Monday, November 2, 2009


During my sophomore year of college, I took a nonfiction writing class with Josephine Humphries, an acclaimed Southern fiction and nonfiction writer with whom I was enamored. One day in her office, Jo asked me what I wanted to write that semester. When I told her I didn't know, she replied, "I know. You want to write something true." I always thought that was beautiful. The problem with wanting to write something true, though, is that it is a daunting thing. I'm finding that's especially the case when one wants to write about someone who is gone. At least, that's how it's been in these weeks following my grandma's death.

Oh how I want to capture her spunk and grace and generosity! But language, much as I love it, is so limiting. I've decided to summon up my courage and give it a go because remembering is therapeutic.

Grandma's love for me--for all of us girls (her daughters and granddaughters)--was so lavish. You could see it in the candy bowls that littered her game table. No matter the occasion, one candy bowl just wasn't enough. There were usually at least six, all filled with our favorite candy. Chocolate covered raisins for Dad, Butterfingers for the Brown girls, Grandpa's favorite spice drops, boxes of Russell Stover that we all loved, and other treats that changed seasonally. As for me, I didn't discriminate. (I inherited my sweet tooth from Grandma Russell and Grandpa Corwin, my mom's mom and my dad's dad.)

There was also a kitchen drawer filled to nearly over flowing with Bazooka bubble gum, of which we were allowed to eat as many pieces as we wanted. My cousins and I would "chew the sugar out"--as Grandma put it--of one piece, and then go back for another and another, relishing the jokes and the juicy sweetness of each piece. At Grandma and Grandpa's, I was never told to save room for dinner. It was perfectly acceptable to munch on candy and chew bubble gum until I was nearly sick. And even after all that, I was still allowed to have desert: usually a bowl of ice cream with chocolate sauce and the four or five different kinds of sprinkles my grandparents kept in their pantry for just such occasions. (No one else ate them except for me.) Luckily, each of us had a toothbrush at Grandma and Grandpa's as well. It sounds like a silly comparison, but from my grandma, I learned what God's abounding generosity looks like. He isn't stingy with His forgiveness or His blessings; He never holds out or tells us to save room later. He wants us to be filled to overflowing with His sweet gifts.

It wasn't just with sweets that Grandma was lavish--her affection for us was so sincere. The Dean-Russell women are expressive almost without exception. In fact, the family tie to Mary Todd Lincoln reminds us all that we have to watch this about ourselves, lest expressiveness turn to craziness! But oh, how I love expressive, warm people, and Grandma was the epitome of expressive and warm. You would walk into her house and her whole body would just tremble with excitement. And then she would hug you--the best hugs in the whole world, I think!--and then quickly hold you at arms length again so she could look you over. At that, she would promptly exclaim "Gorgeous, gorgeous, gorgeous!" her mannerisms oozing excitement. I'm not sure, actually, if she said that to everyone, or just to me. Maybe she had her own special greeting for each of us. Regardless, it's one of the things I've missed most about her--knowing I'll never again hear her say that this side of Heaven. It's a beautiful thing to know love like that: that someone so genuinely delights in you. The security that came from that kind of love freed me to love her in a really special way.

Grandma was always up for anything. When 101 Dalmations came out in theaters, she and my Aunt Kathy took the four of us girls to see it in Champaign. We all loved it so much that when it was over, Grandma exclaimed, "Do you want to see it again?!" Of course we were delighted, so she went and paid for six more tickets. I think that was the only time in my life I ever watched the same movie twice in a row in the theater--it was such a treat!

I think it was Grandma Russell who taught me to love sleepovers. I always felt so lucky as a little girl because I had two grandmas, and both of them would sleep in my bed with me when I stayed at their houses or when one came to stay with me. There were so many fun sleepovers at Grandma and Grandpa's house. The most storied took place every year on Christmas Eve until I was six years old. My three cousins and I would read Jolly Old Santa Claus, a tradition started by our moms and carried on by Taylor and me to this day. Then we would sleep length-wise in a double bed...although, there was never much sleeping. We would lie awake most of the night, listening for reindeer hooves, telling silly stories, and imagining what elaborate gifts would await us in the morning. Even though Grandma didn't sleep with us those Christmases, it was her influence that made them so special. When at last the parents became exasperated by our late night antics, you could still see the twinkle in her eye, discretely egging on our fun.

And for every Christmas sleepover, there were a dozen more everyday ones. My cousin Lindsey and I would plan overnights at Grandma and Grandpa's house every so often. Grandma would crash on the couch with us in the midst of our movie marathons and girl talk. Even into our teens (junior high for me and high school for Linds) she kept this tradition with us. What a girl she was to keep up with us in all our giggles and silliness! These past few years Grandma preferred to stay up late into the night and sleep late in the morning. I often thought of her while I studied at night and wished we lived in the same city. I would have loved to snuggle up with hot chocolate and a movie like we did so many nights at their house growing up.

I know there were many times when Grandma stayed at our house, but I remember two in particular. One was when Taylor was born. I was in kindergarten and was so excited to have a baby sister. But I was also desperately needing some attention (imagine that!) with a new baby around, so it was special to have my Grandma Cherry and Grandpa Corwin there before Taylor LaRue graced us with her presence and Grandma and Grandpa Russell afterward. Grandma and I read a lot together that week and she did all the things my mom would have otherwise done. She walked with me in those first few days of big sisterhood; she was, after all, a big sister herself. I know she was over the moon with excitement about her sweet new baby granddaughter, but I remember feeling just as appreciated and loved by her as ever--what a gift to a six-year-old in the midst of that huge change!

The second time I remember vividly was in third grade. By then, I had a guinea pig, Marshmallow, living in my bedroom. Plenty of seventy-year-old women would have thought this was gross--and actually, Grandma probably did, but you'd have never known it. She even petted my furry little rodent friend and nodded knowingly when I confided that Marshmallow was a Christian. (I had, of course, shared the gospel with her, having not yet understood the theology of souls). Grandma also helped me study for the school spelling bee that week. She was so proud that I had made it to the finals. She had something of a photographic memory and was an excellent speller herself. Just as she did in everything in my life, Grandma cheered me on so enthusiastically that week. She spent hours combing through the thick newsprint spelling guide with me, testing me on harder and harder words and relentlessly going back over the words I had missed. Neither of us are very disciplined people, so I think it's a testament to how much she loved me and to just how much fun she was to be around.

Grandma also introduced me to many new foods. What a cook! Anyone who could successfully convince this picky child to try apple sauce, green beans, vegetable soup, and hamburgers was pretty impressive. And what's more, I actually learned to like those things because of Grandma's cooking. Truly, I didn't eat hamburgers until I was in second or third grade. I'm not sure why, but they grossed me out. And then one night, Grandma and Grandpa fried me up one of their legendary bacon cheeseburgers. My family will tell you that it's Grandma's green beans or cheesy potatoes that take the cake--and those recipes are utterly delicious, to be sure. But take it from me, there is just nothing like one of these burgers. Mom says the secret is that Grandma and Grandpa fry them up really "hot and quick." I think the secret is that they somehow always manage to fry up the best bacon I've ever tasted in my life--it's reminiscent of those Christmas mornings at their house after all the presents had been opened and the kitchen smelled like a little piece of heaven as the skillets sizzled. I'm telling you, those burgers changed my life!

One of the things I loved most about my grandma was the depth of her walk with God. The intensity with which she loved the Lord Jesus was an inspiration to me from a young age--today I consider her one of the spiritual greats (and now she is part of that "great cloud of witnesses" Paul talks about!). In little ways she would impart spiritual wisdom to me just by sharing little tidbits of Scripture in conversation and in the everyday things. She was a mighty, mighty prayer warrior on my behalf and for many others. I know that she and Grandpa prayed for me everyday of my life, not just by name but by specific situations in my life that needed lifting up. They were both so invested in that way, and it showed in the way they asked me about what was going on in my life, and most of all in the way they rejoiced with me when God answered in a powerful way. I think of them as the furnace that has fueled so much of God's blessing in my life--there they were, laying each of my concerns before the Lord. So much of what I've experienced of God, His call on my life, the places He's taken me, I owe to their faithful intercession. The sweetest gift I received at my grandma's funeral services last month were the two women who came up to me to tell me that it was Grandma led them to the Lord. And I know from past stories that there were many more such women whom Grandma walked with and prayed for in hopes that they would know her Savior. What a legacy she has left behind!

Grandma had this rare gift for making things special. As if the extravagant gifts under the tree weren't enough on Christmas morning, our stockings would have up to 20-some gifts in them. Never did Scotch tape and Steak 'n' Shake gift certificates and pretty Post-it notes feel like such treasures! Whether it was a visit to her house, a trip to Curtis Apple Orchard, or just practicing for the school spelling bee, everything was a celebration with her. The girl loved to party!

Oh sweet Grandpa Russell, Grandma Cherry, and Grandpa Corwin: Please know that you are so precious to me, that each of you holds a spot in my heart so dear I can hardly stand it, that I count myself absolutely the most blessed girl in the whole world to have such wonderful people for grandparents--people I would want as friends even if you didn't belong to me! So please don't despair when I say that I just feel orphaned and strangely alone without Grandma Russell. I've always heard people describe that feeling after losing a parent, but you all have been so crucial in my life--in raising me, spoiling me, and lifting me up in prayer--that I think losing one of you is affecting me in a similar way.

I started to feel it coming on Easter if I'm honest with myself. Sarah had come home with Matt and me for the holiday, so I was filled to brim with joy and love to have two of my dearest friends and my parents, Taylor, and my four grandparents all near that weekend. Grandma had not been well the previous time I was home, so I was just bursting at the seams to see her and it was such a special day. At the end of it, I was a wreck. Sometimes the things that are said and the prayers that are prayed when I'm with my grandparents are so sweet that the parting really is difficult and there are some tears. But this time I was just falling apart as I we left and for a good hour on the road back to Nashville with Matt and Sar.

But the last time I saw Grandma was at a party. It is just a perfect last memory and so appropriate, considering that, as my mom says, she was a party girl at heart! And truly, she was in her element that night. It was the hundredth anniversary of Penn. Avenue Baptist Church in Urbana, and by divine appointment, it was also the day I was coming home from Nashville before moving to Connecticut. Grandma hadn't been able to get out much these past few years, so her going to the celebration at church was no small event. Grandpa was looking sharp in a suit and tie, and Grandma, her hair done and makeup perfect, was the life of the party. I pushed her around in her wheelchair (the first time I had ever seen her in a wheelchair) and literally got swarmed by crowds of women who couldn't wait to hug her neck. It was so much fun to watch her just soak it all in, her friends doting on her and telling her how beautiful she looked. As I write this, the tears are coming because I am realizing we didn't take any pictures that night. How I would love to have one of her surrounded by her friends!

I know it's at a party where we'll meet again. Only this will be the Party to end all parties! Maybe it's not the best theology to imagine wearing clothes in Heaven (and I do just hate weak theology). But in my mind's eye, I picture Grandma and myself in party dresses. Maybe with big bows that Grandpa can tie for us (he is really the best at tying bows). Or polka dots. I'm sorry; I just can't picture the Wedding Feast of the Lamb without party dresses--don't judge me!

And oh, will we party!

Kick off our pretty shoes...

dance the night away...

worship the King of Kings.

Party girl style.

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