On Monday July 31st, 2017 for the first time in 96 years, 9 months, and 11 days the sun rose over the Earth and my maternal grandmother Ruth didn’t live here.
And I once again find myself praying for peace for my family in a time of loss.
But this time around it’s different. This time I feel an abiding sense of thankfulness.
My last and longest living grandparent, whom we called Dew, was born in 1920, went through middle and high school in rural North Carolina in the height of the Great Depression, and graduated from college in the middle of WWII.
She didn’t get married until she was almost 30, and didn’t have her first baby until she was 31 in an age when women just didn’t have their first babies at 31. Her youngest, my own mom, was born when Dew was 36.
She was a working mother, in an age when most moms gave up their careers when baby was born, teaching high school English for decades. So beloved by her students was she that one of them sewed a quilt for her, embroidering her name and a note of thanks into the corner. We still have that quilt today.
Just a few months ago we were wheeling her around Deerfield, the retirement community in North Carolina where she spent her last 17 years, when a gentleman who also lives there began telling us about how Mrs. Smith had been his teacher in high school. “Mrs. Smith was the most beautiful woman in the world,” he told us. “Imagine my surprise when I saw her again here. She’s still the most beautiful woman, you know.”
Dew was widowed at 58 when my granddaddy died. She never remarried, and she wore her platinum engagement and wedding rings until her last day.
She was one of those people who instantly commanded respect and affection from the moment she walked in the door. Had she chosen to enter politics she would have been a force to be reckoned with.
Which reminds me—she was a liberal democrat in an age when “nice” southern ladies might have been democrats, but they certainly weren’t liberals. The first time I heard the term “bleeding heart liberal,” was when my mama used it in reference to her.
She was one of those folks you really really didn’t want to disappoint.
In short, she was a little bit of a hardass.
And I have no doubt that she’s a big, stiff-upper-lipped part of why I am the woman I am today.
And that’s why the prevailing emotion I’m experiencing in the wake of her passing is thankfulness.
When my dad and father-in-law both died last year one of the biggest sources of grief and anger was the feeling that something had been stolen from me. Stolen from my husband. Stolen from our future children. Stolen from our moms and siblings.
But from Dew we wrung out every drop of wisdom and guidance, every witticism and every criticism. All 96 years, 9 months, and 11 days’ worth.
For my siblings and me Thanksgiving and Dew are synonymous.
Every year of our childhood she and my great-aunt Nancy would spend the holiday with the rowdy and rambunctious Robinson clan.
Mom would scrub our faces and remind us of our manners, and (probably) pray to God we wouldn’t do anything too embarrassing in front of her mother. Even my notoriously-rebellious-brother-who-shall-remain-nameless always did his best to put his napkin in his lap, take small bites, and refrain from cursing at the dinner table when Dew was there.
We’d set the table with fine linen and wedding china, dress in our Sunday best, and daintily sip sparkling grape juice out of mom’s precious crystal, all the time hoping we were making her proud.
At her memorial service over the weekend—a service she planned to a letter several years ago—we were given even more insight into who our grandmother was.
It was a wonderful surprise to hear that the same high standards and stubborn grace she imparted on her children and grandchildren throughout our lives she also expected from those in her community.
“Ruth was someone who had a deep conviction of how things ought to be,” her longtime pastor and friend Rev. Susan Sherard shared in her homily. “And if something wasn’t as it ought to be, she let you know.”
We heard stories about the radical generosity and hospitality she showed hikers along the Appalachian Trail, and the efforts she went to to strengthen her small community and church.
There was no waiting around for someone else to do it. If there was a need, she filled it. She set the bar high, and people around her rose to meet it.
Universally loved, respected, and just a little feared, Dew was the matriarch.
Strength and grace.
Steel and magnolia.
And God, am I thankful she was my matriarch.