Her words were in Times New Roman, 12 point, only because she had fallen too weak to script them by hand.
Looking back I can only imagine that the cancer had taken not only the steadiness from her hands, but it had stolen also her confidence to even try. For decades she had mastered pristine penmanship as she faithfully wrote letters to friends and family across the globe. Now her illness had stolen her ability to do so, but she refused to let it steal her letters.
As I opened the envelope, I was in Europe, the land that she loved— only she sat an ocean away. I could picture her in that burgundy recliner in the corner of her living room, the one I had spent almost every Christmas morning in, gleefully unwrapping gifts at her feet. I could almost see her now, a lamp hanging above her head, casting a dim light over her as she licked stamps and addressed letters to her loved ones.
Ten months from that moment I would sit at her side in that same spot, only this time she would lie reclined in a plastic bed. I would stroke her hand as I raised the sleeve of my sweater to wipe a salty tear from under my eye. “Guess what Grandma,” I mustered a smile as she turned her eyes but not her head in my direction. “Grayson and I are getting married next year.” And at this news she amassed what must have been all of her strength to smile. “Oh is that right, Dear?” Her voice shook as Heaven continued to beckon her arrival. “He seems so nice.”
When that letter arrived almost a year before, when she was still well, I held it delicately in my hands and read words from her still sharp mind. Her words brimmed with excitement over me, her granddaughter, experiencing the world she loved and had left behind. “On my first trip to Britain (1956) my Mother said to me one night, ‘Do you know that you’ve had 14 cups of tea today?’!!! I absolutely love it.”
As I read her letter, I sat in my best friend’s home. I was nearing eighteen years old and she had invited me to spend the holidays with her family, who lived in Northern Ireland. When I had mentioned the idea to my parents, they asked what the price of the plane ticket would be, and then purchased them on the spot. “You can’t miss this opportunity.” They had told me. Looking back I know that my father wanted me to see Europe. It was in his blood just as much as his mother’s.
I spent four weeks touring ancient stone churches and wetting my toes in the Irish Sea. Yet what I remember most about those weeks is the first thing my Grandmother had written to me in her letter. “Yes, the North of Ireland is a lot like England in many ways—especially the cups of tea, scones, and biscuits.” Like her, I had learned the power that laid in those ceramic tea cups and platters of biscuits.
For years on Christmas Eve after my family arrived to her home, Grandma would set out silver tiered trays of petit fours. We would sit around her dining room table talking well into the night, laughing at Grandpa’s jokes and asking Grandma every half hour if we could open just one gift before morning.
With her hot cups of tea and decorated cakes, she brought a little bit of her beloved Europe to that dining room table in Illinois. And now as I read her words from my friend’s home in Ireland, I understood why she did it all of those years. Grandma was teaching us the power of visiting—of stretching time and expanding its value by weighing it down with stories and steaming cups of Earl Grey.
She taught us that family is made when we sit undistracted around a table together. She showed us in a tangible and delicious way that the body of Christ is restored around a table with the breaking of bread and the sharing of stories. I saw it in Ireland as we visited with my friend’s relatives. But really I had seen it every Christmas Eve, as I sat in that wooden chair next to my Grandmother snacking on shortbreads until her clock rung in the midnight hour.
“We trust that you’ll have a wonderful time the rest of your visit. I go to the oncologist on Monday—will hear then whether the cancer is back.”
She gives her well wishes and then her typing ends, and in an almost unreadable smattering of cursive I make out, “With much love, Grandma & Grandpa”
I wonder just how many of her letters sit in drawers across the globe today. Grandma had a way of making friends that lasted her entire lifetime; the lifetime that stretched out years beyond the Doctor’s prognosis. I am sure each of her letters end in that perfectly crisp—and then later shaky penmanship. And I am sure that almost all of those letters began with a friendship formed over a steaming cup of tea and warm scones, and a blessed reminder that “For where two or three gather together as my followers, I am there among them.” (Matthew 18:20)