Eulogy for Grandmother Camp

Digging around in some old archives I was pleased to discover this eulogy for my dear grandmother Camp, who died at age 97, on 24 October 2004. May she rest in peace. Eulogy for Grandmother Camp, 26 October 2004, Talladega, Alabama. Died 24 October 2004.

1 Thes. 4:9-11: “Now concerning love of the brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anyone write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love one another; and indeed you do love all the brothers and sisters…. But we urge you, beloved, to do so more and more, to aspire to live quietly, to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we directed you.”

Foremost among my memories of my grandmother is her front, screened in porch, at the house on Highland Circle. It was above the door-sill on that porch where Grandmother and Granddaddy kept the key, a symbol of the hospitality they extended to all. It was that porch to which I would run as a small child to see the trains when they would pass by, down at the bottom of the hill. It was on the porch I recall her teaching me to tie my shoe laces, and there where I recall her reading to me on summer afternoons.

There was a quietness and a security about that screened-in-porch. The quietness was not due to the squeaky aluminum frame furniture, but to Grandmother’s presence. And there on that porch I shall always remember her reading to me the story of the “Little Engine That Could.” Without preachy commentary, she read the story a great number of times, emphasizing with an approving tone of voice the little engine’s determination as he faced the hurdle before him, “I think I can, I think I can,” and almost celebrating with the little engine as it rolled ever more quickly down the back of the mountain, “I knew I could, I knew I could.”

This was, in so many ways, the philosophy of her life: she faced life with quiet determination. In my recollection she never complained, ever, and moved ahead, trusting that what would be needed would be provided. This was true even, perhaps, to a fault; so eager never to complain, it seems, she found it difficult to discuss the hardships of life; she found it difficult to draw near, emotionally, to the burdens and hills and challenges she had faced in her own life. I had no idea, as that child who loved his grandmother, what those hills were that she had faced. I did not know that she and Granddaddy had married the last year of the Great Depression, and the economic hardships that her generation faced. I did not know then that her father had taken his own life; that she had had three sons, not two, that third son having died at birth in their home. It was a source of great sorrow to me that dear Grandmother still thought “every day,” she told both my brother Conrad and me at different times in the last two years, about her father’s death, wondering what it meant, wondering what guilt she bore, wondering why he did it.

After I left her the day she told me that, I cried. I cried because I wanted her to know, deep in her soul, that of course she bore no guilt, and that she could allow herself to be free of such guilt; and that she did not have to bear that heavy burden alone, that there were many around her who would help her carry that burden, if she would allow them. This was her only weakness I knew—to carry these burdens alone, unable to talk about the things that caused her discomfort, without asking for help. It was not part of her consciousness to realize that the little engine with determination—“I think I can, I think I can”—can be all the greater when hooked together with others, so that the chorus becomes, “we think we can, we think we can,” by God’s help and power.

But in the way she knew how, in the way taught to her generation, she faced the hurdles before her, and she did so in an incredible way. Her sorrow never became self-pity; her life-long questions never gave way to self-obsession. Instead, she set a course of life that was, in so many ways, the embodiment of the apostle’s instructions to the believers at Thessalonica: she minded her own business; worked hard throughout her life; she quietly and simply lived and loved. (I should qualify: she minded her own business with two exceptions—guts and facial hair. She was not unknown to pat someone’s belly and remark, “you’re getting a little gut,” or in response to one of us having grown a beard, “have you lost your razor?”)

When I asked Daddy what remarkable memory stood out in his mind, he said that she was simply what anyone could ever want in a mother: she always put their interests first, loved them, and let them pursue their dreams and interests. It would seem a psychologists wonder, it seems to me, that this woman who had experienced tragic loss of a father, brother, and child, could still let her sons do all of the things they did, wandering unaccompanied and unsupervised through the hills and creeks of Munford, the caves around Cheaha mountain, hunting, playing, and roaming in a way that gave way to [my uncle] Bill’s getting run over by a car on one occasion, and receiving a shotgun blast to his abdomen on another—that anything of fun and play her sons wanted to do, she allowed, with the exception of Daddy’s request to go camping by himself somewhere up on Cheaha.

Her life with Granddaddy was one of rhythm and quietness, a rhythm that had place for work and play, productivity and entertainment, spiritual disciplines and naps. Granddaddy’s work ethic was undisputed, and Grandmother always sought to be helpful alongside him, howsoever she could. And yet alongside that work ethic was a joy in life that gave rise to their particular way of taking vacations: that when we would ask them, “where are you going,” they typically responded, “we don’t know.” And so they would take off with bro. and sr. Fields, with bro. Kermit driving, wheresoever the mood or the Spirit led them; or Granddaddy would drive Grandmother with many of the women in her family—Faye, Thalia, Jewell, Rene and Snook—to see the fall foliage Grandmother loved, or wherever the women wanted to go.

This kind of characteristic joy in life was undergirded by a quiet rhythm—lunch was always followed by some quiet time reading or just being still in their living room; and [my cousin] Jeffrey recalls how, no matter how late to bed, that the mornings had time before breakfast for Bible reading, which typically took the shape of listening to recordings of scripture on 78’s. Every Thursday was highlighted by fried Chicken Day at Tebo’s, every Saturday night was marked by Lawrence Welk, and every Sunday and Wednesday characterized by church attendance. Many afternoons gave opportunity for Grandmother to watch her “shows,” and time for Scrabble or Dominos. (It is a dear memory, which I wish every boy could know: me taking a nap on the sofa after we had eaten fried chicken for Thursday lunch, while Grandmother watched her "shows," the sofa where I dozed next to her rocking recliner; the grandmother holding the hand of the boy, the boy waking sometime later to play Dominos, or read a book, with his grandmother.) And every Christmas was characterized by ambrosia, sausage balls, fudge, the “money tree,” and the old bell that hung from the dining room door-way, playing “Silent Night” at the pull of the string.

Grandmother worked not only at the office but at home; there were so many wonderful family meals at the dining room table, with Jeffrey, Conrad and [my other cousin] Andrew often throwing Grandmother’s parkerhouse rolls across the table to anyone who said “please pass the rolls.” Their home was a place of great hospitality, whether for meals or for spending the night, so that Grandmother said she often would not know how many boys might come up from the basement on a Saturday morning, never knowing how many friends [my father] Jim and [uncle] Bill had invited to spend the night. And before the preachers for the Gospel Meetings would be housed in motels, they would often be housed at Grandmother and Granddaddy’s.

As they loved their children, so they loved their daughters-in-law, Gayle and Betty-Lou, and their grandchildren. Their white Datsun was always at the ball games or tennis matches; Conrad recalls them honking their horn whenever he would make a hit or field a ball. They were always in the stands at Jeffrey and Andrew’s football games. And they were always present to [my sister] Kathryn’s and mine piano recitals, with that sole granddaughter having a special place in their hearts, which showed itself simply in the cinammon toast that Grandmother always made at Kathryn’s request for breakfast. And Grandmother had the opportunity of loving many great-grandchildren. And as Conrad put it last night, “you know you’ve lived a good, full life when, at age 97, you can play Dominoes with your great-grandchildren—competitively!”

Grandmother’s life was a job and joy well-done. We will miss her immensely. But our lives will always carry her with us, for we are, in so many ways, who we are because of who she was. We give God thanks for the gift of her life to our lives.