My son John-Francis has learned to say “I Love You.” I’m tempted to say that he doesn’t understand what the phrase means; but at some level he does. He knows that it’s something you say to someone who is kind to you, to the person you run to when it hurts – the one who holds you and makes it better, to the person with whom you share the things you value – in his case toy trucks and chocolate candy.
On a Sunday afternoon a few weeks ago, John-Francis and I had both climbed into Grandma’s bed for a Sunday afternoon nap. I needed John Francis to take that nap far more than he wanted to, but he was more than happy to cuddle up next to his “G.G.” – which is what he and her other two great-grandchildren, Liam and Aidan, called her. After a few minutes of silence, during which I assumed Grandma had fallen asleep, John Francis turned to her, patted her on the arm, and said, “I love you G.G.” Without opening her eyes, including the ones that we all swear she had in the back of her head, Grandma found his tiny hand and covered it with her own. She smiled, and said with such confidence and strength in her voice, “I love you very much.”
It was a holy moment. John-Francis had meant what he said in as much as he understood its meaning, but never in his life will he meet anyone who more fully knows the commitment, the sacrifice, the work, and the depth of feeling that those often misused words imply. Like most of us, John-Francis was speaking as an amateur. Grandma was a professional.
There are no advanced degrees you can earn in loving people, there are no schools or universities that offer it as a major; but if you had to pick somewhere to learn it, Moore County Tennessee in the Depression wasn’t a bad place to go. Grandma was born there in 1922 to Elizabeth Gilmore Sanders Travis and Theodore Dale Travis. The youngest of five children, she worked alongside her two brothers and two sisters on the family farm. Grandma often talked about life on that farm, and how there were only seven of them in the immediate family, but even when times were at there toughest there were usually more than twenty people (including seven orphans) gathered around her mother’s dinner table. There was always enough to share, and always room for one more.
They also never threw anything away, a lesson which Grandma never forgot. In fact, one of our great challenges has been to find ways to throw things away when she wouldn’t catch us. If she did, which was most of the time, she would just shake her head and tell us one or two of the uses she could find for whatever we had in her hand. Some of you, incidentally, may still have some of the jars she used to give you pimento cheese. Keep them and use them again with her blessing. “Useless” was not a word Grandma believed in. She could find a purpose for anything or anyone.
Which may be why she married a boy from just north of Nashville who claimed to be from a farm but didn’t even know which side of a cow to sit on when you milk them. His name was Aubrey, and as she often reminded him at the time, she had other offers. But he had something the rest of them didn’t – her heart – and he never let go of it. Their lives were so intertwined, that it is impossible to tell her story without also telling some of his. He promised her he wasn’t going to go back into the Army, but the War came and she entered the first of many times when she would have to carry on with him overseas. Barbara, their first child, was born just as Grandpa returned from OCS. Grandma worked and raised their daughter, while he went on to serve in the Pacific theatre.
When the war was over, they lived in Nashville where Grandpa attended law school. Grandma hoped that the life of a lawyer would keep him by her side, but the Korean conflict came along not long after the birth of their second child Aubrey. Grandpa was back in the Army, and Grandma had two young troops of her own to manage. Not long after their third child John was born they made the decision to stay an Army family.
As a result, Grandma set up and maintained households on several continents and in several countries including Japan and Panama. With her husband gone for months and sometimes years at a time, Grandma was more than up to the task of raising three children, managing the family finances, and often working at the post or in town. She was a woman of such drive and skill, that in a time when women were often confined to the steno pool or the secretary’s desk, she was named the Vice President of McGhee Displays where she worked in several capacities. At the time, she was described in the largest trade magazine for that industry as “indispensable.”
She was, but they didn’t know the half of it. She was also tough, and fiercely protected her family. Once, returning home to find a strange woman standing in her kitchen eating tomato slices from right out of the refrigerator, Grandma grabbed a toy gun and pointed it at her telling her to leave. The woman said, “That’s a toy gun and I’m not going.” This proved the woman was crazy, because if she weren’t she would have known to be much more afraid of Grandma than whatever Grandma had in her hands. Grandma tossed aside the gun, picked up the woman, and to the amazement of her children and the gathered neighbors, pitched the lady into the back yard like a bale of hay. To this day, my father will not eat tomato slices out of the refrigerator. Of course, anyone who knew Grandma knows that that she would have gladly given that woman anything in the refrigerator if she had only asked. The mistake she made was in scaring Grandma’s family.
Retirement brought Grandma and Grandpa to Atlanta where Grandma worked as a bookkeeper and he worked for the Federal government. I say “bookkeeper” because that is what it said on her tax returns, but her full time occupation continued to be Mother with the additional title of Grandmother. Her children were grown and had left home – more or less. Her grandson William was born shortly before they came to Atlanta, and her granddaughter and namesake Laura was born shortly after. Juanita and I came along not much later, but Aubrey and Cheri kindly waited until we were well out of diapers to bring Zawn and Trey into the world.
At this point in the story, I’m no longer just passing on family folklore but my own memories as well. Over the past two days, I’ve been sorting those memories like an old shoe box full of pictures. Over and over again, there’s one place they take me back to – Grandma’s kitchen table. It’s not a large table or a large kitchen, but for thirty years it has been the center of our family and a safe haven for hundreds of friends who have become our family.
It didn’t matter why you came in, you were still invited to sit down and have a glass of sweet (and I do mean sweet) tea or a cold drink. And it wasn’t just company who sat down there. I still remember the plumber who came one day and Grandma thought he looked too skinny. Even though he billed by the hour, was on the clock, and she had never met him before; Grandma sat him down at that table and fed him. When he left, she sent him home with some homemade preserves and instructions to eat better. He’s here today as one of her pall bearers. His name is Austin, I don’t think he ever got around to billing her for the plumbing work and for close to twenty years he’s never called her anything but “Mom.”
He’s not the only one. Because it was conveniently located, many of us used Grandma’s house as a place to meet friends or co-workers. Gary, a friend who also works with my father, had stopped by Grandma’s to meet him. Gary is extremely polite, and simply sat out in the driveway waiting for my father to arrive. Grandma thought that was kind of silly, so she brought him in, sat him down at that same kitchen table, and fed him with good food and better conversation. Dad was worried about Grandma’s health, so when he got there he insisted to her that she was not obligated to entertain his coworkers. Gary has repeated her reply several times. “John,” she said, “you can just go away again. Gary and I were having a perfectly nice visit, and I’ll visit with whoever I want to.” Like many before him and since, Gary had been adopted into her family, and knew from then on he was welcome any time. To this day, Gary still calls her “Mom.” When I talked to him yesterday, he said that it truly felt like losing a mother when she died.
Then of course there’s Ann Rose, who came to spend the night and stayed for a couple months. Grandma should have known that something was up when Ann pulled in front of the house towing a small U-Haul trailer behind her. She needed a place to stay, and what she found was home. She certainly was not alone. If you are not someone who called her “Mom,” odds are the person next to you was. Whether or it was for a few moments, or a few years, Grandma offered you a home. A place to rest your body and your soul, a place at the table where there was always something good to eat, a sympathetic ear, and maybe, just maybe, an opinion or two.
There are so many clichés about the difference between a house and a home that it’s hard to find the words to explain how what Grandma provided was different – but it was. If there’s a recipe for it, I’m pretty sure two of the ingredients are iced tea and pimento cheese. For Grandma, though, the main ingredient was certainly faith.
And I mean the real thing. I don’t mean preachy faith that always tells people what they’re doing wrong; or showy faith that comes from always making sure you’re seen at the right church or with the right people – I mean the kind of rock solid faith that gave Grandma the strength to change the world around her and to carve out a safe haven where so many of us found a home.
Grandma has asked that the inscription on her tombstone read, “My Faith has found a resting place.” That is certainly true, and for the first time, because for seventy eight years Grandma’s faith never rested. For her, faith meant one thing: loving people as Jesus loved them. And love, for her, meant work and sacrifice. It meant action. Love meant getting out of a warm bed on a cold dark morning, as an almost eighty year old woman, to pick up a stranded child or grandchild who needed a ride. I’m not thinking of a specific story here because it happened so often.
Love meant having much less for herself, so her children and grandchildren could have much more. Love meant doing hard work and messy work, even when no one noticed, no matter how tired she was, just to make life easier for the people who came into her life. And always, for everyone, to Sue Travis Villines, love meant forgiveness. Over and over again, small wrongs or large, whether or not you apologized or asked for it – no matter what happened, the next time you sat down at that table you knew you were forgiven.
When I was ordained, Grandma placed her hands on my head and said, “You know how much I love you. God loves you more.” I’m not sure that’s true, but if I know anything about the love of God I learned it from her.
In our gospel reading today, Jesus gathers his closest friends, one of whom will betray him and have him killed, around a table. Over and over again he’s told them that to follow him they only have to do one thing, love everybody – and he means everybody. They didn’t really understand him then any more than we understand or do that now, but Jesus kept trying.
So when he gathered them for their last meal together, Jesus – God in the flesh – took a pitcher of clean water and a basin, and kneeling at each of them in turn washed the dirt and mud from their feet. Times weren’t that different then from today. This was a menial job, and not one that even a well-liked slave would be asked to do. It was dirty, time consuming, and profoundly kind. It’s just the sort of thing Grandma would have done.
All too soon, Jesus was gone and the very earth shook with grief. A part of me is surprised that the same thing did not happen last Monday. Such a great light, such a powerful force for love and hope has left us that it seems that the whole world should have come to a grinding halt. Nothing should ever be the same again. In the darkness that is left behind we have only our memories, and each other.
The home that she created for us is no more, and we are left with the homes that we make for one another. Where there was once so much laughter and no small amount of tears, there are now only echoes. The hands that served us, held us, knitted together in prayer for us, and blessed us are now at rest. She has gone home.
Grandma said that she did not want me to try to preach her into heaven, as if someone who labored so tirelessly to create heaven here for us would need any help finding the way. There is one promise at the heart of her faith, a faith which she passed on to us all. That promise is that a home – one as welcoming as the one she created for us here – was prepared and waiting for her as one is also prepared and waiting for us; and that the same scarred hands that washed the feet of his friends and betrayer alike, were waiting to gather her in and lead her home.