is the presence of family and friends. She simply wants to be in the same space with the people who have made her life meaningful.
Of course, the difficulty of living a very long life is that you outlive many of those you love. Among others, my grandmother outlived her husband, Paul, by a couple of decades. The intervening years may have dulled the loss but have never erased it. And I sense she feels his absence still, and longs for the security and company of his presence.
When I think of her today, on her birthday, I feel grateful for the priority she gave to being grounded in the love of friends and family. At ninety-five she’s embodies what it means to age gracefully—she’s bright, inquisitive, concerned about the well-being of others, open to friendships, and kind to those who care for her. And I pray the life and love she’s given will return to her multiplied.
May this season be more dawn than dusk.
May a lightening of spirit accompany the anticipation of the weight of glory in all its mysterious brightness,
as hope carries you through each day.
May the presence of those you’ve nurtured
continue to grace your hours
as you share the goodness
of being known, of being seen, of being heard, of being welcomed
into a fellowship of peace.
May you rest in the fullness of memory
recalling joyful days spent with those who have gone ahead
who wait to embrace you in the never fading light of eternity.
Happy Birthday, Gran! May your heart live forever (Psalm 22:26)