Eli's Corner

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circle of life and that sort of thing

Last weekend was odd.

We were in my husband’s hometown to attend a funeral. His aunt, a woman in whose company one could not help but feel loved and important, a woman with a simple and staunch faith and a glint of mischief in her eye, a woman I liked instantly, passed away from a heart attack.

While we were still driving out, his parents were attending her internment in 32-degree heat. His father got dizzy and fell. His sister had experienced dizziness shortly before her heart attack. His other siblings insisted that he go to the emergency room, where he ended up waiting for over 8 hours.

When I married, I got a fairy godmother. My husband’s parents have a successful business, and his mom happens to be one of the most thoughtful and generous people I’ve met. And not just with money – last year she gave a kidney to a stranger.  No joke.  Anyway, she booked us all in the best place in town for the weekend so we could get some family vacation time since we were all together for the funeral anyway. This is not really relevant to the story except I just wanted to say a girl who grew up eating 99-cent whoppers and day-old prison food could do worse than check into a 5-star resort and be told, “there is a note on your reservation that all charges will be taken care of.”

Once we got settled and said hello to my sister-in-law and her toddler, my husband went to the emergency room to wait with his parents to get the heart x-ray results.

I stayed at the hotel to nurse an astronomical headache, a fit of exhaustion and some truly heinous endometriosis cramps. (I had spent much of the 4 ½ hour drive out there laying as flat as possible with a hoodie over my head to block out the light.)

The sweet girl who brought me room service seemed perplexed that I was sitting alone in my fancy room on a Friday night without the man I checked in with.

She asked how my evening was going.

I said it was about to get better.

She was visibly relieved and said, “Oh good! Are you going out?”

I looked at her dumbly and said, “No, I am going to eat this.”

I saw her face quickly recalibrate as she realized we were dealing with two very different thresholds of “better.” She regrouped and enthusiastically told me that this was practically her favorite thing on the menu. “A” for effort, anyway.

Incidentally, it did make it better.



They didn’t find anything wrong with my father-in-law, although he’s still limping, which has us all a little concerned. The funeral was simple and sweet. And despite the fact that I barely knew this woman, I cried a fair bit. Partly remembering my dad’s funeral. Partly PMS. Partly seeing how much this woman meant to her children and grandchildren. Wondering if I would ever have that chance. Wondering, as more people in our lives become immersed in their own family units, pushing us “extras” to the periphery, if anybody would ever miss us that much. Morbid thoughts, but they’re part of this whole thing, aren’t they?

I felt a little better the next day. We taught my new brother-in-law how to play Rook (a Mennonite must), and we all took our just-turned-2-year-old niece out on a speed boat for the first time. She even got into the inner tube in between mommy and daddy, and despite how carefully my husband was driving, they capsized and briefly went under water. I panicked for a second – she’s been in swimming lessons since birth and they were all wearing life jackets – but it was still a little terrifying. My father-in-law had been adamantly opposed to any of us going out in a boat, citing the many dangers of it over and over. He himself refused to come. I was beginning to wonder if we’d all proved him right. Fortunately, she bounced right back above the water unfazed. We all quickly made a pact to not mention it to grandpa. For her part, my niece covered for us nicely, repeating at various intervals throughout the remainder of the day, “Boat. Nice.”  Think we might have a bit of an adrenaline junkie on our hands.  Poor grandpa.

We came home to our empty apartment, and my husband mentioned that there was something life-giving about having people around you all the time, and he wished we had more of it. I told him that’s why people have kids. He said, “Oh yeah. We should do that.”


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Sarah Elline in her own words

If you haven’t read my earlier post about Sarah Elline, please do.  Not because it’s so great, but because this one is all the more amazing with that context.  Go ahead.  I’ll wait.

Ok.  So I read that piece I wrote about my Grandmother at her memorial service.  And in retrospect, it was a mistake.  When I got to my mom’s house before the service, she gave me a 3-ring binder full of photos of my grandparents, as well as news clippings and other treasures.  Tucked away in this meticulously assembled binder (my mother does nothing if not meticulously) was also a series of memories that my grandma had written about her own mother when I was about a year old.  I did not know this document existed.  Later at home when I sat down to read it, it was a matter of moments before I was weeping (I do that).  Had I read this before the service, I would never have bothered with my own words.  I would have shared hers instead.

What really gets me about these writings is how very similar the things she says about her own mother are to the things I most treasured about her.  The power of a heritage is astounding.

I would love to see the entirety of what my grandma wrote published one day, but for now, I’d like to just share a few passages:

First of all, you will need to know that Mama had an indomitable spirit.  Even when she seemed dominated she never lost her desire for experiencing the finer things in life – reading, music, plays and even movies (back when they were wholesome).

When [our town] came to have a movie theater, it was in the silent movie days, and she liked to take us occasionally.  Daddy looked on the thing with disdain.  On one rare trip to the theater, Mama pointed to a spot to the right of us, about three miles out of town.  We were rounding a curve that went downhill.  She said, ” I want a house on that hill!  I was reared on a hill, and I”ll never feel at home until I am on one again!”

That was the first inkling we had that she was not satisfied with the old house that was our home.  Life for us had been full and interesting but we were unaware that it was her influence that helped make it so.  She is the one who first introduced us to the wonder of the pastures and the woods.  The one who would go outdoors with us son a moonlit night and skip down the lane; the one who read Pollyana, Elsie Dinsmore, Helen’s Babies and Bible stories aloud to us.  She taught us to play indoor games such as Thimble, Hide-the-Scissors, Tall Betsy and many others.  These things were reserved for rainy days and nights when Daddy was out on a call.

Once, late at night on the way back from the theater, she playfully asked, “Well, shall we go home?” as her eyes looked toward the place she had mentioned earlier on the hill.

Those were the only references I ever heard her make to “the Hill”, but somewhere along the way, she quietly had the land surveyed and put some money down on the purchase of 40 acres.  When she paid it off in bits and pieces, she told Daddy.

My grandma goes on to tell the story of how her mother, in the middle of the Great Depression, through ingenuity, creativity, and her trademark indomitable spirit, managed to build a house on that hill.  A house that would be her home until the day she died.

Mama had a favorite poem by Edgar A Guest.  It was, It Takes A Heap O’ Livin’ In A House To Make A Home.  Our house was a home because it had a heap o’ livin’ – anticipation, fulfillment, joy, disappointment, suspense and sorrow – marriages, births and deaths…Overall, there was love that just never stopped.

Though her splendid traits were not always apparent because of her quick tongue and her ability to trigger tempers, she had a magnificent strength in times of crisis and sorrow.  When [my brother] left home to go away to college at Knoxville, I saw her face after she had just come from his bedroom.  Her eyes did not meet mine, but I saw them dazed with pain, and for an instant she just stood seemingly transfixed to the spot, but then shook herself into motion and went about her business as usual.  It came as a shock to me that she was suffering such loneliness for her only son.

When Red and I were married she shad a quiet sweetness about her that actually radiated; though, I knew she did not really want me to marry my U.S.N. lover and go off into an unknown world.

When Daddy died, she greeted people at the door.  Everyone cried on her shoulder, including me, but she remained strong and comforting to those around her.  The only emotion she showed during those days was at the burial when the casket was about to be lowered into the ground.  She started forward and put her hands out to grasp [my sister] on one side and me on the other, but there was not a word or sound.

I was not there for my brother’s funeral, but Oh how I wanted to be so that if I had any source of strength that could help, she might tap it.  (More than likely, it would have been the other way around.)  This time her only son was leaving forever.

Our final journey and reunion at the House on the Hill was just preceding her death.  We three sisters had stayed up late that night, and had just gone to bed when the telephone rang.  It was Dr. Littleton Eubanks saying that Mama had died.

An era had come to an end.  But Mama’s spirit had not ended.  I remember how briskly she used to walk when we walked together and how she would have to stop and wait for me to catch up.  In later years that process was reversed.  She seemed to sort of dawdle, and I would stop and wait for her to catch up.  The few times we were together, it became so ingrained in me that as we were leaving the church from her funeral, I involuntarily stopped to wait for Mama to catch up.  It was only on looking back I realized that she had preceded me, and that I would never again wait for her to catch up with me.

On going back to the precious place we had called home for so long, I wandered from room to room.  It seemed the walls were crying out, “She’s still here!  As long as I stand, she’ll still be here.  So will all of you, for it was within these walls that I sheltered you.  I knew your joys, your dreams, your ambitions, your secrets, and your fulfillments.”

Your own children have memories interwoven in the overall pattern of the lives lived here.  Never forget!  Never let them forget how precious it was.

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Sarah Elline

I awoke on a Saturday morning in January suddenly perplexed about my long-planned trip to South America which was coming up in a couple of weeks.  “I can’t go!” I thought, “What if Grandma dies while I’m gone?”  It was a strange thought, considering that my grandma wasn’t ill.  We’d all known for years that she could go at any time on account of the fact that she was well into her nineties, but this sudden urgency was very strange.  While I was still lying in bed, the phone rang.  My grandma was dying.  They’d given her 24-48 hours.  

I scrambled searching for flights, calling my siblings and my mom and trying to figure out what to do.  Faced with the choice of flying out a day later on the next available flight and possibly seeing or possibly missing my grandma (who was no longer responsive) or flying down in two weeks when the family gathered for her memorial (and seeing, possibly for the last time all together, my far-flung aunts, uncles and cousins), I decided to stay home.  

My sister, who drove up from Los Angeles to be at my Grandma’s bedside, got me on facetime so I could talk to her.  Amazingly, she responded.  She couldn’t open her eyes, but she was clearly trying to speak.  I told her she didn’t need to say anything, that I knew that she loved me, and she settled back against her pillow.  I was able to tell her that I loved her just so, so much, that I was so happy for her that she was finally getting to go home, and I was able to thank her for loving all of us so well.  My sister and I, and the others in the room, sang a her a song.  Singing was her favorite.  I was desperately hoping that someone would be singing when she died, but I could see that I wasn’t going to be the one to do it.  As long as I was on the phone, everyone felt the need to interact with me, and it made everything less peaceful, so I said my goodbyes, thanked my sister and hung up.

I sat at home.  It seemed impossible to go about normal weekend business knowing that she was passing.  So I canceled my plans, I prayed a little and eventually decided that the best way for me to engage the moment was to sit and write a memory of Grandma.  This is what came of that:

As I write this, my grandmother Sarah Elline is fading from this world.  This is not sudden; she’s ninety four and has been fragile for several years now, and her memory started to betray her long ago.  But, indelibly, Sarah Elline is Sarah Elline.

I have a theory that we become distilled with age, that our essence becomes more pure as we lose the energy and wherewithal to maintain artiface.  In my grandmother’s case, she has become almost unbearably lovely.  A Mississippi belle to her very core, she has always been a beauty with a razor-sharp wit, a quick laugh, and no small amount of sass.  She represents to me the finer things.  Lipstick.  Music.  Storytelling.  Massive family gatherings with her many children in her sprawling home.  Cornbread.  Collards.  Beans with bacon.  Of course, she is human and flawed, but from my vantage point, the rough edges seem to have dropped off with time, leaving only luminous beauty, kindness, love, and yes, sass.

Having lived in San Francisco for nearly ten years and in Canada for three, my visits are few and carry much weight.  Each time I see her, I know it could be my last.

A couple of years ago, shortly before she had to be moved from Grandpa and Grandma’s House to assisted living, I was in California for a visit and came to see her for what turned out to be my last time in the home where I had formed most of my memories of her.  I heard her health was going downhill and she would have to move soon.  I heard that the day before she’d forgotten that her husband, sister and two sons had died and was wandering the house looking for them.  My aunt warned me not to mention any of these things, not to expect that she would know me.

I nodded and headed down the hallway – the same hallway that I’d sleepwalked as a ten-year-old with the chicken pox (and which, when I woke standing confused and disoriented in her bedroom in the middle of the night, rather than sending me back through to bed, she traversed with me, turning left at the kitchen to fix me a midnight supper).

Pausing at her bedroom door, I knew that however philosophical I tried to be about this, if I walked through that door and this woman who I knew absolutely adored me did not recognize me, I would be crushed.  There were days when I could take it, but this just wasn’t one of them.  I braced myself and opened the door.  I was immediately greeted with a sweet and slow “Hiiiiii honey!”  My throat tightened a little with gratitude and relief.

We chatted.  She knew who I was but was fuzzy on most of the particulars.  She didn’t remember that I’d gotten married, so I cozied up next to her on the bed and showed her a picture of my husband.  She pronounced him handsome.  She looked at one of the photos sitting on her dresser and asked, “Are those your children?”  “No, Grandma,” I said gently.  “Those are Nancy’s children.”

We were silent for a moment.  Then, unexpectedly, she looked at me with such tenderness and said, “Honey, I’m so sorry that your Daddy died.”  Our eyes held each other in a completely lucid, present moment of shared grief.  As is often my wont, I reached for words when they weren’t necessary and halfheartedly offered, “He’s in a better place.”  She looked at me archly and countered with her classic Southern air, “I don’t see how it could be all that much better without his mother.”  I conceded the point.

Mary Poppins was playing on the TV.

“I remember this show,” she said, and began to hum-sing, “A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down…”

“The medicine go down,” I joined her, “The medicine go down.”

We continued our duet with the tv buzzing in the background.  When it was finished, she smiled and sighed, “Beautiful.”

I have just gotten the news that she is home.  That she quietly breathed her last surrounded by her children, grandchildren and others who loved her.  They were singing Hallelujah at the moment that her body released her.

I imagine her stepping across that threshold, ancient and childlike, eyes gleaming, face open, arms outstretched, awaiting the embrace that makes all things new.

And I imagine her walking those streets a young woman, tangerine lipstick, hair meticulously coiffed, demure white heels and a crisp, knee-length white dress, the lines of her stockings perfectly straight against her calves, eyes flashing with wit, laughter and a touch of sauce, a song welling up from somewhere deep and tumbling unconsciously over her lips.

And I think she was right.  I think Heaven just got better.