These are the Islamic prayer beads (Misbaha or Tasbih or Sibha) my United Church of Christ minister gave me to hold as a way of getting through my grandmother’s funeral. She knew it would be both comforting and subversive.
I LOVE that she gets me.
You see, this wasn’t just my grandmother’s funeral. This was my grandmother’s Fundamentalist funeral. Presided over by a minister who is a graduate of a famous Fundamentalist university in Greenville, South Carolina. Attended by my father’s eight siblings and their families and their family’s families but not by my father, because of a disagreement about the care of my ailing grandmother.
But I was going.
Because it was the right thing to do. For me.
Despite my misgivings and the flashbacks from my Fundamentalist upbringing, the prickly family relations and the chance for an altar call at the end of the service, I was going.
I chose to have my panic attack well in advance of the day.
This is where “pastoral care” came in.
We have multiple clergy at our church. I like them all. They each have their strengths. On matters of a personal nature, I prefer the one who baptized our children. She rocks. I consider her a friend. And she is doing something I would love to do: She’s getting her doctoral degree from an interfaith program where she studies alongside rabbis and imams. How great is that? And last year she met Desmond Tutu.
I so want her job.
When I went to see her, she did her shepherding in the best way she could: she listened, she reflected what she heard, she acknowledged the difficulty and the fear and she gave me permission not to go. And when she knew that I would go anyway for the sake of the only two people that mattered in this story she said, “I have something for you.”
She had just flown back from a conference in Texas where she made some lovely acquaintances and upon her leaving one of the women handed her these prayer beads and told her to take them. She wanted her to have them. A gift. And, now, she was passing them on to me to use for as long as I needed.
This brought me peace.
Into the storm I would carry a secret.
And I did.
And I survived.
And I managed not to pull the minister aside to talk to him about his bad theology at the graveside. Instead…I noticed.
I noticed that my child’s note to his great-grandmother was welcomed into the casket. That someone else had brought a clutch of field flowers and placed them in her hands. That she wore the brooch I’d seen her wear so many times before that said “Mother,” and, despite the length of her days being only a few shy of one hundred, she was what she had always been to me…and I touched her hand.
And I noticed that family is messy, and, yet, there is still love.
My grandmother lived in the country and was poor all her life. She attended a small country church with simple country people. She loved to rock the babies in the nursery, write poetry, notice songbirds and enjoyed the visits she received from the Amish women in her community. She had been without my grandfather for over twenty-eight years, and, despite their arranged marriage, she had grown to love him. She was one of ten siblings; three of whom are still living. She was raised by a stepmother when her own mother died while she was yet an infant, and she slept in my bed following her cataract surgery when I was a young teen. Seeing her in her pajamas during her stay with us was the only time I ever saw her wear pants. She never learned to drive. During one of her many pregnancies she burned her arm and, clutching it to her abdomen at the time of her injury, later gave birth to a child with a noticeable birth mark. No one could convince her she had not marked her baby.
My friend Phil, a Presbyterian minister, once said, “We always ask why those we love are taken too soon. We rarely ask why some live so long.”
She deserved a better life than the one she had.
People in the country pull over to the side of the road to let a funeral procession pass by. They wait. Sometimes for awhile. And the men, difficult to miss wearing their bright orange vests in the barren late autumn fields, stop their pursuit of whatever they are hunting to take off their hats and lower their eyes to the ground.
Postscript: As I left our minister’s office that day with the beads in hand and a lighter heart in my chest she said, “You know, when this is all over, this might make a really great story for your blog.”
She was right.
This is dedicated to the Rev. Deborah Lindsay.
Copyright 2013. © Christina Caine. All rights reserved.