Grandmother Woman


“And when the Great Spirit finished with the earth and with putting people on it, he put a grandmother there to watch over his children, to teach them to worship him for his great goodness,” Grandy told me.

“The Indians referred to this person as the Grandmother Woman—held in great reverence for her wisdom and experience in life.” Not waiting for my response, Grandy left me to ponder her latest Indian folklore tale.

I was a child, and I was fascinated by the grace in her movements. She was my grandmother, I her only grandchild. As my first ten years of life passed, I learned to braid my hair, tie my shoes, and embroider potholders for Mother’s Day at her hand. She also instilled in me a deep-rooted respect for others and a reverence for life.

Looking back, I realize she was different than most women her age—her hair in two braids wound around the top of her head like a crown. She always wore flowered, calf-length dresses and brown “old lady shoes” with thin shoelaces. But the way she dressed didn’t bother me much, because how she treated others and me spoke louder than how she looked.

My first introduction to religion was at Grandy’s knee. In her house, there was a big family Bible covered with dark leather, with a picture of Jesus’ face on the front. His eyes looked compassionate, and his head was surrounded by golden light, a halo that told me he was not of this world. I would study this illustration and wonder about him: What makes him so different? What is that look in his eyes?

“The Savior is my best friend,” Grandy said one day. “I can sit on my back porch steps and watch the birds and squirrels and talk to him about my troubles. And you know what he tells me to do? He tells me to find someone else whose burdens are heavier and help them carry the load a while, because then I will forget my own troubles. And you know, he is always right.”

Grandy and I attended a Protestant church together every Sunday, holding hands, sitting quietly in the chapel with its dark, wooden beams and the pulpit a whole platform higher than we were. But the rest of my time at church was spent sitting downstairs with the other children coloring pictures of Bible stories and singing songs:

Jesus loves me, this I know,
For the Bible tells me so.
Little ones to him belong,
They are weak, but he is strong.

When I was ten years old, Grandy passed away. It was terrible. She was my friend, my confidante, and my teacher while I was growing up. However, it wasn’t until later in life that I realized how profound her influence had been upon me.

When I was eighteen years old, I married to run away from home. But married life was not what I expected it to be. We led a hedonistic life, struggling to have enough money for food and still be able to support our “partying.” We lived apart from our neighbors, recluses to all except for those with whom we spent our weekends. My husband would go to work on Mondays and leave me with a filthy house and an aching head. It was only a few short months before I realized this was not a lifestyle I wanted to keep.

One Monday morning I sat on our old overstuffed couch and wondered if there wasn’t some middle ground between the rigid lifestyle of my parents and our crazy, weekend-oriented life. What am I doing here, I mused, and if I don’t do this, what is there to do with my life? Why am I here on earth at this time, why in this place? There didn’t seem to be any answers; I couldn’t find any peace or understanding. I had nothing to draw from. Except … from somewhere deep in my past I remembered a picture of a bearded man with a golden glow all around him and a look in his eyes that beckoned to me. I remembered talks about Jesus being kind to a woman by a well, healing a leper, raising the dead. Was Christianity the reason for living? Are we here to try to be like Christ? Impossible for me, I thought. It would be too long and hard a journey from where I was.

Then, quite suddenly, thoughts of Grandy came into my mind. It had been many years since I had thought of my childhood. I couldn’t think of Grandy without a terrible loneliness coming over me. It hurt too much when I missed her, so I didn’t think of her at all. Grandy, with her crown of braided hair, feeding soup to a bedridden woman, holding her hand, and reading her mail to her.

I reflected, What would Grandy think of me if she could see me? A terrible sense of shame washed over me. I saw myself as a little girl, climbing rocks and trees, skinning my knees, and picking plums for Grandy’s preserves. Where had that little girl gone? Where was her innocence, her joy at discovering the newness in each day? Here I sat in one of my husband’s T-shirts, my head still spinning from the haze of late nights in a smoky living room. Why did I have to remember Grandy now? Where did all these thoughts come from?

That week the fighting began between my husband and me. We fought over the lifestyle he wanted to maintain and I wanted to leave behind. And when we weren’t fighting, there were unbearable hours of silence, the tension between us thick with blame. Then one morning my husband said, “What is it you really want, anyway?”

“I want to go to church,” I answered, wondering where that answer came from. “It’s been a long time since I was in a church. After Grandy died, my parents wouldn’t let me go because they belonged to different churches and it caused a lot of arguments. Now that I have a say over my life, I really want to go back.”

“Well, the only church I’ll ever go to is the Mormon Church,” he responded. “I know I don’t live the gospel right now, but I know the Church is true, and I won’t go anywhere else.”

I was amazed at his answer. I hadn’t realized my husband had any religious convictions at all. I didn’t know very much about Mormons, except that they didn’t smoke or drink, and their beliefs had something to do with someone named Joseph Smith. When I thought about the exposure I had had to the Church, I specifically remembered a group of kids at my high school and how they were always friendly to me. Once I had even gone to one of their church dances with them and danced, instead of holding up the wall as I usually did at school dances. They were genuine and clean-minded, and I liked being around them. But what did it mean when they said, “The Church is true”?

“Are Mormons Christians?” I asked my husband.

“Of course they are!” he answered. He agreed to take me to a sacrament meeting as long as I didn’t talk to the Church members after the meeting (“because Mormons like to stand around and talk a lot after church”), expect to go to other activities, or ask to meet the missionaries. None of his concerns made much sense to me, but I thought it would be a new and interesting experience to go to a church I had never been in before, a church that had provided me with some true friends in my high school years. That my husband was agreeing to set foot inside a spiritual place was also a surprising and encouraging incentive for me to go.

The next Sunday we went. We were dressed very differently from the others at church. My husband had clean, long hair and smelled of cigarettes, so we sat in the back to look less conspicuous. It was midmorning, and the sun shone through frosted windows with a softness that seemed to make everything glow. I felt cradled in its warmth as though Grandy and I were sitting together and she was holding my hand once again.

As the meeting progressed, I watched the families and children around me. Sometimes I caught a warm smile or nod. But more than that, I saw a tolerant behavior from parents toward their children, a quiet insistence for reverence from even the smallest child. Not a harsh look or word, just a respect and willingness to guide little arms to fold and heads to bow. When the sacrament came by, my husband passed it on and whispered that I couldn’t take it because I wasn’t a member and didn’t understand the significance of the sacred promises it represented. I looked at him with surprise. This was a side of my husband I’d never known: proper, exacting, and respectful of holy ordinances. If these things meant that much to him, perhaps there was something to this church.

The meeting ended, and with the last syllable of “amen” we ducked out the back into the foyer. As we headed for the door, a man stopped us and introduced himself as Brother Gary Larsen. He quietly asked about us—who we were, where we came from. “Since you’re not members,” he added, “would you like to meet the missionaries?”

I waited for the angry explosion from my spouse to intimidate Brother Larsen and stop any more questions, but nothing happened. I looked at my husband astonished; he was staring at the carpet, deep in thought. “What would that mean?” he queried. Brother Larsen explained, and my husband nodded his consent.

We got outside and into the car. We looked at each other, but not a word was spoken.

The missionaries came the next Tuesday. They continued to teach us regularly every week until I was baptized in February 1972. By that time, my husband was fully active in the Church.

When the missionaries taught the lesson about the spirit world, they explained that our ancestors who have died may be praying that we will live in righteousness so we can be baptized and do temple work for them. At that moment, a powerful feeling washed over me, an impression that Grandy wanted me to make good decisions that would make my life happier and that she needed my help so that she could receive the ordinances of the gospel. It was as if Grandy had reached out to my heart and said, Don’t forget me. I need your help now. Learning she was in a beautiful place called the spirit world where her kind heart and active hands were needed, I started to experience a peaceful acceptance of her death. The Lord had let her reach into my life and help rescue me from misery. And as I did her temple work in 1973, I knew I would see her again.

My heart is now full with the knowledge of what life is about. I realize that one of the great purposes of life is to serve, as Grandy loved and served me. Ultimately, I learned that the Savior first loved and served us and that now we must do the same. But Grandy knew that. She served not because it was expected but because she understood. I want to follow in her footsteps and be just like her—to be like Grandmother Woman, with her great wisdom and love.

[illustrations] Illustrated by John Kilbourn

Janet M. Bernice serves as a counselor in the Relief Society presidency in the Garden Park First Ward, Salt Lake Bonneville Stake.