Monday, October 17, 2011

Another One-Year Milestone

Well, again, it's been a year; a year since grandma's family and friends gathered to remember her.  Having just written a remembrance post about her last week, it may have been reasonable to let this one pass, but I chose not to for two reasons.  First, her remarkable story bears repeating, and, secondly, for me, it's a God-marker... a time I don't want to forget - when His presence and provision was so obvious.

I delivered grandma's eulogy, and while I was honored and humbled to do so, I was extremely nervous and felt overwhelmingly burdened by the task.  I wanted to offer an appropriate tribute to grandma, while giving all of the glory to her Savior.  It was of the utmost importance to grandma, that even at her own memorial, she not be the focus, but her Lord.  My concern wasn't just what I would say... it's would I be able to say it!

Because of the prayers of my loved ones, and His all sufficient grace, I didn't just get through it - I was actually able to articulate a eulogy I think would have pleased her.

It's all grace; always grace...

Speaking sweet, grandmotherly things to me.

Here's what I said that day:

Thank you for coming today to share our precious memories and to celebrate with us, the beautiful life of my dear Grandma. My name is Pam O'Brien, and I am her first grandchild.

She and I had an opportunity last May to spend many hours together over a period of a couple of days, chatting and reminiscing and sharing God's goodness.  She asked me then to speak today.  Her hope was that I could make evident the powerful, gracious and loving way that the Lord has guided her all of her life. 

I highly esteem my Grandma and the void her passing has caused in my heart is gaping, so the only thing I could likely succeed in doing on this particular day is to soak this podium with my tears.  Anything else that happens will be purely by God's grace... and my ability to get through this will be further testament to His provision.

Whenever I hear or read the phrase, “Glory to God in the Highest” I think of Grandma.  I remember as a little girl, when celebrating Christmases at Grandma and Grandpa's house up on Manor Hill in Syracuse, NY, they always had a lovely, wood-carved nativity scene displayed on the mantle above the fire place.  Behind it, Grandma hung a large, foil-paper backdrop.  The color was dark blue to look like the night sky, and from silver foil-paper, she meticulously stenciled and cut out a large star and letters that spelled “Glory to God in the Highest.” Even as a little 8 year-old child it struck me that, compared to the intricacy of the nativity pieces, the backdrop was rather crudely mismatched.

Today, however, I recognize it as the most precious and beautiful part of the scene; for several reasons... for the magnitude of the message, of course, and also for the care with which she displayed it – year after year, decade after decade. But mostly because it was always her chief aim to give Him the highest glory in all things.  It's how she lived her life.

During that visit in May, she told me that when she was 17 years old, she became very ill and almost died.  She said that she saw heaven and without much elaboration, said that “the light is so pure there.”  "Not like this light" she said nodding toward the window,  "this light hurts your eyes. Not there, there the light is so pure."  When I asked her to tell me more, she leaned her head back against the chair and closed her eyes.  Smiling, she contemplated it for a moment and said she thinks she better not.  "It's too holy. I couldn't give it words."  But only said that she thinks God must have given her the experience because He knew she'd need it "to give her balance" in the things she'd face in her life.

Indeed, Grandma faced many challenges in her life and I'm amazed at the strength and courage with which she overcame them.  For example, when my mother, Cris, was two, and my Aunt Mega was just one year old, my grandparents made the difficult decision to leave their beloved, though tumultuous, post-war Finland.  It was one day in August 1947, when Grandma said she found herself seated on the cabin roof of the 34' x 12' sailboat they called The Tuntsa.  She deliberately sat with her back turned toward the disappearing coastline of Helsinki, as she couldn't bear to watch it retreat. Instead, she faced forward where in front of her lay open water and an uncertain future. It was not easy to leave her homeland and family and most difficult, of course, to sail away from her precious little girls who would stay with their grandparents for an unknown period of time. However, she told us her compassionate Lord was in charge and He gave her a most marvelous gift: an unexplainable inner stillness, His peace.

They encountered many dangers during the next seven months while on their way to what became their temporary destination, the Dominican Republic.  There were sunken warships in the Bay of Finland and mines in the English Channel. She told us how a big storm in the Bay of Biscay tried it's best to push them into the rocky shore. In Safi, French Morocco, they lost one of their tall masts. Finally, while entering the waters of the British Virgin Islands they landed on a coral reef. The threat of sinking was very real, and Grandma said that she knelt on the deck, arms propped on the roof of the cabin, surveying, again, nothing but open water. Thinking the end was at hand, her thoughts went heavenward, and toward her young daughters.  She was certain He would guide and provide for them.  She also knew that her sister, Helme, would adopt them, caring for them and loving them as her own.  She again felt God's remarkable peace; the inexplicable peace that passes understanding.  Hours passed, and when she overheard one of the men exclaim, "I see land!," she knew that this was not where their journey would end, after all; they would be rescued.

After six weeks, on partially successful repair work in Tortola, they sailed to the Dominican Republic. Their brave, little Tuntsa sank a week later in the harbor of Ciudad Trujillo, now Santo Domingo, capital of Dominican Republic.

Settling there temporarily while details for continuing to the United States were worked out, my mother and aunt finally joined their parents at Christmas of 1949. They were four and three years old, respectively.  All alone, these little girls traveled half way around the world, and by God's grace, arrived safely to their parents' waiting arms.  Eleven months later, my Uncle John was born.  Joy quickly turned to sorrow, however.  When my uncle was just a day old and Grandma still in the hospital, she said she heard a man moaning in the room next door to hers and she could tell that he was not faring well.  She soon learned that the man was her husband.  He had suffered a massive heart attack from which he would not recover.  He died when my uncle was just 3 days old.

Grandma said the morning of her husband's funeral she remembers there being a lot of people and flowers. She entered the room where his body was and she saw 3 missionaries give a speech in Spanish.  She felt like an outsider - just observing. Grandma was in shock for 6 weeks. She said she had no emotion whatsoever; no joy, no sadness. God was working, however.  One week after the funeral, a lady missionary asked her what her plans were.  She said she didn't dare say it out loud, as her family had already tried to dissuade her, but it was still her plan to go to the United States.  It turns out that was the very thing the lady missionary suggested.  At that point, Grandma opened up about her desire and intent to see to fruition the dream she shared with her husband, to make a home and raise their children in the US.    Soon after that conversation with the missionary, she received a letter about sponsorship and the United Fruit Company, where my grandfather worked, gave Grandma a job in the accounting department while she waited.  God had provided.

It took three years to obtain her quota number, but finally in September 1953 it was time to go. The company lawyer took care of all legal papers, and she and the children were able to obtain free passage on a company boat to Mobile, AL, but they had to leave that day!  They were on the opposite end of the island and getting to the Monte Cristi port in time seemed futile.  However, time and again, God met her needs.  A car just so happened to have been traveling to Monte Cristi, whose original passengers had canceled; the driver was graciously willing to take them at no charge.  They were on their way, and in a manner she didn't expect when she set sail from Finland that summer day six years prior, the dream was being fulfilled.

They lived in Humboldt, TN and then Chicago, IL before moving to Syracuse, NY when Grandma's sister, Hanna, and family settled there from Finland.  As a member of the Christian Missionary and Alliance church in Syracuse, she was happy to serve the Lord faithfully at her church, to work hard in her career with CNA Insurance, and to be a devoted mom to her three children.  She had been a single mother for 17 years, and was content with her life.

Then along came Mel Staub.  Grandpa Staub had been widowed for a few years and he sought Grandma's companionship.  She resisted...he persisted.  Finally, she abruptly and succinctly gave him all the reasons why she didn't want a man in her life. Another someone to have to take care of, to have to pamper, to have to worry about.  He just kept saying, "but you don't understand." She wouldn't hear of it.

Later, though, what he said kept ringing in her ears, "but you don't understand." Pondering their polar opposite stances on the subject, she recognized that one of them had to be wrong, so she committed it to prayer.  Coming to the conclusion that it was she who was wrong, she apologized to him and finally heard what he was trying to say.  "What you don't understand, Eva, is that I want to take care of you," he told her.  "And he did," she told me through tears, “for over forty years.”

They built a beautiful Colonial house in Syracuse where she loved to entertain her family and friends in the formal dining room; tend to the flowers in the garden, and watch her grandchildren play in the yard.     My brother, cousins and I had a wonderful time in the summer months, catching tadpoles in the creek that ran at the edge of their property.  They're some of my sweetest childhood memories.

Eventually, our family began migrating to Florida.  Here, it continued to grow as the grandchildren became adults, married and had children of their own.  She was even able to see two of her great-grandchildren grow to adulthood and become parents, as she has two great-great grandchildren.

All through the years, she never failed to point us to Christ.  She had an authentic relationship with Him and wanted us to know the same joy and power that comes from that kind of intimacy.  She loved us deeply and selflessly, and she prayed for us tirelessly.  What the Apostle Paul said of himself in Romans, is also true of Grandma.  He said, “God, whom I serve with my whole heart in preaching the gospel of his Son, is my witness how constantly I remember you in my prayers at all times.”   And her prayers weren't for us alone, her passion for making Christ known was for whomever she encountered, from personal friends and their families, to the nurse that would bother her for vital signs in the hospital.  She wanted others to know the hope and joy that only He can provide.

Certainly, Grandma was a remarkable wife, mother and grandmother; she was also a loyal friend and  faithful correspondent.  She forged deep relationships and the scope of her influence has been far-reaching.  Her strength, character, courage and unwavering faith have always astounded me; and along with my deepest love, I'll always carry in my heart the utmost respect for her.

Life is hard and it's uncertain; but Grandma, yielded to God's will and Spirit, lived hers with grace and dignity.  She served her Savior with all that was within her, and her experience with heaven when she was 17 did indeed give her balance in her life, and a proper perspective.  Now, 8 decades later, she finally dwells there in the richness, pureness and presence of The Light.  Glory to God in the Highest!

I can do all this through him who gives me strength.
Philippians 4:13 

“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” 
2 Corinthians 12:9 

Giving thanks in community today...

...for a faithful God who lavishes me with grace
...for a praying family
...for grandma's legacy
...for Marker memories


Mom said...

Once again, my eyes water, having read your eulogy. God has given you the wonderful gift of conveying what your heart says with words placed on paper, and He has given me the gift of you!

Pam O'Brien said...

Thanks, Momma. xo I love you.