The internecine conflict between my paternal grandmother and my mother was conducted, covertly. My grandmother never referenced it and I recall my mother alluding to it only once, saying curtly: “Difficult woman.” I never knew the whole story.
I, on the other hand, enjoyed an affectionate relationship to Grandma, as I called her. She liked referring to me as “Grandma’s kitten” which may not have served to endear me to my mother. “The friend of my enemy is my enemy” as the old adage goes. In that regard, I was not in an easy place but I loved my mother and I loved grandma.
When I was stricken with childhood diseases, like pink eye, that required being quarantined from my brother and sister, off to Grandma’s I would be sent. She would indulge me shamelessly. I loved it. Grandma cooked fricassee chicken with dumplings for me which I never had at home; she had chicklets to chew which were forbidden at home as my father, a dentist. He thought they fostered cavities. Finally, she told me stories about the Merrill family that enthralled me. None of my other relatives ever talked about family’s origins, our history or distant relatives of interest. I never sensed anything dark and forbidden was being hidden, as such –– it’s just that conversations like that never came up as if there was little curiosity or interest in what transpired historically on either side of the family.
Aging has its perks: octogenarians have the long look of things. Now that I am a grand and great-grandparent, I’ve thought recently of the experiences I’ve had with my own grandparents and in what way their legacy may have showed up in the conduct of my own life.
My experience as young priest comes to mind.
I served as the assistant at All Angles parish on Manhattan’s upper West Side. At the time, I was in graduate school and had arranged to have three mornings a week for attending school and spend the rest of my time performing pastoral duties assigned me by the rector. My primary duties were calling on the sick and particularly the elderly who were members of the parish. Some were scattered throughout the city and occasionally living in the suburbs.
Most young clergy, at least in my day, did not enjoy calling on the elderly. They made calls dutifully, but perfunctorily. They talked of how one day they would have parishes with lots vital young people that were game for new things. Clergy gossip revealed low interest in the aging and even some cynicism. A common complaint was: “They just want to talk about their operations and to find out who died.” Some clergy dismissed their visits to the elderly as “organ recitals.”
I didn’t experience the elderly in that way. It was not as if I were imbued with more humane instincts; I just felt easy with calling on the elderly because I loved hearing their stories. I’d come home from classes, put on my clerics, get in my VW Bug, and off I’d go, putting my life at peril in Manhattan traffic, to visit “shut-in’s” and other elderly parishioners.
As I think about it, I can see something of Grandma Merrill influencing the conduct of my life, not only in what I was about as a young man but also now. What I had discovered in my time with Grandma was how life giving stories are. Stories serve as the connective tissue for finding meaning; they provide nutrients for the soul and a way to affiliate with others; stories take us to places we may not be able to access on our own. Simply by listening, we are carried somewhere else, even though we may be confined or limited by other constraints. Writer Joan Didion once commented: We tell stories in order to live.
All Angels was a magnificent church, ornately appointed, with Delft tiles placed around the baptistery. It had been built at a time when Manhattan’s West Side was affluent, and religion was practiced as much for social affiliation as spiritual nurture. I say that but I must add that it’s a hard call to make with any accuracy; in a congregation of say, three hundred persons, there are at least three hundred different reasons why people may elect to come to church services.
Matters of the spirit are, at best, subtle and hard to define in clear and tidy ways. One thing is for sure: whenever our souls are not being nourished, the secondary effects can be seen; ennui, restlessness, anger and a kind of low-grade hollowness that surrounds everyday life, something like we’re seeing in today’s culture. My guess is that people show up in a church, unclear about just what they seek, but hope to find in the church experience something that will sate that persistent longing for something more –– not wealth, not success or status, but that something more that remains maddeningly ineffable.
On one table in Grandma’s house, she’d placed a lace doily. It caught my eye every visit. On it stood a picture of John I. Merrill, my great grandfather. Next to it was a starfish. Grandma told me that he had been in the oyster trade and owned a fish market on Fulton Street in the city. Years later it occurred to me that the starfish was lethal to oyster beds. What was it doing next to his picture? I thought the beds had been closed for concerns of typhus. I never learned what happened. If I’d had the presence of mind to ask Grandma, I know she would have told me the whole story.
Just what had happened to create the tension between Grandma and my mother I never really understood. There are times when it’s probably best that I don’t know the whole story.
Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.