The Eulogy for Mildred McGranahan

17
Jun

Preached on June 16th, 2011.  Mildred was my mother-in-law.

Mildred was born on September 15, 1919, the first born child of Sarah Caroline and Jacob Elton Franks.  They lived on a farm outside of Wooster, Ohio.  Sarah Caroline was a school teacher, and Elton was the elected county treasurer.  A close knit extended family of aunts and uncles lived near at hand, with a different Aunt hosting Sunday dinner each week.

The family’s ancestry was German with all the positives and negatives that such lineage entails.  “Let us now be up and doing, with a heart for any fate, still achieving still pursuing, learning to labor, and to wait.”

Mildred was baptized and raised up in the local Lutheran church, though later a friend would take her to hang out with the Methodists.

At the age of only two Mildred came down with a severe infection that might have taken her life.  Manifesting the strong will that would characterize her whole life, Mildred refused to succumb, though she remained bedridden for the better part of a year.  Her mother, who had been trained in diction, would recite poems by Robert Louis Stevenson to her, and read her the books that her aunts would bring by.

Mildred’s brother Richard was born in 1922, and sister Mary Jane five years later in 1927.   Under Mildred’s influence they both became early readers.  Her mom tried to introduce her to the violin, but it didn’t take.  She did, however learn to play the piano. According to Richard, Mildred preferred practicing the piano to weeding.

The Great Depression struck when Mildred was but ten years old.  “Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.”

Although Mildred’s father maintained his job as the county treasurer, his sensitive soul suffered under the profound stress of the times – such as when fifty applicants would show up for only one job opening he had to fill.   He died prematurely when Mildred was not yet 14 years old.  Pushing aside her grief, Mildred’s mother took over her husband’s job in order to provide for her family.  When election time came around, she defied gender role stereotypes of the time by getting elected to a term of her own as the county’s second highest public official.

Mildred worked summers at the Cedar Point Amusement Park, doing her part to help support the family,  She would often hear her mother tell her, “Mildred, take care of Richard and Mary Jane.”

Despite her claims of not having been the smart one in the family, Mildred did quite well in school, mastering four years of Latin and French, allowing her to graduate early at the age of only 15. At the encouragement of her Aunt Baib (Barbara), Mildred went off to Ohio State University where she lived with a Presbyterian minister’s widow and her three pony-tailed girls.   After one year at Ohio State, Mildred demonstrated her strong will by defying Aunt Baib and transferring to Kent State University for her second year.  A year later Mildred graduated with a two year degree, passing proficiency tests in Math and English, enabling her to receive a teaching certificate.

Thus it came to pass that at the young age of only 18 Mildred was out on her own employed as a school teacher in Litonia, about eighty miles away from the family home in Wooster.  For three years she taught 2nd graders, returning home to the farm during the summers.  Somehow Mildred managed to study part time at the university, eventually attaining her four year degree.  In 1942, Mildred took a job teaching 5th and 6th graders in Canfield.  She would play the piano for her school children standing up, leading them in song, and using music to help them master math.  Mildred declared that boys in particular needed to be up and moving regularly if their minds were going to be open to learning.  Thus, recess and singing were essential parts of her classroom schedule, though her grandchildren’s recollection is that she was inclined to forget this principle when it came to instructing them in how to read.

In 1945 Mildred took a teaching position in East Cleveland where she would remain for the next four years.  She rented a room in a house owned by a Mrs. Stevens.   Grace Edna McGranahan, who worked locally as a stenographer also lived there, and the two became dear friends.  Grace told Mildred about her brother Bob who was returning home from the war, having served with the Marines in the Pacific arena.

At this point in her life Mildred had come to accept that she was destined to live out her days as a single school teacher.  In Mildred’s mind her hair was too short and her teeth crooked, making her an unlikely candidate for marriage. But Mildred embraced her fate.  Teaching, after all, was a noble profession.

Nonetheless, when the handsome young ex-marine arrived in town in the summer of 1946, Mildred allowed Grace to persuade her to catch a bus to Cleveland where she met Grace and Bob for dinner.   That evening, Grace did most of the talking, but apparently the date went well enough that within a week Bob had called and they went out again, this time without the supervision of Grace.  

Over the next three years while Bob was studying for his degree in electrical engineering at Case, Mildred and Bob continued to see one another in their free time.  Bob would drive his mother’s 47 Pontiac to visit Mildred on the farm, where, under her mother’s watchful eye, Mildred and Bob would sit together outside on the swing, enjoying the breezes and the smell of honey suckles.  Bob was smitten with Mildred and she with him, and at some point he proposed, and happily she accepted.

In January of 1949 Bob graduated from college and in February left town to take a job with Sperry Gyroscope far away in Great Neck in Long Island, New York.  During her Spring break from her teaching job, Mildred came out East to visit Bob, during which time they made plans for a summer wedding.

At this point in the retelling of Mildred’s story it’s worth pausing to reflect on all that had transpired in her life by this time.  Mildred’s grandchildren have always known the older, slow-moving, increasingly frail Grammy of her golden years.  In light of this image of Grammy, it’s striking to look back at the experiences Grammy had already accumulated by the time she was the present age of each of the grandchildren.

At Bobby’s age of 15, for instance, Grammy had survived a year of bed-confining paralysis, as well as the Great Depression and her father’s death.  She had experienced the work world and was about to leave home to go off to college.

At 24, the age of Andrew Thaddeus, Kate, and Andrew Elijah, Grammy had persevered to her degree through a combination of full-time and part time college.  She’d put in eight years of living on her own away from home and six years of having complete responsibility for a classroom full of children.

At Carrie’s age of 28, Grammy had lived off on her own for nearly eleven years and taught full time for nine years.  She’d survived the collective terror of America at war in every corner of the earth.  And she was on the verge of moving five hundred miles away from home, leaving behind everything that was familiar to her in order to embark on an entirely new life with her new husband on the East Coast.

If you stop to think about all she had endured and the challenges she met, it can make you truly stand in awe of Grammy.

And so following her Spring break trip to New York, Mildred returned to Ohio, finished up her teaching commitment and packed her bags to begin her new life together with Bob.

And so it came to pass that on June 25th, 1949 the young Midwestern couple found themselves in the heart of Manhattan standing before the altar of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church (West 65th Street) with only a handful of family and friends who were able to be in attendance.   For sure their heads and heart must have been spinning as they began what would turn out to be an almost 62 year marriage together on this earth.

Following the wedding there was no time for a honeymoon.  Mildred and Bob immediately moved into an apartment in Levittown that they rented from the rather creepy Madam Churi, who on one occasion they came home to find washing her clothes in their bath tub, reminding them that they were a long way from Ohio.

A year later they purchased a house at 113 Blacksmith Road which they would call home for the next twenty years.  In rapid succession and with hardly time to catch her breath, Mildred gave birth to four babies:  first Kathy, then Bobby, followed by Sally, followed by Jay.

The order and creative engagement of teaching in the classroom that Mildred had known was left behind as her world became largely confined to the life of housewife and mother.  She took up residence for extended amounts of time “up and doing” in the kitchen, becoming famous for her pies, deviled eggs, potato salad and cookies.  She became a Girl Scout Cookie Mom and a Cub Scout leader, and an eternal chauffer.

Quoting from Thad’s well-written obituary of Mildred:  “Though as a young woman Mildred detested swimming, she encouraged a love of the water (in her children) by buying a small boat so the family could enjoy learning to swim in Great South Bay on Long Island.”

She was fiercely loyal to her husband, looking after his well being so he could go off to work every morning.  When what looked like a heart attack for Bob turned out to be Gastritis, Mildred adjusted her cooking style to make sure her man would stay healthy and strong for years to come.

Quoting another good line from the obituary:  “Depending upon one’s perspective, Mildred was tenacious, steel-willed, resolute, determined, perhaps stubborn, but always inspiring.”

The family made trips together back to Ohio to remember their roots, visit family and to walk through graveyards.

For several years Bob and Mildred, in the company of their good friends the Timsons, would pack up two station wagons with a pile of camping gear, a hoard of kids and two dogs and head up to Cape Cod for two weeks of fishing and fun in the water.  Every night Mildred and Aunt Dodie would cook up the fish their family had caught that day.  Much laughter was heard coming from Mildred around the campsite.

In the morning Bob would get up early to turn on the heater in the tent to take off the chill, and then brew coffee to bring to Mildred.  Happy times for sure.

The afternoon of Mildred’s death I happened to find in an old Bible in Grammy and Pop Pop’s house a carbon of a letter that Mildred typed to her mother way back on the last day of 1973.   I will read selections of this letter to give a picture for how Mildred passed her days during this stage of her life, as well as a taste of her distinctive sense of humor.

Dear Mom,

Yesterday our telephone bill came, and I promptly went out and bought this paper and carbon paper.  I will use the telephone only as the last resort.  Unless you direct that the charges are reversed.  Any takers?

I sent Kathy my pie crust recipe.  That took the major part of one morning.  This morning I got ready to have tea at one of the neighbors at 1 p.m.  I really didn’t do too much getting ready since Bob was home with the flu and I had the usual to do plus try to make myself pretty!

I’ve recently been listening to the Boob Toob and the latest is that those who are generously endowed in the upper torso are least endowed in the head!  I always knew something was wrong – now I can blame my ancestors! …

Grade cards come out soon and we will see if we have any scholars or if we are all headed for the trade schools.  From the study schedule I wouldn’t take bets on the former…

Now, I have given you everything that has happened to date.  I hope you are in good health, and good spirits and are able to cope with today’s problems.  Mr. Nixon has finally put the pinch on and I am forced to write letters.  If you would like to hear from me again, I will be willing to ANSWER your letter or your carbon letter.  But I will write only to those who think enough of me to forgive me and to write to me.

Love,

Mildred

Sarah tells a story of coming home from college during the summer and meeting a young male nursing student who took a fancy to her and invited her to go on a date with him to Fire Island where, supposedly, as a part of his schooling, he needed to take pictures of women’s abdomens.  This sounded plausible enough to Sarah, but when she told her parents, well, it raised a few eye brows, shall we say, regarding the young man’s intentions towards their daughter.

Nonetheless, Sarah went off on with the young man, but wouldn’t you know, they missed the last ferry boat back from Fire Island.  Sarah recalls making the phone call that night to tell her parents that she was stranded on Fire Island with the young man and would not be able to come home until morning.

Now generally speaking, Pop Pop had a reputation for being the calmer of the two parents, and Grammy far and away the stricter, more strident parent, but in this particular instance, that was not the case.     When Pop Pop realized that his daughter was stuck on Fire Island with the young man of questionable intentions, he went ballistic, “That blankety-blank son of a blank, I’m gunna kill him!!  I swear, I’m gunna get my boat and ride out there and I’m gunna bring my gun and I’m gunna shoot that blankety-blank!!!!!”

Sarah was terror-stricken.  Suddenly, though, Grammy was on the phone, talking calmly, taking charge.

“Sarah, are you all right?”

“Yes.”

In the background, Pop Pop could still be heard threatening the young man’s life.

“Will you be able to find a place to stay for the night?”

“Yes.”

“Good.  We’ll see you in the morning.”

Sarah says she sat up all night on the beach afraid that she would see her father motoring his boat to shore, gun ready to fire.  He didn’t show. Grammy, apparently, had succeeded in calming him down.

Mildred shared her love of music with her children, providing them each with piano lessons, “along with,” as it was expressed so nicely in her obituary, “a giant measure of determination.”

With Bobby in particular the gift took, and he took the gift in directions Mildred could never have imagined.  This was the sixties with the music of the day expressing the absolutely upside-down-world in which Mildred now found herself living.  Men walked on the moon, and Bobby became a card carrying member of the Woodstock generation, and from Mildred’s point of view Woodstock was about as far away from the farm in Wooster as the moon.

When her children finished high school, Mildred went back to teaching part time, and it brought a new spring to her step.

Mildred grieved for her mother after her passing.  The untimely death sometime later of her little sister Jane utterly devastated Mildred.  In typical fashion she was left feeling that she should have — could have — done something to protect Jane from the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

When the grandchildren came along she loved them dearly, and nothing pleased her more than to have the growing family come back home to visit.

The long road Grammy traveled to reach old age mellowed her considerably.   In her latter years Mildred didn’t assume that her grandchildren should necessarily replicate the Spartan path she had tread.  Kate remembers coming home just last winter, a college grad with no real job nor clear plan regarding the future.  The extended family was sitting around the dinner table, and Kate was getting hammered about what her plans were – and, what do you mean you don’t have any plans?!!   Kate was feeling pressure to figure out, NOW, what she was going to do with her life.

Grammy’s voice was the lone exception at the table.   “Kate,” she said softly, gently patting her hand, “take your time.  You’re great.  Do what ever your want.  Fear not, little one.”

Fear not, little one.  Kate remembers this expression often on the lips of her Grammy.  Fear not, little one.

There was conflicting forces at tension in Mildred’s soul.  On the one hand she carried the burden of Germanic perfectionism and a never-resting Protestant work ethic, combined with the inevitable hefty dose of guilt that accompanies such perfectionism.  There were the voices of self-accusation that sometimes looped out of control in Mildred’s brain, wreaking havoc with her thought processes, and at times, spilling out from her to sting the very people she loved the most.

But on the other hand there was this sublime quality of mercy that simmered over the long haul in Mildred’s soul, and over time that mercy would rise up to trump the Germanic perfectionism.

We set out in life determined to do it right only to discover soon enough that we are all just floundering about in the dark, doing the best we can, which often isn’t so hot, but sometimes is enough.   Hopefully we come to discover the best wisdom of Martin Luther and St. Paul that Grammy would fall back on and often quote:  “We’re all just sinners saved by grace.”

“Mercy!”

I remember dancing with Grammy at the wedding reception for Sarah and myself — you know, the traditional first-dance-of-the-groom-with-his-new-mother-in-law, and she starts talking to her new preacher son-in-law about, of all things, the Bible story in which the sins of betrayal committed by King David are described in all their cruel, graphic, gory detail, leading to the scene where the prophet Nathan knocks him off his high horse with the “You are the man!” succor punch line.  If you don’t know the story, look it up.  It’s worth the read.  (2 Samuel 11 and 12)

This train of thought was an indication of the far flung creative connections of which Mildred’s mind was capable, distinguishing her from the run-of-the-mill but at-ease-with-themselves thinkers to whom she often was at a loss for how to relate.

The striking thing for me was that for Mildred the significance of King David’s unseemly dissent into sin was the final affirmation that the Bible makes regarding David’s life — that in spite of all his faults and severe frailty, he was, after all was said and done, “a man after God’s own heart.”

We are all just sinners saved by grace – people stumbling as best we can throw the darkness and towards the light, cherished through it all in God’s own heart.

I asked Pop Pop the other day what it was he loved about Mildred.  “She was Mildred” was all he could answer.

Mildred was known by Bob, and Mildred is known by God.

“For now we see in a mirror, dimly,” writes the Apostle Paul, “but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.”

“She was Mildred.”

Mildred was well loved in the time of her decline:  especially by her beloved husband Bob, but also by Kathy and Thad, who came through big time for Mildred.

When Mildred breathed her last breath on Sunday morning, all of the burdens of the looping, sometimes suffocating thoughts finally fell away.  All that remained was love, which in the end, alone endures.   She entered into that blessed realm where Jesus and all the saints are bright-shining-like-the-sun.  Some of those shining saints would have been recognizable to Mildred as part of her tribe here on earth:   there was her father Jacob Elton and her mother Carrie as well as her sister Jane.  There was her Aunt Baib, her Aunt Edna who loved to cook, her Aunt Mary and Mary’s husband, Uncle Howard.  There was Bob’s sister — Mildred’s dear friend, Grace, as well as Bob’s brother John.   She was also greeted for the first time by Katherine, Bob’s sister Katherine who died long before she ever had a chance to meet Mildred in this life.

“When we’ve been there ten thousand years bright shining as the sun, we’ve no less days to sing God’s praise than when we first begun.”

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