Gramma & Me: A Re-Telling of Religion & ‘Right Minds’

“(God) woke me up this morning, (I was) clothed in my right mind” – based on Mark 5:15

I. My Grandmother (Gramma) is the most sophisticated and complicated woman I’ve known. She was known for her quick wit, generous heart, impeccable sense of style, and solid taste in music. She’d thrown out most of her ‘secular’ records after what she referred to as ‘getting saved’. But it was still my favorite thing to sing a few bars, watch her face light up, and hear her say, “Whatchu’ know about Sarah Vaughn?!”

Recently, my Gramma transitioned from this life. The calendar tells me there are only 29 days left until the anniversary of her passing. I’ve struggled to find my words for 1 year.

As Gramma grew older and she took on leadership positions in our family church, I think that folk glazed over her complexities to see only the service, just the love for God, only the way she rocked their babies to sleep in the nursery, only her encouragement, just the times she’d play piano and organize a service for those in the nursing home.

These things have a deep impact and should be remembered. However, my Gramma was a full person. Although I could only see fractals, I know that those fractals are “infinitely complex patterns, self-similar across different scales”(1). I knew her as a woman who grew up in the Jim Crow South and found ways to survive and thrive. I knew her through the stories that my mother and I shared.  I realized that through her relationship with my siblings. I realized that when I went back to Pennsylvania to help clean her home. Re-telling a life is complicated.  To present her as one dimensional seemed dehumanizing.

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Source: Family photo albums, College graduation at PSU

II. We sat in an office and sipped filtered water as the sun went down. A researcher and I were discussing equity for LGBTQI* persons within a Christian context along with some of our personal experiences. However, the conversation wound around a few sub-topics as we began to share. “I’ve noticed a trend of deep anxiety in these stories about religion…”

Anxiety about hell. Anxiety about punishment. Anxiety about being unloved / unwanted. Anxiety about being attacked by spirits. Anxiety about just… not getting things “right”.

I think about that conversation often. Because I know, from watching my Gramma… from knowing my ‘ownself’… of the delicate dance: the balance between religion (at least, the type my Gramma and I knew, the kind I detached from in some respects, the kind she leaned into) as both a coping mechanism and a source of stress.

My Gramma sung hymns when she was stressed and overwhelmed. This got her through an incredibly difficult relationship. She recited Scriptures from moment to moment. I’d catch her mumbling prayers on our many trips to West Virginia together. She carried anointing oil in her bag – for commemorating new beginnings, for healing sick grandchildren, for warding off spiritual darkness. For managing anxieties about the things that could and could not be seen.

III. My Gramma and I had a lot of things in common. She would often take me with her on her shopping trips. This was where my love of sequins, furs, and fabulous-ness was perfected. I would accompany her as an assistant; helping to choose Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday’s best. I’d go with her to the nailery (as we say in Philadelphia). I watched her long nails shaped into almonds and painted mauve. I hated the smell of the chemicals in the shop… but I loved the glamour.

Gramma and I both shared somewhat complicated relationships with the Divine. Where she leaned in, I critiqued. What I critiqued, she often would not understand. But we both knew it was complicated. It was the complication of temporal and divine relationships marked by love and disappointment.

Gramma and I placed a high importance on ‘safety’. These days, I open my mouth and it’s uncanny how quickly I find one of her key phrases: “That’s risky!” She played movies about being safe from temporal dangers: strangers, getting lost, falling down, being poisoned, etc. She watched shows about being safe from “spiritual dangers”: hexes, (certain) secular music, the Seven Deadly Sins, and more. I didn’t know there was so much to be afraid of. Though her face didn’t show it… I often wondered, “Is Gramma scared, too?”

IV. We were between declarations of ‘clothed in my right mind’ and profound internal anxieties. We were between the salves of whispered prayers and travails of ‘warfare prayers’. It was her house that told me that. It was cleaning her house that reminded me of my own need to let fear subside.

V. My Gramma had a deep interior world, of which I will never fully know. Yet, there are times when I see its connections through our ancestry. There are times when I see it through the presence and brilliant testimonies of her neighbors, students she taught, children she’d soothed (now-grown), women she’d mentored.

What I wish is that she could see this for herself.  Cleaning her house was discovering her psyche. Journals holding pages full of desires to get closer to the Divine – feeling that she had fallen short. I learned that in my adult years, she had given up understanding me (especially my spirituality). So, she decided to love me instead.

I realized how much we were alike – in complexity, beauty, and humanity.

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