Spring was doing its annual tease, with signs of hopeful daffodils peeking through unforgiving snow. April still looked like the worst of March, and not one person up and down her block thought it was time to drain the snowblower or put the snow boots in the basement.
Earth Day was just around the corner, however, and Agnes Gustafson had several thoughts about this annual event. They came to her in a most unusual way.
Agnes recently celebrated her 94th birthday with her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. When you get to 94, as Agnes pointed out, it’s not so much a celebration as a search for reasons to keep going. She told her family that she thought this was likely her last birthday this side of glory because God must be running out of excuses for keeping her here, a remark met with strong objections by all present—all of whom Agnes prayed for each day before she did anything else.
These subjects of prayer and affection often gathered at her house after Sunday morning church. It’s a homespun communion of the saints. Parents grab their kids after Sunday School and join at Gram’s for a weekly ritual of cookies, coffee, and exceedingly bad lemonade. Gathering has been a family tradition since Agnes was widowed at 43. It started out with her children, eventually their spouses, and grew with each new grandchild and great grandchild. These days there are usually newborns, kids home from college, parents and grandparents, and ages in between. Little ones enthusiastically play on the living room floor with the world’s oldest collection of toys: blocks, antique tractors, puzzles with parts missing for decades, and doll heads without torsos and only occasionally hair. Conversations are loud, several crossing the room at one time in an overlapping, chaotic chorus. Laughter is explosive, and sometimes discussions are heated. Sanctified gossip usually creeps in after the morning’s sermon is thoroughly reviewed and deficiencies identified. All sense they are known and belong.
Something else happens. In the conversations across generations, the young listen. What they learn is this: to the older ones in the chairs scattered around the room, church and home and sometimes school form a web of connections that go to the heart of life. This extended family cares enough about these relationships to argue about them, pray for them, laugh at them, and give their money and time to them. And somehow, like a beneficent queen presiding over her court in the overstuffed chair with an automatic seat lift, Agnes holds those values together and in high esteem.
She moves about the house these days with the help of an aluminum walker, complete with old tennis balls at the bottom so she doesn’t slip on her sparkling, always waxed floors. The walker is intended to help with her balance ever since she fell and broke her hip three years ago, but she also uses it on occasion to emphasize a point. She does this by guiding that thing straight at the one she wishes to admonish or encourage. Admonishing and encouraging are the two major functions of 94-year-old great-grandmothers, two of the reasons the Lord must have in mind to keep her this side of glory.
Agnes lives by herself in a nice 50’s-era single story brick ranch house, and the days can get long. The children tried to convince her of the virtues of the local senior living facility, but she would have none of it, thinking herself better off hanging around with younger folks. She passes her slow days by listening to her Bible tapes and hymn tapes and sermon tapes on an ancient cassette player and waits for the frequent visits of her several daughters who live nearby. She tried those praise music tapes, but missed the harmony. She kept thinking that the tape was stuck—the words went on and on without getting anywhere. And she watches TV. The rumor was that Agnes even had a soap opera she never missed—Days of Our Lives—for its socially redeeming content.
It was while she was watching the Today show—she still misses that unfortunate but cute Matt Lauer—that her first thought of Earth Day came to mind. Everyone on the program was talking about rain forests and climate change or cleaning up the environment, and she thought about her own little habitat. She remembered that she hadn’t cleaned the cabinet under the kitchen sink for some time. “If we are to tend the garden as God intended, I’d better start at home,” she thought, and grabbed her walker and headed for the kitchen after the Today hosts wished her a good day.
Humming the tune to “This is My Father’s World,” she knew that she had to get this done in a hurry. If any of her nearby daughters came in while she was on her knees on the kitchen floor, she would likely be chewed out something fierce. Sermon tapes and TV are okay and exercise enough. Cleaning and scrubbing like she was some 85-year-old spring chicken was out of the question, that sort of work was better left for the cleaning lady her kids hired for such things. She moved along and thought it wouldn’t take more than a few minutes.
Everything seemed to go fine until, job finished, she tried to get up off her knees. She couldn’t. Her muscles and bones just wouldn’t respond. She was as stiff as most of the preachers she’d heard all her life. There was nothing for her to do but stretch out on the floor as best she could, curl up the rug in front of the sink for a pillow, and wait for someone to come, which usually was around mid-morning coffee or lunch time. Agnes hoped that if her rescuer turned out to be one of her daughters, she could somehow bribe her to keep this nonsense from the others.
As she reclined on the kitchen floor Agnes had her second thought about Earth Day. With her head pillowed right next to the open cabinet door, she picked up strong odors from the bug spray she used to keep ants away. While she couldn’t read the can’s label without her illuminated magnifying glass, she began to think that she was in the presence of deadly, life-threatening chemicals. The kind that the Today Show had warned about just a few minutes before. “What a way to go,” she thought. “Not exactly the death of the martyrs.” She could see the headlines in the Regional News: “94-Year-Old Enters Glory Smelling Like Raid!” Or “Crazy-clean Widow Victim of Chemical Warfare.” A diferent thought came to her: she wondered if chemicals had anything to do with her husband’s early death from lung disease. He’d worked the assembly line at the Pullman Railroad Car factory nearby and always came home covered with a layer of soot. He also smoked, as most men did in those days, so there was that. She tried to get him to quit the habit but he never did. And she could do little about the soot except wash it away each week.
There on the floor, curled prostrate before the sink awaiting her rescue, she had ample time to think about her grandson Harold, which brought to mind her third meditation about Earth Day. He had visited just two days before and told her about his job as chairperson of the local Chamber of Commerce Earth Day Committee. He taught chemistry at the local high school and thought that serving the Chamber was a fine way to stretch his faith and make a dent for good in the community. What would Harold think of her dilemma? What if he were the one to stop by again and find her this way?
Harold had talked with her that day at great length about his plans for Earth Day and beyond, and even more about his personal work “caring for creation,” as he put it. He talked about the horrors of wasteful drive-up windows at banks and fast food places. He told her that if he ever gave in and went to a fast-food place for a salad, he chose it not because of taste but for how it was packaged. She didn’t know the difference between biodegradable and polystyrene, but Harold did. He’d recently bought a plug-in hybrid car, whatever that meant, designed to not only use less gasoline but also reduce emissions so that life, as he said, would be more sustainable. She always thought “sustainable” described the best girdles and bras. He used a push mower instead of a noisy polluting gas one, rode his bike to work, car-pooled when he couldn’t bike, and protested plans for a local incinerator plopped near an impoverished neighborhood. He told her about what was happening to the ozone layer, which was news to her. Climate change and climate warming were things no one talked about in her day. Harold painted a convincing picture, and what she thought about most while stretched out on the kitchen floor in her pastel floral housedress, in the process of being wiped out like one big elderly bug-Coleopteran housedressicus-was the sad picture Harold painted about the future if things didn’t change.
Harold was a Christian, like Agnes. Well, not exactly like Agnes. He’d married someone from one of those social-action type churches. The kind that suggests that Christianity is something that puts you to work. And that was okay with Agnes; she liked his spunk and energy, and felt that he’d found a deep purpose in life and a good wife too. She realized that the world was more complicated and polluted now than in the days when she buried her trash, what little there was of it, out behind the farmhouse she was raised in. Listening to Harold she sensed that he was not driven by guilt. While guilt could be a great motivator—and you don’t raise eight children without guilt as a ready ally—grace was a greater theme. Harold’s motives bore no trace of debilitating guilt, and that made her happy too.
She wished that her dying words could be whispered in Harold’s ear, there, bent low over her on the kitchen floor, odors of poisonous and polluting bug spray still hanging in the air. She would tell Harold that she loved him, that she’d learned a lot from him, to keep at it and don’t let up. She’d tell him to keep finding joy in the work. Keeping the earth in good shape is a way to love the Creator and Sustainer and your neighbor, especially those yet unborn. She’d seen a lot of children come along in her day. Those grandkids and great-grandkids playing on the carpet on Sunday mornings after church deserved a better future and a safer world. She knew Harold’s heart and mind were in the right place.
She would also tell him that she appreciated his enthusiastic joy in doing what was right rather than feeling guilt for doing what was wrong or doing nothing at all. Her instincts were simple. If the earth is the Lord’s and he’s made us gardeners, if this is “Our Father’s World,” then get your fingernails dirty with a smile on your face and joy in your heart. Thank the Creator and Redeemer; don’t look over your shoulder for the Judge. In the long run, guilt is even deadlier than bug spray. Gratitude to God has always moved the saints to communion in acts of love for neighbor. She’d learned that in catechism, and thought Harold heard this too along the way, maybe even on her living room carpet in his younger years. “Don’t forget Harold, this is our Father’s world. Even when the world and all that’s wrong with it seems strong, he’s still the ruler, right? Don’t let your heart sink. He reigns. Let the heavens ring and all earth be glad.” That’s what she’d say to him.
Well, it turned out just as Agnes had first hoped. In a regular occurrence of the communion of saints, a daughter came to visit over coffee, gasped at the strange sight sprawled before her on the kitchen floor, and, after seeing her mother was okay, laughed long and hard. Her daughters had learned years before that it was useless to embarrass or reprimand their mother for impulsive foolishness. After all, they’d each received their rich measure of forgiveness over the years. She gently lifted Agnes off the linoleum to an ancient Naugahyde chair at the chrome-trimmed kitchen table, made coffee, lingered and laughed often with this dear one. When she left, Agnes wrote a note to give Harold a call and invite him over for another conversation. Maybe with lemonade. Right after she watched her soap.
“In the long run, guilt is even deadlier than bug spray . . .” Thanks for that reminder, Dave—and for the reminder to this son I need to visit my 97-year-old mom who still lives in her own Michigan home
Very well told.
Thanks for this wonderful story. So much feels familiar, including the “sanctified gossip” that follows the discussion of the sermon. Here’s hoping the “web of connections” that is at the heart of your story flourishes long after the Agneses among us have passed on. Oh my, we need that web now more than ever.
Dave, loved your story. Hah, being a fellow Looney adoptee I see a few items in the story that are very familiar. Your mention of Grandma’s lemonade makes my face and lips uncontrollably pucker up.
And your headless dolls brings back a picture of that nasty doll head with no hair that often haunts me in nightmares. Finally, I think you need to accept the fact that you married into a Dutch family and quit with the Gustafsons. Just change your name to Vander Larsen and be done with it. Thanks so much for the wonderful story.