101: Grandma-Great

101: Grandma-Great

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Grand and Great


She was twelve when Teddy Meyer gave her a ring. His mistake was asking for it back. First, she took a hammer to it — slamming it flat. Then she marched across a damp field to deposit it smack in the middle of a cow paddy. “There’s your ring,” she said. That was seventy-eight years ago. My maternal grandmother, Barbara Cecilia Dutra LaFleur, just turned ninety. She’s a full-blooded Portuguese powerhouse of a woman who taught me the two most important things I ever learned about God.

She’s a painter, usually on large canvases, in oils, though once she painted a pine plank that hangs in my kitchen, gleaming the words of my first lesson: “Pray to God, but Row toward Shore.” It sports a man in a rowboat heaving against the tide. “You can’t just sit around on your fanny expecting God to fix all your problems,” she’d say. “You’ve got to row.” It seemed so refreshingly heretical to me as a child. I somehow knew she was speaking in opposition to someone or something that advocated God fixing everything so long as you were good enough, quiet enough, nice enough or some measure of “enough.” Grandma is not always quiet, nice or good. And she never just sits on her fanny amidst a flurry of waves. She’s a rower.

The second lesson came when I was much younger. It was a time of strictness and gloves every Sunday. Parents stood straight in church and children stood beside them pulling at the elastic bands of their hats or the itch of their small ties. I remember the hiss of mothers reprimanding their charges from under their breath, the building edge of threat — behave, sit up straight, the shooting stare of “stop that or else.” Sunday was serious.

Grandma was babysitting all four of us kids, ages seven, six, five and four, one weekend. I don’t remember the morning unfolding that Sunday when we were lost in the lollygaggle of grownups orchestrating the day. I don’t remember dressing for church or driving to church. My siblings were probably little aware of it either, riding the tune of morning play and wresting into our socks, unaware of what came next, just happy and fed and twirling.

What came next was the four of us emptying out of the car and my two little brothers looking up the steps of the church in horror and then down at themselves and then up again. They began to cry and buried their faces in their hands, ashamed.

My sister and I were vaguely interested and looked them up and down. Grandma fluttered about, a sputtering of “What’s wrong?” “Boys — What’s happened?” My sister, the oldest, exclaimed, “Those are their pajamas!” She pointed to the neat and matching short set Grandma had dressed the boys in. That era was the heyday of matching pajamas — always purchased at Penney’s or Sears. My brothers were indeed wearing their new pajamas and had been far too busy playing to notice.

So there in the parking lot where even my sister and I could commiserate with how utterly unthinkable it was to show up for church improperly dressed, there in the parking lot with two embarrassed, tearful little boys, my grandmother once again cut through all the blithering nonsense of what we so often think is paramount. “Oh, boys — God doesn’t care if you go to church in your pajamas. God loves you. He doesn’t care how you look. He loves you anyway.”

And they stopped crying, empowered even as they marched into church heads held high and a little thrilled. They were loved and in their pajamas.

This — to me at six — was, again, blazingly heretical. I was wowed by her power to say such a thing, to proclaim it as if she knew, as if she could make the rules at a time when rules were so very important.

And of course she knew. As she said the other day when I called to ask her the cow-paddy boy’s name, “I was always very definite.” You sure were, and you still are. I tell her often that she is my hero. Each time she says the same thing: “No. I’m not. I’m very definite.” Bingo and Amen.

~Natalie Costanza-Chavez
Chicken Soup for the Christian Soul 2

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