(Listen here first if you need help to get in the right frame of mind! One of my very favorites!!)
After we had turned off the video camera and were starting to pack up, someone in the class wanted an answer from this extremely bright and able 97 year old. “One last question…What is your advice for us?” Maybe he was expecting “eat dessert first” (which she frequently did) or “fly in a hot air balloon for your 90th birthday” (she did that too) or exercise daily (nope). But she paused briefly and thought…and offered her best advice for the graduate class in gerontology at McDaniel College, “Just love people.”
“Nan,” (Mary Schulze Krebs, b. 7/20/1909) had been wondering for years why she was still alive. She was cognitively very sharp but after a fall (for the sanity of the rest of the family) reluctantly agreed to live with my aunt and uncle in Littlestown, PA. She wasn’t depressed and still found joy from visitors, word searches, watching wildlife out the window and translating my college French paper (even though she hadn’t had French since high school!). But she questioned, with child-like wonder, what purpose she served and why she was still here in this physical world.
She had been ready to die at 90 years old when a robber broke into her Baltimore rowhome on a hot summer evening, tied her to the bed, ransacked the place and demanded her bank card code. She told him to look in her bedside table and take the Bible where it was written, “Thou shall not steal.” (NOT kidding! Who does that?! My other uncle who was a Baltimore City cop was not pleased when he found out!). She was calm BTW because she had hidden her cash in her dirty laundry hamper in preparation for this possibility. She figured no one would look amongst an old ladies’ dirty underwear! (She did end up giving him the right code because he said he would come back and kill her if she gave him the wrong code…she didn’t want to get murdered–and upset her kids.)
She had been ready to die when she had a stroke and a fall in her senior apartment–where the family insisted she move after the above attack…which was the second of two! She had refused to move after the first mugging that also took place in her neighborhood. She only relented and moved after the second attack so she wouldn’t “worry her family,”not because she was scared to finish out her life in Ednor Gardens where she had raised her three boys. If she had been selfish, that is exactly where she would have stayed.
So, Nan wondered why she was still around at 97, taking up space, and in her mind putting people out–namely her oldest son (David) and his wife (Jackie) who had gladly welcomed her into their home. She occasionally expressed her curiosity, not morosity, about death; she was not afraid of it. She wondered and hoped that she would again see her husband (Pop/Hall) who had died 27 years earlier when I was just in Kindergarten. I believe that maybe she lasted those last seven years to”just love people” and to share that message. Writing this blog, I am just now realizing that her lack of fear (in general and of death specifically) and a focus on love went together. When you are truly not afraid of dying, you can focus on expressing love to everyone you meet–even the robber that enters your home. Love can be fierce and gentle at the same time. That is how I see my Nan.
The Nan I knew, both in childhood and adulthood, was patient and kind–she read likely hundreds of stories to her grandchildren and played cards and board games for dozens of hours. We learned at her packed funeral, that she had inspired many to “do good” in her church even if they were uncertain about religion or had faltering faith and belief. Her sons would be more likely to describe her as modest, highly competent, dedicated to church and family and somewhat controlling; but their love for her was palpable. She was quite hard of hearing in her later years so large family gatherings made it challenging for her to follow the fast flow of conversation. Instead of complaining of being left out, however, she simply sat back and watched the cacophonous banter with a smile–I could feel love radiating from her face as she surveyed the room of family young and old.
Nan nurtured the life of service. She volunteered hundreds of hours in her church. She drove, scary driver that she was, in her tan Dodge Dart, for Meals on Wheels into her early 90’s to deliver food to “the old people” or those who struggled financially or physically. She consciously reached out to a diverse community and quietly built bridges between groups that are often separated. The working-class white neighborhood where she raised her boys evolved into a place where mostly black families lived. During that transition I would visit Nan for several days in the summer often with my cousin, Donna. I recall my first exposure there to bi-racial children (Jeremy and Jennifer). I, living in a conservative and homogenous area was rarely exposed to much diversity. Nan’s love and respect of ALL people was in retrospect perhaps more influential than I realized at the time. She exemplified the ability to connect to those with different views; as she, a liberal democrat, lived in a peaceful and loving marriage with a man who was a committed Republican.
My two older children knew and loved Nan. I wish my youngest son, now seven years old, could have known her as well. He has expressed fear recently of guns and potential robbers. He is exposed to stories and happenings that evoke anger and sadness. He recently learned in school that MLK and Lincoln were shot (not sure that is essential first grade curriculum but that topic we will save for another day). In response to his fear, we talk about love. I am not sure what else to do. That message of love, and especially the actions of love, do not always come easily in life. We live in a world where people are stressed, financially and physically, and sometimes are just plain mean. But as with everything else, what we practice with regularity and consistency comes more naturally and eventually automatically and without much thought or effort. Love is my comfort zone, I feel happiest expressing it. It soothes and heals.
So seek it (LOVE) however it best suits you…Beatles music, texts, Biblical scripture, loving kindness meditation. Follow Nan’s lead and serve, connect with a diverse group of people, take time to sit and watch. This is a Michael Beckwith quote from Death Makes Life Possible but it is something my Nan could have said,
“While we’re here, in a human incarnation, we can ask, ‘how can I serve, how can I love, how can I cultivate the gifts that are within me and express them? Let me not leave without saying and being and giving all that I can say and be and give while I’m here.’ “
I realize now that even though Nan is gone, her love lives on. In some ways it is now even more expansive. One of the best characteristics of love…it never dies.
The photo included of the mirror, tray and brush, was given to me by David and Jackie after Nan died and it was then that I learned Pop had given it to her as a wedding (or perhaps anniversary) present. I remembered it as the decoration that sat on top of the fuzzy cover on the toilet tank! It has taken on a new meaning for me now though…it is a treasure that symbolizes their love that continues to be passed along.
Love…pass it on.