Goodbye to Grandma

Lake Palestine, East Texas My father's mother, Grandma McKibben, is dying today. Her name is Mary Ellen, and the Mary in my name comes from her. (The Ann comes from my other grandmother, Betty Ann.)

Grandma is 88 years old and said two weeks ago that she's ready. I'm thinking a lot about my grandfather today, who is saying goodbye to his love of 70 years. How do you do that?

We didn't see each other much in recent years. The relationships in our family are complicated. But we talked by phone every few months. They were so over the moon about my book---and especially loved that I kept the McKibben in the byline. (Always.)

I wrote this a couple of years ago on St. Patrick's Day. For some reason it is one of the most-read pieces on my blog.

My father’s family is big and Irish and Catholic. My dad was supposed to be the priest in the family. He even went to seminary for a time; it didn’t stick. Exhibits A, B, C, and D: my siblings and I.

He died a Presbyterian seeker, heavily influenced by the spirituality of Alcoholics Anonymous.

The summer before Robert and I got married, we were at a McKibben family event and someone asked us whether our wedding was going to be in the church. I said yes, seeing as how it was a verbal question… I didn’t pick up on the capital letters. Yes, we’re getting married in the church as opposed to Hermann Park or VFW Hall. 

They were asking about The Church.

My grandparents are as staunch as you can get in their Catholicism. I’m sure it grieves them that few to none of their dozen-plus grandchildren are Catholic.

But I got a letter from them recently, and it was addressed to the Rev. MaryAnn Dana.

In it they shared a hope that they could someday come and hear “their number 1 granddaughter preach the Word of God.”

My grandparents had a lake house in East Texas. I have so many memories of that place, although many of them run together.

I remember a particular sunset over the trees across the lake one evening. It was like a very wide, flat rainbow, reds to oranges to greens to blues. (My cousins and I have been sharing MacShack stories on Facebook today, and we were laughing over the gravelly smokers' voices of our uncles in the morning, murmuring over their morning coffee as they looked out the window: "Lake looks like glass." I'm sure the lake was like glass that evening.)

When I got home to Houston, I tried to recreate it with pastels, but I just couldn't do it. The bands of color didn't blend right, and I kept adding more and more layers of color, hoping to capture what I'd seen. The paper got heavy with chalky dust and I never got it right. It was beyond me.

I don't know what heaven is, or even if there is a heaven. But I like to think that for Grandma there will be a sunset just like that one. Or more appropriately, a sunrise.

I love you, Grandma.