It’s How the Holy Gets In

Growing up, I watched Mom vacuum all the floors, Grandma wash all the laundry, women in the kitchen at every family function while the men sat and talked in the living room, and I felt so trapped. So anxious to grow up and get out of that. I wanted a man who could cook, and who wouldn’t care if the house was a disaster when he got home because guess what: THE HOUSE IS NOT MY RESPONSIBILITY JUST BECAUSE I’M THE GIRL.

I wanted to do big important things with my life. I wanted to be big and important.

So when we had our first child and I became a stay-at-home mom, I chaffed at assuming traditional roles. I didn’t have dinner ready when he got home, the floor was not EVER vacuumed, and nine times out of ten, a large portion of the week’s jam was creatively arranged across walls and floor. And if Carey dared say something obnoxious like, “Uh, is that grape jelly on the toilet seat…?” I would explode. Not. My. Job. I’m here to raise a family, not to keep the house pristine for your pleasure.

But this is not an essay about gender roles. This is about my grandma.

There was never grape jelly on the toilet seat at Grandma’s house. Jelly appeared every morning for breakfast, in a tidy little jar with its own silver plated spoon, next to the softened butter on its little white butter plate. Eggs and bacon likewise appeared, served on matching white dishes (not ever straight from the cooking pot), with a tray of perfectly toasted bread, and a pitcher of freshly poured cream. Everyone came to breakfast dressed, and ate with their napkins in their laps, and afterward Grandma cleared the table and cleaned the kitchen, leaving it sparkling for an hour or two until time to prepare the next meal.

I never understood my grandma, her quiet acquiescence to the way of things, her pristine house, her willingness to work even on vacation (after all, how much vacation is it really, if you’re in a motorhome and still responsible for all the cooking and cleaning?). I never wanted to be like that, and yet… I wanted to be like her.

I had it from a very young age, that impulse, that desire to emulate my amazing grandma. Knew it, without understanding it.

While Grandma was dying in November, I went out to California to help take care of her, the way she had always taken care of me. It was an amazing privilege, to sit by her bed and hold her hand, sing to her, read to her, feed her. One day, she looked at her hands and she said, “Those are ugly old hands, whose ugly old hands are those?” And I said, “Grandma those are beautiful hands. Those are hands that worked all your life taking care of people.” And she said, “Did they work hard?” And I said, “Yes, Grandma, very hard.” And she said, “Oh, good. I’m glad they worked hard.”

Grandma died November 25, 2013.

I can’t write that sentence without crying. I’m crying now. Her leaving left a tear in the fabric of my universe that I can’t seem to pull closed.

In the weeks since, I’ve gone through all my old memorabilia, looking for scraps to hold on to, piecing together memories and making sense of Grandma’s place in my life, trying to understand her, trying to pull closed the gap she left. Trying to be gentle with myself, the way I know she would be, trying to forgive myself for not appreciating what I had while I had her.

I’ve sifted through Memory, written essay after essay, cried till I’m wrung dry. I’ve tugged and I’ve pulled, but the tear doesn’t close. And, after all, should it?

Aren’t the cracks how the light gets in?

While Grandma was dying, I sat by her bed and thought of things to distract her from her pain and confusion. She was hardly there most of the time, lost in some private quiet sleepy universe of her own, except when she woke to groan or cry or, occasionally, delightfully, to make a joke. When I hit on the idea to sing to her, the first song that popped to mind was “Holy Holy Holy.” Those are all the words I know, but I started the hymn anyway and when I did, she woke up and sang with me: “Holy, holy, holy! Lord God almighty,” she sang. I couldn’t remember the words but I kept humming it because I wanted her to keep singing. Oh, my beautiful grandma.

And now I stumble around the house thinking of her and singing, “Holy, holy, holy,” and trying to pull together the edges of the fabric that was torn, trying to pull myself together, but the fabric doesn’t want to come back together, it wants to stay ripped and open and painful, and the light of those words keeps pouring in: Holy, holy, holy.

And as the days pass, and then the weeks, and the light pours in and my crying pours out, and I gradually begin to stumble forward again, little changes happen, things I don’t even notice at first. Like the time I walk into the bathroom and decide that I deserve better than mildewed tiles and so I clean the shower and then clean myself in its bright interior. Or the moment I look down at my child’s chapped hands and actually SEE them, and realize that the nails are broken and chipped and that I LOVE this child and that he is so holy, and so I trim his nails and slather his hands in lotion and wrap his chilled body in a warm, clean sweatshirt.

I tidy up my office, carrying an old file cabinet down from the attic and arranging my files, organizing pens and paper clips and note pads, setting up my collection of signed books where I can look at them every day while I’m working, arranging a soft box for my cat to sleep in while I type. I do all the laundry, folding each item gently, loving the child, the husband, the self, with each clean warm item I put away.

I move a loved wall hanging from the hall where it hangs dusty and ignored, into the kitchen where I can see it. I shine it. I scrub out the tub, and buy scented candles and take a hot bath with salts that I got for Christmas two years ago. Later, I stand at the sink and I wash dishes in soapy water and I think, “Holy is the dish and drain.”

And there it is. The light.

Grandma knew it all along. She understood the simple truth that everything is holy. She understood that standing in the kitchen making gravy from bacon grease matters. Tinsel crowns and stuffed penguins and tart-sweet marmalade are the big important things in life.

Grandma always knew you don’t have to try to be big and important because you already are big and important. All you have to do is recognize your own holiness.

I still have no desire to perpetuate traditional gender roles, or to quietly acquiesce to a world in which women work and men sit, but I no longer object to a little housework here and there. And I guess I’m not so worried now about closing that tear Grandma’s departure left in the fabric of my life. That crack is how the holy gets in.

(And the holy is how my house gets clean. Win-win.)

Holy As a Day is Spent

Holy is the dish and drain
The soap and sink, and the cup and plate
And the warm wool socks, and the cold white tile
Shower heads and good dry towels
And frying eggs sound like psalms
With bits of salt measured in my palm
It’s all a part of a sacrament
As holy as a day is spent
Holy is the busy street
And cars that boom with passion’s beat
And the check out girl, counting change
And the hands that shook my hands today
And hymns of geese fly overhead
And spread their wings like their parents did
Blessed be the dog that runs in her sleep
To chase some wild and elusive thing
Holy is the familiar room
And quiet moments in the afternoon
And folding sheets like folding hands
To pray as only laundry can
I’m letting go of all my fear
Like autumn leaves made of earth and air
For the summer came and the summer went
As holy as a day is spent
Holy is the place I stand
To give whatever small good I can
And the empty page, and the open book
Redemption everywhere I look
Unknowingly we slow our pace
In the shade of unexpected grace
And with grateful smiles and sad lament
As holy as a day is spent
And morning light sings ‘providence’
As holy as a day is spent

-Lyrics by Carrie Newcomber

Holy too

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7 responses to “It’s How the Holy Gets In

  1. Hello Heather,

    I don’t know you, but I wanted to let you know how deeply affected I was by this post. As I reached the section about your Grandma, my first thought was to ask you to be gentle with yourself, be kind to yourself, but then, as I read further, I learned that Grandma had already instilled that in you. You see, Grandma knew many, many things, but there is never a way to learn everything that someone else knows. Often, we learn a lot of specific things from them, but If we are fortunate, we learn the foundation from which their knowledge was built, and we try to emulate it. It seems to me your Grandma had a solid foundation, and so do you.

    I’ve read the following quote many times, sometimes attributed to different people, but most often to Barbara Bloom. “When the Japanese mend broken objects, they aggrandize the damage by filling the cracks with gold. They believe that when something’s suffered damage and has a history it becomes more beautiful.” From this perspective I would interpret your loss as radiant.

    Here’s an article about the history of the actual process, called kintsugi: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/03/02/AR2009030202723.html

    After many years I have come to believe that the degree of pain we feel for the loss of another is a measure of the impact they had on our lives and the deeper the pain flows, the greater the void we feel. Grandma’s measure overflows, deeply.

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