Grandma’s lesson for our time

1969ish Flossie & NJC crop

My grandmother, Flossie Egan Craig, and I in 1969.

Fifty-three years ago, my mother watched news coverage of the war zone her hometown had become.

My grandmother, in her 70s, lived alone in the same house there on Cruse Street. Detroit was burning with arson fires, July heat, and years of anger stoked by injustice and fear. Mom was hours away in Indianapolis with a 6-month-old baby (me). I don’t know how long it took before she knew Grandma Flossie and the rest of our family and friends were safe in a city that suddenly and frighteningly wasn’t theirs.

Flossie Craig in front of 16260 Cruse copy (1)

Grandma Flossie in front of her home on Cruse Street in Detroit in the mid-1940s.

Over five days, 43 people were killed, 1,189 were injured, and hundreds of buildings were burned.

Only later did Mom learn that while the worst of the action was happening outside her door, Flossie played hymn after hymn on the piano, singing at the top of her lungs.

Her African American next-door neighbors, who were under their beds, could hear it.

Flossie was the only grandparent with whom I shared any earth time, and then only three years. The memories I do have of her, family stories such as the one above, and her abiding faith continue to inspire me.

Civil unrest is perhaps a poor comparison to a global pandemic, but I think my grandmother would handle it in much the same way. In a threatening situation, she offered her all to God, creating a bright sphere of protective energy with her music. That energy expanded with every note to surround her modest brick house and those nearby.

We humans have always known the power of sound and song to heal and unify. Whether it’s a lullaby, a protest song belted through tears, or a national anthem sung in unison, music raises our vibration and creates a powerful energy. Does it kill viruses, stop bullets, alleviate shortages, or put out fires? No. But it sure can change the atmosphere that produces and responds to all of these.

I don’t know if “How Can I Keep from Singing?” was one of the hymns my grandmother sang during those trying days. But I think it fits for ours, so I include the Enya version below.

May we, in today’s tumult and strife, hear and join in that “real, though far-off hymn” — with enough strength for the neighbors to hear.

 

When life doesn’t make sense, bees do

When your mom hauls you across the country to live with your grandparents, then takes to her bed, not a lot in life makes sense. Fortunately, Meredith May’s eccentric and wise grandfather introduced her to a world that did: his honeybee hives.

img_0109San Francisco journalist and fifth-generation beekeeper May weaves these worlds together in The Honey Bus: A Memoir of Loss, Courage and a Girl Saved by Bees (Park Row Books, 2019).

May arrived at her grandparents’ Carmel Valley, California home with her mother and younger brother at age five after her parents’ abrupt separation in the 1970s. From the moment they arrived, the honey bus — a rusty old military bus where Grandpa made honey — was an object of fascination, then solace and inspiration for young Meredith. The more she learned about bees, the more she admired their social intelligence.

Bees could see a problem coming and start making a change before it became serious and they perished. If their hive became overcrowded or unsafe, they took initiative to move to someplace better. … Bees had enough brainpower to envision a better life, and then go out and get it.

As the months turned into years, Mom remained in bed, emerging just long enough to rain generations’ worth of emotional and physical abuse on her daughter. Grandma and Grandpa took up the slack of raising two children. As far as the reader knows, Grandma rarely held Mom accountable for anything and never encouraged her to get treatment for what was obviously crippling mental illness. (Granted, a doctor in the 1970s may have prescribed tranquilizers and called it a day.)

Grandpa, who seemed to see the situation more accurately than anyone else in the house, advised May to stay out of her mother’s way and forge her own path. This she did, helping her grandfather tend his many hives and make honey while excelling in school and discovering what she could do. Only as May was about to leave for college did her mother offer a glimpse of context for what she had endured.

While I couldn’t help feeling sad and frustrated about the behavior of many of the adults, May’s journalistic acumen and the bees keep this from being just another dysfunctional family memoir. Grandpa used the bees as examples of a more constructive way to behave — through caring, shared decision making, and commitment to community.

He reminded us that bees live for a purpose far grander than themselves, each of their small contributions combining to create collective strength. Rather than withdrawing from the daunting task of living, as our mother had done, honeybees make themselves essential through their generosity.

This worthwhile memoir sheds a personal and cultural light on honeybees today as we consider how to treat them, and one another, with more generosity.

Accessible help for grief

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My refurbished Christmas star.

When my mother died two years ago, the last thing I wanted to read was a well-meaning but too-much treatise on grief. Dr. Alan Wolfelt’s Healing the Adult Child’s Grieving Heart, with its 100 practical, one-page ideas for things to do or think about, was exactly what I needed during those first weeks and months.

Its user-friendly format also makes the book easy to revisit, as I did recently when the holidays brought a fresh load of “Crap … I should be doing better with this.”

Grief is a process, not a destination. I know this. The Thanksgiving/Christmas/New Year stretch is cold and dark in this corner of the world, and the holidays add another layer of challenge to whatever we are facing. I also know “shoulds” hurt more than they help, and they’re so not in the spirit of God using the humblest, darkest circumstances to show the greatest love.

51u5HQKtEoL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_So I took the slim volume off the shelf and opened it — right to No. 68: Prepare yourself for the holidays. Wolfelt’s top bullet point on this page is, naturally, the sadness felt over no longer having your parent around to share these special occasions and gatherings. Having lost both parents, as I have, makes it feel all the more sad and strange; we are orphans no matter how old we are.

However, Christmas is about memory as much as it is about the here and now. Wolfelt notes in his second point: “Your family’s holiday traditions were formed decades, sometimes centuries, ago and resonate with layer upon layer of memories.”

He’s spot on about the layers. In addition to the happy, quirky Christmas memories that reside in my consciousness are ones of my mother’s terminal diagnosis two days before Christmas and her passing two days after. In between was a blur of travel, consultations in poinsettia-bedecked hospital hallways, the beep of monitors, relaying information to other family members, waiting for doctors, talking with Mom, sharing Reiki energy to ease her transition, and almost, but not quite, forgetting about the holiday.

The following Christmas, I had the tree-topping star that has graced a Crowe tree since the 1950s refurbished. It doesn’t twinkle and blink like it used to, but the blue circle around it glows in a way I swear it never did before. It casts a new light in some of the darkness, which is what Christmas is about in the first place. It also lets the happy memories begin to re-layer themselves over the sad ones.

This year, for another layer of memories, I dug out my dad’s favorite Mannheim Steamroller Christmas music and let some of the meditative tracks underscore my yoga practice.

And I flipped a little further in the Wolfelt book, finally landing on No. 96: Let go of destructive beliefs about grief and mourning. Such as: “I need to get over this.”

Your grief is your grief, Wolfelt says: “It’s normal and necessary. Allow it to be what it is. Allow it to last as long as it lasts. Strive to be an authentic mourner — one who openly and honestly expresses what you think and feel.”

I’m still working on that … and following yonder star.