A single mom returns to the home she knew as a child, finding hope and strength again.
- Posted on Aug 5, 2010
New Hampshire was where I had spent most of my life and where things had fallen apart–my marriage had dissolved, I’d lost my job, then my home.
I had come to Florida, thinking maybe I could start over. But here I was, camped out with my kids at a friend’s place. The only work I could find was part-time. I was 42 years old and had no way to support my family, no home, nowhere I really belonged.
I’d made a mess of pretty much every opportunity I’d ever been given. And maybe I didn’t deserve another chance. Maybe there really was no hope for me.
Then Meredith called from New Hampshire. “Elizabeth? I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but your Gram’s in a bit of a fix.” I caught my breath.
Meredith was the daughter-in-law of Minerva Beal, the woman who had taken me into her Manchester, New Hampshire, group home when I was an infant and basically raised me. She was the woman I called Gram. The one constant in my crazy life.
Recently she’d had heart surgery, and I had visited her just before I left for Florida.
“Are you still looking for work?” Meredith asked. Before I could answer she said, “Because Gram’s caregiver is moving away and we could really use you up here. You and your kids could live in Gram’s house.”
I felt like I’d been whiplashed–anxious for Gram, stunned at this sudden lifeline. “I–I need to run it by the kids first,” I replied. But inside I knew.
My birth mom, unmarried when she had me, frankly admitted she couldn’t care for me or my two older sisters when she dropped us off at Gram’s group home, Boylston Home for Girls.
Gram and her husband, Earl (“Grampy” to me), a minister, were my real parents, even after they retired from the group home seven years later and my sisters and I went to live with my father.
Whenever Dad’s depression got bad, he’d leave us at the Beals’ house in Londonderry. Gram still lived there. That house, with its simple antique furnishings and wall hangings stitched with Scripture verses, had always been a refuge for me.
Two days after Meredith phoned, my kids and I were on a plane to New Hampshire.
“Oh, Elizabeth, it’s so wonderful to see you!” Gram exclaimed when I arrived. No tsk-ing at the mess I’d made of my life. No embarrassment at being taken care of. Just smiles, hugs and kisses, especially for my son and daughter, 15-year-old Michael and four-year-old Siobhan.
The house had four bedrooms, so there was space for all of us.
“You should sleep in your old room,” Gram said to me. After settling the kids, I walked into the room. There was my twin bed with the wood headboard, the small bookshelf and dresser. I swallowed hard to keep from crying.
The old peace still inhabited this room, but I couldn’t help wondering whether I’d somehow put myself beyond its reach. I’d taken so many wrong turns since those childhood days.
Memories flooded in. Grampy striding purposefully through the house, whistling some hymn. Gram playing checkers with my sisters and me, serving up vanilla ice cream after dinner made with real vanilla beans.
I especially loved the way Scripture wove so effortlessly through Gram’s everyday conversation. Usually kids make fun of that kind of piety, but I never did. How could I when her faith so plainly infused her whole life?
She and Grampy could have let my sisters and me go the day we arrived at the group home. The other children were wards of the state receiving public assistance. Our parents were technically obligated to pay for us but never did.
The home’s board of directors encouraged the Beals to turn us out. Grampy refused, saying he’d quit before he did any such thing. Instead, he took on extra preaching jobs to afford our upkeep. “Love is for keeps,” Gram liked to say, her voice as strong and vital as she was.
It was hard seeing her so weak now. She often used a wheelchair. I was at her side from dawn until bedtime. I cooked, cleaned, got her up and dressed and brushed her hair.
Most days she spent in an old easy chair in the living room. There we read aloud–she loved a devotional called Daily Light–and talked about old times.
“You were such a thoughtful little girl,” Gram told me. “There was lots of turmoil in your life, but whenever you were here you were such a joy.”
Really? I couldn’t stop thinking about all the times I’d tested the Beals’ generosity. When I was 12 my mother suddenly reemerged and took me to live with her. Three years later I ran away. I was wild.
Two years after that, dumped by an abusive husband, I called the Beals collect. “Come home,” they said. It was what they always said–when I got pregnant at age 20; when my second marriage to the father of that child crumbled many years later; even now, at yet another of my numerous dead ends.
Why, I wondered, did Gram never seem to judge me? Why was her door always open, her peace ready to be shared? What had I done to deserve that?
One evening we sat talking in the living room. My self-recrimination must have been especially evident. “Elizabeth,” said Gram softly, “remember what I told you long ago–that I come from a broken home too. And believe me, if you think divorce these days is difficult, it was even worse back when my parents did it.
"I spent a lot of time alone as a child. That’s when I learned to seek Jesus’ companionship. Call on him, Elizabeth. He’ll never abandon you.”
I wanted to believe that. But of course God loved Gram. She was so good!
Days turned to weeks and Gram gradually declined. Four months after I arrived, she was put on hospice care. Christmas approached. Often the house was dark and silent when I put Gram to bed.
One night I wheeled her to her room and got her settled. “Let’s read from Daily Light,” she said.
I opened the devotional and read the day’s Scripture passage from Zephaniah: “The Lord thy God in the midst of thee is mighty; he will save, he will rejoice over thee with joy; he will rest in his love, he will joy over thee with singing.”
Gram lay against her pillows contemplating these words. Finally she asked me to turn out the light so we could pray. Gram’s prayers were formal and old-fashioned, full of thees and thous.
“Our Heavenly Father,” she began, her voice a little more tremulous than usual, “we thank thee; we know that thou art available, Lord, willing to hear us if we are to call upon thee. Let us be faithful in calling, receiving thy answers and in letting thee speak to us according to thy will.
"We thank thee for all things good that come from thy hand. In Jesus’ name, Amen.” The room was silent. I heard her wavering breath. She had fallen asleep.
For a moment I sat still, not wanting to make noise creaking across the floor. Suddenly I remembered another dark night years before, in the group home. It was one of my earliest memories.
I was a toddler, cradled in Gram’s lap late at night. For some reason I hadn’t been able to sleep and she had come in to comfort me. I looked up at her and saw, shining in the gloom, streaks of tears down Gram’s face. “Why are you crying, Gram?” I asked.
“Oh, Elizabeth,” she sighed, “I am tired, dear. But I will stay up with you.” And she began to sing me a lullaby.
Now I was the tired one sitting in the dark. And in a rush it came to me what had enabled Gram to love me all these years without stinting and without judgment.
It wasn’t some kind of spiritual heroism. It was that moment in her own childhood when she called out to Jesus and then sought his companionship ever after. Gram’s love was a gift of faith. It was God loving through her. God loving me.
I had thought that I was unlovable, especially by God. Here was Gram proving me wrong. And here I was proving myself wrong! I was taking care of Gram. I was returning that unstinting love. Gram was right. Love is for keeps.
Finally I got up and quietly slipped out of the room, shutting the door behind me.
The next morning I went to Gram’s room to wake her. I pushed open the door and was surprised to see her sitting in her chair. Her chin rested on her chest. Her body was slightly slumped.
It took me a moment to realize that she had somehow gotten up in the middle of the night to sit in her chair and passed away.
I didn’t cry. Not then, anyway. I knew God was rejoicing over her. She was resting in his love. And at last, I was too.
For more, read Celebrating Mom: 7 Inspiring Stories about Mothers.