Our vacation this week began with a funeral. My wife’s 94 year-old grandmother died last Friday, following a battle with prolonged illness. I first met Mema 23 years ago when Heather and I started dating. Heather is the oldest of her cousins, so she was the first to bring home a potential mate. That means I was the test case for how her family would respond to such a new addition. I would like to say I passed the test with flying colors, but it was more the case that I was graded on a curve! Her family was extremely gracious in the way they received me, and none more so than Mema. As the matriarch of the family, she could have easily exercised her veto power over my presence, but she did exactly the opposite. She welcomed me into her clan as though I had been there all along. Over the years she would extend that same gracious welcome to other lateral entries as the grandkids grew up and got engaged.
Mema was, in many ways, the quintessential southern lady. She was gentle, and yet that gentleness was expressed with a steely resolve that saw her through the illness and deaths of two husbands, and the tragic, accidental death of a grown daughter. She was soft spoken, yet her words carried weight far out of proportion to her petite frame. She was unassuming, yet she owned the room whenever she was present. She never asked to be in control of anything, yet there was no doubt in any one’s mind who was in charge of the family gatherings. This was all the result of a lifetime of quiet consistency and Christian faithfulness.
The extent of the respect she garnered was obvious on Monday. Following the funeral, the family gathered back at her home church for a meal. Mema had four daughters, all of whom grew up to marry and have kids, and those kids have all grown up to marry and have kids. Between the children, the grandchildren, the great grandchildren, the aunts, uncles, cousins, spouses, and close friends, there were probably 75 people in that fellowship hall. After the meal, people took turns telling stories and offering personal tributes. Some of the stories were humorous and spoke to Mema’s quirky southern ways. One of her cousins spoke of how Mema resisted his efforts to have beer at his wedding reception because of the fact that the preacher might show up. Seriously, everybody knows that preachers melt at the sight of alcohol! Someone else spoke of how Mema had been a good friend during a personal crisis. Others told of how Mema had been the glue that held the family together over the years as it expanded and spread. To be honest, none of the stories were overly dramatic. Mema never did anything spectacularly heroic, but there was a clear and consistent theme of faith and family. In her quiet and gentle way, Mema impacted lives.
As I listened to people tell their stories I was reminded of something a mentor once told me. He said it in relation to church, but it applies to almost every area of life, including family. He said whenever you see good things happening, you can be sure somebody somewhere is working to make them happen. There are plenty of bad things that will “just happen” if you become passive and allow life to follow its natural course. Just of think of what happens to a garden if you don’t work to keep it weeded and watered. By contrast, good things, positive things, constructive things – these require choice, thoughtfulness, intentionality, effort. Such was on display this past Monday. My wife’s kin weren’t gathered in that fellowship hall to celebrate that they got lucky and just happened to stumble into a loving and cohesive family. They were celebrating that someone had worked thoughtfully and intentionally to make it so. Mema spent a lifetime purposefully pouring herself into her family, and the results of her efforts were clear.
We all have that same choice, no matter the structure of our family unit. We can decide to be intentional about caring, serving, teaching, and loving the people in our lives, or we can become passive and let the weeds take over. We can invest ourselves in others, or we can squander the opportunity that is right in front of us. Strong families, healthy churches, cohesive communities, a virtuous culture – such things won’t just happen by accident. They will happen only if somebody somewhere works to make them happen. That “somebody” may just be you or me.
I, for one, am grateful that Mema made her choice.