Legacy of Love

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Legacy of Love

“When another person makes you suffer, it is because he suffers deeply within himself. He does not need punishment he needs help.” – Thich Naht Hahn

A death in the family is never an easy thing. Each person who knows the deceased has a valid claim to the memories they created with them. Families have ways of doing things. Traditions are deeply ingrained and woven into the very tapestry of the families’ identity. When these traditions are broken, when the fabric is torn, it leaves everybody feeling hurt, lost, and a little askew. 

At 6:05 on the morning of July 1st, my grandmother, Mayzell Patterson Ellis, took her last breathe. She was surrounded by people who loved her dearly, and who, while heartbroken to let her go, willingly released her. In the days since her death, I’ve felt fractured at best. A million thoughts and feelings swirl through my soul as my heart tries to reconcile the fact that I’ll never again sit next to her, her soft hand in mine, as we discuss whatever it is that grandmothers and granddaughters discuss. 

Every culture has their own way to honor the dead. In the culture of our family, in the region in which she was born, raised, and lived her entire life, these traditions are very clear. So, I fully expected to arrive the day before her services to attend her viewing. She’d be laid out in her casket dolled up in her Sunday best. Friends and family would mill around the funeral home paying their last respects. Stories would be told, tears shed, and hugs given. 

The next day her body would have been taken to her church. Services would be conducted and more respects paid. Then her grandsons and great grandsons would have had the honor of lifting her casket to carry her body one last time through the doors of the church she loved so much. We would have then gone to her graveside to say our last goodbyes as her casket was lowered into it’s final resting place. 

This did not come to pass. 

The decision was made to cremate my grandmother and with that we lost many of the traditions that would have allowed us to honor the woman we all loved so well. Petitions were vigilantly made to no avail. And now the burden was doubled. Not only did we have to suffer the blow of losing the heart and soul of our family, but we also lost the ability to mourn her death in the traditional way that we have mourned the dead for centuries. It was a lot to bear. 

In spite of this, nine of her ten grandchildren along with their spouses, who my grandmother loved as her own, were in attendance. Many of her great and great-great grandchildren were also there. My cousin, Dennis, the eldest grandchild, conducted her service. As he spoke from his heart of his love for her, he expressed what we all felt. I could feel my grandmother’s spirit hovering over us. I knew in that moment that she was happy and at peace.

With every breath my grandmother took, she freely gave to others whatever material goods and money happened to come in her life. If you needed a place to stay, a meal to eat, a shoulder to lean on, she provided. She would tell you exactly what she thought (a trait shared by many of her grandchildren) but she never tried to manipulate the outcome. She knew it was all in His hands. She believed with her heart and soul that where she was and what she was doing at that moment was exactly where she was suppose to be and exactly what she was suppose to be doing. She didn’t worry about the grass on the other side of the fence. She just diligently tended her own garden.

My grandmother didn’t leave us stacks of stocks and bonds. She didn’t leave us expensive collections of tchotchkes or acres of property. My grandmother didn’t invest in those things. Instead my grandmother invested in people. She invested her heart and soul and energy and all her worldly goods into the lives of us children and every single person she met. Even in the face of fear she operated from a place of love. What she left each of us with is the example of how to live a courageous and meaningful life. 

This is our inheritance. 

As I sat in her church surrounded by the love of my family, I could see her love, her grace, her ability to forgive, radiating from each of us who loved her so well. I watched my cousins reach out and embrace with love and acceptance and forgiveness even in the midst of their own heartbreak. I saw her legacy of love in action. I was humbled.

As we each return to our own lives, we will continue to mourn the loss of the grandmother we love so dearly. In spite of this, I rest confident that the inheritance that she has left us will not be squandered. She met Jesus under a pecan tree in her front yard as an 18 year old girl and devoted her life to instilling the love He has for her into the lives of everyone she met. She didn’t talk about doing right, she just did it, even when it wasn’t simple or easy or fun. 

My cousin Dennis pointed out that with her death a pillar of our family, of her church, of her her community is now gone. But he reminded us that her legacy resides in each of us and expressed his confidence that we would step up and fill the void she’s left. From what I witnessed yesterday, this has already come to pass. 

I dedicate this essay to my grandmother
Mayzell Inez Patterson Ellis
August 25, 1915 – July 1st, 2012
and to my cousins who each carry a piece of her with them into the future.