The Life of Grandma Phyllis

My beloved Grandma Phyllis died last week.  There are many stories I could tell about her, but perhaps the most important to me is an exchange she had with my uncle Jim a night or two before she died.  Her body ravaged with cancer (missed by her physicians until it was too late to help), Phyllis had moved to a hospice facility where she was growing progressively weaker.  Although I am assured her blue eyes burned as clearly and forcefully as ever when she was awake in these final hours, breathing – let alone speaking – was an increasingly difficult endeavor, so when Jim asked her, “How do you feel?” he had to lean in close to hear her feeble voice.

When he had drawn near enough to render her audible, Phyllis whispered her answer: “With my fingers.”

That was my grandma.  Witty and cheeky until the very end, cancer broke her body, but never her spirit.

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As Christians, it can be easy to lose track of what the result of our faith should be.  We become so concerned with what to do about issue X or personal struggle Y that we fail to bear fruit as we obsess over ourselves rather than others.  This is unfortunate, but it’s also life.  The struggle to rise above our own weaknesses and fulfill our potential through usefulness to God is never as linear as we would hope, and even those I would regard as saints have had their moments of fruitless distraction.

Even so, our natural tendency to focus on self-need and self-improvement isn’t always directly opposed to achieving results.  One such case is found in Jesus’ instructions to be salt and light.  Found in the fifth chapter of Matthew, the metaphor is a simple one: the world has a natural tendency – in these two metaphors, a tendency towards either spoiling or darkness, respectively – that is to be reversed by followers of Jesus.  We are to be agents of reversal, and it’s a case where simply worrying about myself – doing what I should be doing by going against the flow wherever I happen to be at the moment – should bear fruit for others too.

Which is easy to say, but hard to do.  There’s a prayer, however, that articulates just how faith should look when it’s operating in an agent of reversal like you or me, and it’s a prayer that tradition ascribes to St. Francis of Assisi.  (Wikipedia disputes its provenance, but has several versions here)

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Grandma asked my dad to read that prayer at her funeral.  He did.  And as he read it, it occurred to me that while I hadn’t always understood Phyllis’ faith, part of the reason was because my grandmother was always more interested in using her faith as an agent of reversal than she was in saying the right things.  Which isn’t to say that she didn’t say the right things if asked; rather, unless she was asked, she focused more on action than on words.

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Last summer I visited Grandma, and during my visit, she gave my wife and me a driving tour of her hometown of Rapid City.  She was always proud of Rapid, and as she grabbed an unopened box of Cheez-its from the cupboard on her way to the car, she actually swaggered a bit.  As we drove, with Phyllis occasionally stopping in the middle of the road to point at things and tell stories (with the cars behind us growing increasingly frustrated), she talked a bit about her church.  Grandpa had grown up Episcopalian, but Grandma had no particular love for that denomination when they moved to Rapid City, so they tried a few churches.  The Episcopal church, however, had a women’s group and a bridge club, and that sealed the deal.  As she said this, she slowed in her consumption of Cheez-its, the memory of finding community in a strange city 60 years ago satiating her briefly.

Turning to today’s generation at the church, however, she grew frustrated, and the Cheez-its began disappearing faster than most people would be able to chew.  “Now nobody wants to go to church, and churches don’t bother to give young people activities that will draw them in.  I suppose a bridge club wouldn’t work anymore, but there must be something people can do together!”

At the time, I just interpreted it as Grandma wanting more programs at church to get people interested in worship.  Now, however, after hearing her tell more of her life story as her illness progressed, I think I misunderstood.  This wasn’t an old Episcopalian’s complaint about a lack of church programming.  It was a woman who had spent her life trying to be an agent of reversal bemoaning that the community designed to promote that reversal was wasting away.

It makes sense.  We’re supposed to be salt and light, but what good is one match against a dark mansion, or one grain of salt against a leg of lamb?  Obviously, it works better with a community.

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We had Grandma’s funeral on a Saturday, and the next day four of us were at Grandma’s church, attending her usual service, and sitting in her usual pew.  I looked around the room at that early morning service, and realized that – except for the absence of Grandma – the room looked basically identical to the last Sunday I had been there, 13 months before.  The same people were seated in the same pews and saying the same liturgy.  Except that there were fewer of them.  One woman whom I had met last summer even thanked us for sitting in Phyllis’s spot, since Grandma’s death now meant this lady would have that entire 1/3 of the sanctuary to herself every week.  She had become an island, essentially, as others – now including Phyllis – had passed away around her.

We could talk all day about dying mainline churches, but that misses the point.  Grandma’s community of salt and light was dying, but you’d never have known it from Grandma.  She just kept working on lighting and seasoning the world in all the ways she knew, working as an agent of reversal until the very end.  She missed those who had helped her in that project for most of the last 60 years, but she didn’t let their absence stop her.  She wished her church was growing, but she didn’t let that become her obsession or distraction.  She just kept giving her time, her money, and especially her wit to those who would benefit from a little salt or light.  She did it for people at her church, she did it for her five sons, she did it for her nieces and nephews, and she definitely did it for me.

Cancer or no cancer, my Grandma was salty till the end, with her blue eyes lighting up every room she entered.  Phyllis Frankenfeld was an agent of reversal for as long as she had breath.

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