Earlier this week, we unexpectedly lost one of the matriarchs in our family: my grandma.
It wasn’t until I was visiting her in the hospital, reflecting after her death, and processing everything to write her eulogy that I fully realized the impact she made on my life.
On Mother’s Day, we celebrate the women in our lives. Women who have loved us and cared for us, who have helped us on our journey of becoming.
For many of us, these women are mamas and grandmamas that we inherited the moment we were born. For others of us, we were gifted these women by reasons other than birth.
Because it’s love that forms a family.
I’d like to honor those women by honoring this woman who made a great impact through her quiet and steady undercurrent of love.
A Eulogy for My Mema Carol
One of my first memories of my grandma is of her holding my hand through Dollar General.
I remember I was wearing my favorite pair of shoes—my jelly shoes. But they were hurting my feet and rubbing blisters on the hot summer day, and I stood holding her hand as we looked at the racks of jelly shoes at Dollar General.
The place seemed magical to me. My Papa Branstetter managed the store, and his office was behind a secret door, up a flight of stairs with his desk to the right. At his desk, you could look out of a tinted window where you could see the whole store—but they couldn’t see you.
I remember this office so well: the newspaper clipping of the four of their little Branstetter boys on the wall—the one where they had built a life-size airplane and all four boys stood proudly beside it—the window looking out onto the store, and the piece of candy she always made sure I got before I left.
It all seemed so magical. And my Mema Carol was my own private usher into this world, treating me as if I was a VIP with a golden ticket to the behind-the-scenes inner workings of this retail kingdom. Every gesture, every smile, every laugh, every hand held communicating the same message:
I think we probably all have some sort of story like this with my Mema Carol.
These everyday moments that we can recall with such clarity, moments that somehow seem special or meaningful, or even magical, and we can’t quite place our finger on what it was that made it that way.
These past few days, our family has gotten to spend a lot of time together. Looking through pictures, telling stories, laughing… remembering.
My grandma’s sister Jane describes the way my grandma always kept her siblings safe on the family farm in St. Clemens. The way she cared for each one of them, always looking out and protecting them. Her brother Paul’s earliest memories of my grandma is of them climbing the hill to the pear trees and picking some together. Denny remembers sitting outside on the picnic table, his sister Carol taking the time and patience to help him with his math during summer school. Alice smiles as and says, “She was an awesome sister,” as she recollects moments with her, remembering the love and care with which she treated all her siblings.
All seven remaining siblings are here.
And as each one begins a story, I watch their face light up, familiar eyes smiling the same way my grandma’s smile filled up her whole face.
We’ve found out things we hadn’t known about her—like how she played basketball during boarding school.
Or how once, my dad caught her buying some RC Cola, even though her mom and dad owned a Pepsi franchise. When my dad asked her why they were buying RC instead of Pepsi, my Mema said, “Because it’s cheaper—just don’t tell your grandpa.”
And how she and my grandpa met through a blind date.
And that they had a great first date in Hannibal, Missouri, going to see the movie Peyton Place.
Potato salad. Cherry Cheesecake. The huge breakfasts she prepared.
There are so many stories of the food she made for her family.
My cousin Chris tells of the biscuits and gravy recipe he still makes to this day, a recipe he got by watching our grandma make it each time they came into town and stayed the weekend.
She had four ornery, active boys all close in age.
And she kept those boys in line. They were dressed sharp. They had good manners. And they loved their mama.
My dad said if they got into trouble, they always wanted it to be from their mom. Because she whooped them with her left hand. And it didn’t hurt.
And when those boys wanted to do something she didn’t really want them to do, she would always say, “Let’s just don’t and say we did.”
She was a hard worker.
She worked all day and then came home and took care of the boys, washed dishes, cleaned house and then went to bed and woke up to do it again the next day.
And every single morning before school, she would make those boys that famous huge breakfast of cereal, eggs, bacon, and toast. Then she’d make sure they looked nice and had their lunch money.
The story goes that once my grandpa had been saving some real silver coins in a jar. He had quite a collection going, but starting noticing that the collection kept depleting… it wasn’t growing like it used to. He couldn’t figure out why it wasn’t growing like it used to. Then one day he figured it out when he witnessed my grandma passing out the day’s lunch money to her four boys—out of his jar of silver coins! She had been handing out those coins thinking it was a jar of change—not knowing they were REAL silver!
(But you know, even if my grandma would have known they were real silver, I think she would have used them anyway if it meant her kids were taken care of. )
My uncle Jamie tells of the time grandma was hanging up clothes in the yard. He was around six years old at the time and was running around outside while she did the laundry, and he found a yellow jacket nest. He got the idea that if he put his foot on the hole, it would suffocate the yellow jackets and they would all die.
So that’s just what he did.
He put his foot over the hole and waited what he thought was a LONG TIME and when he raised his foot up, all of those yellow jackets came storming out, angry and stinging. (Apparently it takes longer than 2 whole minutes to suffocate them!)
He remembers there were so many of them and they were starting to sting—and that’s when my grandma used her body as a shield between him and the bees and started ushering him to the house. She took the stings and Jamie got to safety.
Because that’s what she did—she protected.
And she enjoyed.
She enjoyed being with her family.
She always had a laugh to give.
Those are the moments my sister Alexa loves to remember:
Mema laughing as Alexa re-enacted scenes from The Princess Bride with the fireplace blower. Or of how (as a child) Alexa would to try to eat the play dough while she played with Mema. Mema would catch her trying to eat it and tell her, “Alexa, you better not eat that play dough or it will make you sick.” Then she’d watch as Mema would turn her head to the side so Alexa couldn’t see her trying hard not to laugh. Alexa says she’d ask Mema for a glass of water and as soon as Mema would leave the room, she would try again to eat the play dough. Later when Alexa asked her about it, Mema would say, “Yeah… you kind of had a problem with that.”
Four wheeler rides. Chips Ahoy cookies. Backyard casting. Frisbee. The hammock. The porch swing.
So many fond memories took place at my grandma’s house.
My son Knox smiled as he remembered playing croquet in their back yard and how much fun they had.
But one of my favorite stories came from a friend of my cousin Jared’s.
My aunt Vicki asked if he knew Carol. The friend said, “Oh, yes. I knew her.” And he described a time of winter full of snow when my grandparents took him and Jared sledding. Several times they picked up those boys that winter and took them sledding. He said, “She made me feel like one of the grandkids. She always remembered my name, and she always made me feel like one of her own.”
It was a story with the same message:
This week has been hard.
Saying goodbye, no matter how you do it, is a really hard thing.
But one of the Good things that comes out times like these is reflecting.
I recently heard a quote that says, “Life isn’t about avoiding suffering. It’s about finding meaning.”
Looking through these pictures, telling stories with each other, reminiscing—I think the gift we find is the meaning we take with us.
In all those photos, grandma is in the background. And she’s smiling. She’s holding babies and laughing with her boys. Or she’s not in the picture. Because she’s holding the camera and saying, “Boys, you’re all together. Let’s take a picture.” They’re profile pictures of her because she’s leaning down watering flowers. Or kissing a grandbaby.
Because that’s who she was.
People love in different ways. Some people are really good with words and are able to articulate all the gushings of their hearts at any moment in time.
Some people never even say “I love you.”
And some people say it all the time.
Some people say it through action.
Some people seem to smother with love.
And some people’s love is felt all around them, with every word, every touch, every smile—whether they say something or nothing at all. It’s quiet. It’s deep. And it has no expectations.
That’s the kind of love I always felt from my grandma.
Whether we’re a few streets apart or several states away, life has a way keeping us from the ones we love.
I can remember when there would be months between visits with my grandma. But it didn’t matter. It NEVER mattered. When I saw her, she would squeeze me and grab my hand, always, always with a smile that filled her entire face, especially her eyes. She’d hold my hand and tell me she loved me.
I remember once when I was drowning in the challenges of motherhood. It had been a long time since I had seen my grandma, and my parents had gotten everyone together for some sort of family dinner. We were standing in the kitchen and she grabbed my hand, smiled with her whole face, looked me in the eyes and said, “You are a good mother. You are doing such a good job with those boys.” I tried to shrug it off or dismiss it and look away from those eyes and I said something like, “Oh, I don’t know about that, I—“ and she cut me off, looked me straight in the eyes again and said, “I’m serious. You listen. You are a good mother. You are doing a great job.”
She didn’t know how badly I needed to hear those words.
But then again, maybe she did.
My Mema never chastised us for not visiting. She never acted frustrated or angry that we hadn’t seen each other. There was never, EVER, anything but love. It was always there. Always felt. With no strings attached. With no expectations.
She would come over if asked.
She would greet us with love and smiles and candy from her glass candy dishes if we came for a visit—but she never made us feel badly for the ways we lacked.
And I think sometimes kindness like this gets overlooked or undervalued—until you’re faced with times like these. Times when you can look around and see tangible evidence of the power of this kind of unassuming, unconditional, no-strings-attached love.
When you look at our family—the four boys, the four daughters-in-law, the seventeen grandchildren, the twelve great-grandchildren—some of us look alike, but many of us don’t.
Because we’re a great big family formed by love.
And I don’t think I paid attention to this until I was leaning over her in the hospital room, whispering in her ear all of the ways she embodied love to me throughout my entire life.
I don’t think I fully realized the impact this incredible woman made on my life until she was slipping away.
Because she didn’t teach us these lessons of love through words. She never said, “This is how you love. See this that I’m doing? It’s because I love you.”
She was okay to be on the sidelines. To cheer from the stands. To love through her cooking, her cleaning. Her hugs and her listening. Her smiles and her squeezes.
She was okay if you didn’t notice what she was doing—because she wasn’t doing it to be noticed.
She was just loving.
I met my grandma when I was four years old.
And from that day on, she was my grandma.
I never realized the sense of belonging she gave me because she never made me feel as if I didn’t belong. It was just always there.
And I never realized the impact this made on my life until the past few days.
The ways in which my own little family of four is a reflection of the love she radiated into the world.
Because when you look at my little family; when you look at all of the little families that make up the big Branstetter family—you see something very special.
You see a reflection of four boys who were taught to love well.
And that is the legacy my grandma leaves behind.