grandma c


    I always knew her as “Grandma C.” Her name was Marie.

    She was my dad’s stepmother. My father’s mother died a month after he was born and his father remarried when my dad was eleven. She saw me when I was born and then saw me get on a boat with my missionary parents to go to Africa when I was one year old. The first time I remember seeing her, I was five and we were on leave from the mission field. She lived in Hawaii. I remember the fresh smell of the leis they hung around my neck and the pineapple juice that came out of what I expected to be a water fountain at the Dole pineapple farm. She was, for all practical purposes, a Baptist minister without being named one, since Baptists allow women the title, even when they did the work. She was also by herself. My grandfather died before I was born. She still wore her wedding ring.

    When I saw her again, I was in sixth grade she was living in Dallas and working at Wilshire Baptist Church. That’s the first time I remember eating her Ritz cracker crusted fried shrimp. I saw her again when I was in tenth grade and she was working at Dallas Baptist College, where she worked until she retired. She and I both lived in the Metroplex for most of the eighties and I saw her (and ate shrimp) with some regularity. I was in my twenties before I began to understand what it meant to have a grandmother.

    One of my favorite memories of Grandma C was taking my two roommates, Burt and Robert, to eat shrimp at her apartment. Robert was adamant about not being called “Bob” and Grandma C called him nothing but that the whole evening. Burt and I did the hospitable thing and followed her lead.

    I’ve thought about her the past couple of weeks while the strawberries have been in season because she is the one who taught me to cut them. She would pull off the green leaves and then cut a small circle around the stem with a paring knife leaving a small hole where the stem had been. I still do it that way.

    In the early eighties, she suffered such a deep depression that she had to be hospitalized at Baylor Medical Center where I happened to be a chaplain. She fought hard to beat back the darkness. After thirty years, she took off her wedding ring. When I asked why, she told me she got to the end of her rope and knelt down by her bed and prayed for God to either take her or provide some means of relief. She said she felt peace wash over her and she decided to start writing letters, trying to reconnect with friends and rebuild relationships. One of those letters brought a response from a man, Roy, whom she had known in Arizona when she was married to my grandfather, who was starting churches there, and he was married and also pastoring. Though their story is worthy of more than this brief paragraph, the short version is the letter led to their dating and getting married when they were both eighty. I got to sing at the wedding.

    They grew old together, making the transition from their home to assisted living to a full-fledged nursing home. As Ginger and I stopped to see them on our way to Boston, they gave us a hundred dollars. “You’re our missionaries,” Roy said. After his death a few years ago, her health began to fail, though her spirit did not. She lost her sight and most of her hearing and she still kept going, even if she never left her room at the nursing home. She outlived two husbands, many of her friends and siblings, and most of what you and I might think necessary for a meaningful existence.

    Last night she died in her sleep. She was a hundred years old.

    Marie Tatum Cunningham Sutton lived a good and a hard life. She was a stepmother, a minister, a curriculum writer, a lover of children, a dorm mother, a shrimp fryer. And she was my grandmother.

    Today, for the first time in a long time, she knows what it feels like to feel whole. I can’t help but lean into song lyrics on a day like this: Mac McAnally’s “Somewhere Nice Forever.”

    mama I know you’re feeling low
    let’s be low together
    got to say it’s time to go
    somewhere nice forever

    there won’t be no leukemia
    they’re gonna keep it out
    there’ll just be redeeming love
    like we sang about

    mama you never let it show
    you talked about the weather
    and jesus love me this I know
    somewhere nice forever

    you gave us all you had to give
    I could not ask for better
    you told us of our chance to live
    somewhere nice forever

    there won’t be no leukemia
    they’re gonna keep it out
    there’ll just be redeeming love
    like we sang about

    mama you’re tired we’ll let you go
    promise when you get there
    you’ll think about me here below
    somewhere nice forever

    for the bible tells me so
    somewhere nice forever

    jesus loves me this I know
    for the bible tells me so
    little ones to him belong
    they are weak but he is strong . . .



    1. “I was in my twenties before I began to understand what it meant to have a grandmother.” How wonderful that you do understand. May the depth of your loss match the depth of your understanding, and may you be exponentially better because of it. Peace to you, Milton. And, joy!

    2. Emily Dickinson said it Milton: you bring the water over the dam in my brown eyes! Loved it all, especially you two calling your buddy Bob.

      Requiescat in pacem, may she rest in peace!

      Your longtime admirer and fellow scribbler
      Terry Marotta

    Leave a Reply