Author’s Note: My grandmother, Mary Frances Till (Nanny) died in August a month shy of her 99th birthday. Her body simply wore out. She had a difficult life – deserted by her mother as a young girl and raised by her father and grandmother, she survived rheumatic fever, and later in life cared for her elderly mother who had returned needing help. And she held the hand of my mother, her oldest daughter, as my mother passed away. Through it all she developed, like Flannery O’Connor, a “habit of being” that allowed her to experience life in a bold and fearless way. Following is an excerpt from the eulogy I read at her funeral.

The dogs in the pen outside the old farm house always got fidgety just before it happened. They yelped, barked, howled. And you finally heard it; the faint train whistle and distant rumble like a long ocean wave. Then louder, pounding until the whistle was piercing and the rumble was a roar that drowned out the dogs.

The train never slowed as it faded into the distance, returning us to the still dark of our night.

My grandmother holding my granddaughter and her great-great-granddaughter, Evelyn.
My grandmother holding my granddaughter and her great-great-granddaughter, Evelyn.

That train in the night is one of my earliest childhood memories. But it is more than that. It is the beginning of a consciousness of the powerful and transient nature of this life. Those of us in this room feel it more deeply today because we share the influence of this wonderful woman. Nanny never used the metaphor of a speeding train to describe our time here, but she showed it to all of us in the way she lived.

She had a deep and abiding love for her husband and her three girls and that love only grew as the family grew. She loved them as adults the way she loved them as babies. They were hers, and their families became hers. Nanny worked. She cooked, cleaned, sewed clothes and served the church. And her faith was at the center of her life. It was from that faith that everything flowed. She sat at the breakfast table and read the Upper Room every day. She didn’t just attend church, she did all the hard work that nobody sees, from visiting the sick to sewing pew cushions. And she taught Sunday School and kept a prayer group together until the other members had passed away and left her alone.

I can remember visiting often as a child. Nanny could not conceal her joy when all her daughters were in the room singing and cutting up as we watched the Lawrence Welk Show. Later, she would laugh as she proudly said that she had three daughters on Social Security. And every grandchild, great-grandchild and great-great-grandchild in this room have seen that same joy.

Nanny lost Papa more than 30 years ago. She told me once that she had come in from working in the yard in the heat and just started talking to the chair where he used to sit before she realized he wasn’t there. And she sat with my mother as her oldest daughter’s life drained away through a ruptured aneurysm. It was the only gift she had left to give her girl.

Life is difficult, so it is hard work. Nanny knew that. She knew that when we answer the call to be the body of Christ, the literal hands and feet of Jesus on this Earth, we decide we are willing to do the most difficult thing; to put ourselves aside and to dedicate our lives to changing this world, to rebuild it as God would have it. Once she made that commitment, she never wavered. Nanny was a driven, powerful woman. The power of that train, which inspired awe in me as a young child, pales in comparison.

She would occasionally repeat a saying her grandmother imparted to her: “This life, and another and then a potato patch to dig.” Nanny said her grandmother had no idea what it meant. And, frankly, it has confounded our family for years. But today I’ll take a stab at it: If you live life as God would have you live it, there is always plenty of work to do. And there’s joy in it. It means it’s never over. It means Nanny is still working.