Grace Winifred Coleman Elliott
(A eulogy delivered March 2012 in Winchester, KS by Steven Garber celebrating the faithful, daily work of a life well-lived)
To be known and to be loved— it is not a small thing in this world, and mostly we aren’t. Mostly we decide we can’t. More often than not, the more we know of someone, the less we care, the more indifferent we become.
So it is a life worth remembering when we ponder a person like Grace Winifred Coleman Elliott. First a daughter, then a friend, then a bride and a mommy, then a mother-in-law and a grammy, and finally a great-grandmother, Grammy Grace to more little ones than she could ever have imagined. Known and loved by all—that is a good life, a wonderful life it was, and it is her life that we honor today.
The Irish poet Bono lyrically notes, “Grace is not only the name of a girl, but of a thought that changed the world.” We who have known this dear woman have known her to be both. She has changed our world, by grace. As lovely as a woman ever was, her beauty was born of a deep soul, wrought out of the truest grace.
But grace is never cheap—and her life was not either. Born in the bucolic White Cottage, before she was able to walk her father was killed in World War I, and she lived her life with longing. Becoming a mother to five little girls, along the way she lost two dear daughters, one at birth and one into the fullness of life as a mother of five herself. And when the long love of her life died after 60 years of marriage, there was an unsettling of her soul that she never quite recovered from. How could she? Why would she? At its truest and best, grace does make beauty out of ugly things, and Grammy found a way to live and love, even in the face of almost unbearable sorrows.
Of course it is gladness and grief together that is everyone’s life. There are no exceptions. We have no other world to live in than this one, full of glories and ruins as it is, glorious ruins that we are. The best stories, then, are the truest stories, whether yours, mine, or Wendell Berry’s. Over these last days as I have been remembering Grammy, I have also remembered Hannah Coulter, one of the honored women of Berry’s Port William membership. In telling the tale of Hannah, Berry draws us into the meaning of home, inviting us to listen to a people in a place over the course of generations. Ordinary people living ordinary lives, joy and sorrow, mourning and dancing, a people and a place, all bound up together.
Pressing his point, he argues that we are not fully alive as human beings when we forget people and places, when we act as if they don’t really matter anyway. Grammy understood that, intuitively, profoundly. In every possible way, she was a woman placed among a people, a woman living among a people in a place. Growing up on Pittsburgh’s North Side, she went to its schools, and after her own schooling was done she taught in its schools, and then she was married in one of its churches. She was deeply formed by her tradition, by the theology and geography of her faith, and she lived her life knowing who she was and whose she was, knowing where she belonged and why it was important.
In the moving across America and beyond that is ours in the modern world, Grammy lived her life among the same people, 94 years stretched between two places, Pennsylvania and Kansas. Her first twenty years of life were in Pennsylvania, and then back and forth between there and Kansas for the rest of her life. Such a strange grace it is to imagine that she moved to Winchester as a young bride, had babies here, then moved back to Pennsylvania for the next season of her life with more daughters to be born, a family and a congregation to grow, and then back to Kansas again for the next decades of her life, returning to Winchester for the sweet years of retirement with her long-loved husband. Eventually that too came to an end, and against our better hopes she returned to Pittsburgh, to the city of her youngest years. Somehow she felt she belonged there, in that place among those people. And now, strange grace that it is, she returns to Winchester again, to lie beside her husband until the resurrection makes all things finally and fully new.
There was something profoundly covenantal in Grammy’s life, even in her desire to go home to Pittsburgh for the last years of life. Home we are in this so very fragile world; and yet we are not home either. We are stretched taut, at our very best. But it is places with people that give meaning to our lives. To be home is to be at home with people that we love, with people who love us. We understand that it is in our relationships with family and friends that we are most fully human, because it is in our relationships that our responsibility comes alive, we understand what it is and why it matters. Relationships and responsibilities are always and everywhere the heart of a covenantal life. And so I smile in remembering Grammy, a Covenanter of Covenanters, living her life from beginning to end resonant with the reality of the covenantal cosmos. People and places, relationships and responsibilities, together shaping the contours of our existence, together shaping Grammy’s life.
Yes, it would be a great grace to walk around the room here and ask each one for a memory of Grammy. Daughters, sons-in-law, grandchildren, friends, each could offer a story that is a window into the life of this woman that loved us so well. If we had more time, we would—and perhaps tonight around the fire we will do that.
I have my own memories, of course. Early on I was surprised to find that the beautiful young woman Meg who awakened my heart so wonderfully had a mother who was herself a remarkably thoughtful person about anything and everything. She asked such good questions, honestly interested in what I had read, and where I had been, and where I was going. And on the day when Meg and I announced to the world that we wanted to marry, Grammy blessed us with words that I still treasure. I have pictures in my mind of her as the tender Grammy holding little ones on her shoulder, them feeling a deep sense of belonging as they nestled against her. I remember her reading graduate theses of mine; pages and pages I offered her, and she was honestly eager to read and understand. I was so impressed—but then again, Grammy was impressive. And I remember the days after Grandad died, and her long walks by herself around Winchester in the cold of winter. She wanted to be alone in those hours, she needed to be alone, in her own way working out the grief of her heart. And now that she too is gone, it would be a good gift to the generations that are to come to collect her writing over the years, the ponderings of her heart as they were on the pages of the Witness. She offered a deeply-wrought wisdom, somehow both theologically-rich and artfully-articulate, writing about the ordinariness of life lived to the glory of God. Simply said, she wrote about her own life, and it was a gift.
But Grammy’s writing was not through rose-colored glasses. She was not a romantic, as her life would not allow that. It was too true for her, as Tolkien has taught all of us, “In all lands now, love and sorrow are mingled together.” Living in the world as the little company of hobbits that we are, we know both, we have to make sense of both. And Grammy did, taking up the vocation of Jesus, making it her own, weaving both joy and sorrow into the fabric of her days. That she did so with integrity, honestly accounting for both, was a gift to all of us—looking over her shoulder and through her heart as we have. To say it plainly: she was honest about what she believed, and why she believed. As she said in her first year at the Home in Pittsburgh, 11 years ago now, when asked, “Are you happy? No! Not happy, but I am content.” She chose to be content, and knew what the choice meant. We who have been her apprentices in a life of faith, hope and love have had a master teacher. Living with great wounds, she kept joy before her, persisting steadfastly over the years that were hers.
Grammy loved to read, and read, and read—and for many years she taught little people to read, and to love to learn to read. Even in these last years when more normal conversation was harder, it only took asking her to read aloud for her to come alive again, with the alert, articulate attentiveness that had been hers over the course of her life. But there was one story in particular that captivated her, and in its light she lived her life, viz. Pilgrim’s Progress, a story of Everyman and Everywoman, a story for Everyman and Everywoman. Knowing for herself the Sloughs of Despond, the Vanity Fairs, the Doubting Castles, she drew on the vision of Christiana especially, the wife of Christian. That she did is not a surprise, as Grammy lived her life alongside her own pilgrim, Grandad, and theirs was a common pilgrimage. For 60 years they loved together and they lived together, they cried together and they laughed together, they worked together and they worshiped together. They watched babies be born, and they watched babies die. They swaddled little girls, and they blessed those girls as they became women, eventually becoming mothers and grandmothers themselves. But in and through everything—her young years, her middle years, her older years—Grammy longed for the day when all would finally be made right, when all the wounds of the world would finally be healed. Yes, she prayed towards the day when she would cross Christiana’s river herself.
And that day has come. It is ours now, her family and friends, who gather on this side to ponder in our hearts as we must, more deeply aware that this life is not it—sure that there is something more, sure that there must be something more. But what is it? There are mysteries here. At our best we look through a glass darkly—and yet and yet, we know that she has finally met her long lost daddy, that she has embraced her dear daughters with holy tears, that she has entered again into the love of her husband, that in fact that every hope has happened. We have no idea of the details, and we trust that God is good. But we do know beyond a shadow of a doubt that every hurt, every sorrow, every wound, every disappointment, will one day be made right, will one day be healed. Every square inch of the whole of reality will one day be as it was made to be. We live our own lives as Grammy did hers, with that same longing, that same expectation, the now-but-not-yet people that we are.
Until then, we wait, and with the people of God in every century and every culture we pray again, The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…. Even as we walk in the valley of death and its shadows, we will fear no evil. They are words to live by, and words to die with. But like the best of words, they have to become flesh. In the heart of Grammy, they did, uniquely, beautifully, honestly so. In her dying, we now know more about living—her life has been a full circle of uncommon grace.
Thanks be to God for Grammy—for Mum, for Grace Winifred, and for Grammy Grace too.
And thank you, Grammy, for your life, a legacy of love it is to each and every one of us. Amen and amen.