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Legacy Impacts - A Tribute to my Grandmother by Wendy Peterman, PhD

Climbing a steep trail as it winds through the coastal woods of the Siuslaw National Forest on Father’s Day, I respond to the endless stream of questions from my dad and his best buddy. “What is this flower? Why was that tree cut and laid down like that? Who maintains this trail? What is this blobby fungus? Why does that little tree grow right out of the dead one?” “That’s the Mother, the nurse log,” I say. Like two young boys, they exclaim, “nurse log” and chatter on about each new discovery.

I let myself become engrossed in nurse logs for a while, noticing every tender little sapling, its sweet little crown poking into the crisp air, as its infant roots dig into the soft flesh of the decaying mother below. On her side, the mother slowly releases her every cell and fiber to nourish the babies, lucky enough to have germinated on her fallen body. Banana slugs, centipedes, salamanders, lichens, mosses, and fungi, she gives her whole self to everyone, loving, healing, feeding, donating herself back to the Earth that supported her in growing old and strong.

Like the nurse log, my grandmother is a true Earth mother. In her soft autumn tones of brown and beige, she has emanated the quiet, soulful power of matriarch to see the fifth generation of her family enter the world. At ninety-three years old, she is still obstinate, loving, beautiful.

The daughter of an Assembly of God minister and a rare female missionary to both Hawaii and Fiji “when they were still eating people,” she is a woman of profound faith. As a child in her care, I was steeped in stories of Ruth, Dorcas, Delilah, and, my all-time favorite, Queen Esther. These strong women of the Bible were my superheroes, but my grandmother was the greatest heroine of all. My aunt once told me that being raised by such a woman brought magic and healing to her every day of her life. All she has to do to make it through hard times is recall within herself the feeling of my grandmother laying hands on her in prayer with utter faith that she would be healed, and the magic fills her again. She exclaims in awe, “To be raised by such a woman!”

Grandma made everything we ate from butter to applesauce, yogurt, and sausage. The milk came from cows, lazily munching hay as she sat on her tiny three-legged stool, coaxing warm milk from swollen udders and chatting cheerfully to me about James, her favorite book in the Bible. She gave me my verse to carry me through life: “Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials because the testing of your faith develops perseverance.” This went a lot further for me than my dad’s adage that whatever didn’t kill me was “building character.” In a goodbye card from my college dorm-mates, a friend wrote: “Wendy, I hope soon God decides your character is built enough.”

Days with my grandmother often involved walking or driving around in the mountains, visiting other women, listening to heartaches about abusive husbands or youthful loves who were perpetually too shy to do more than “watch” the object of their affection from across the sheep pasture for forty years. Sometimes, we delivered food to Mexican families with three generations living under the same small roof, evidenced by the many cars parked in the driveway. Elderly ladies patted my cheeks, let me daydream in their gardens, and fed me stale almond cookies. I can still taste the musty fog beneath my olfactory lobe.

Nina, an old woman with a silver bun atop her head told us about the Jehovah's Witness missionaries, who were adventurous (or naive) enough to go all the way out to her neck of the woods to convert her. She knew they were coming because the hippy hermit guy down the hill showed up at her house wearing only a towel and told her to go hide in her room while he dealt with the missionaries. Apparently, they had knocked on his door while he wasn’t wearing any clothes, so he decided to answer that way. When the missionaries ran away from his nakedness, he decided to help Nina by doing the same at her door.

Hippies, Mexican moms, elderly bachelorettes, and adoring little girls alike were enveloped in the love of my grandmother. With her twinkling eyes, musical laughter, and soft-as-rabbits touch, she wrapped my heart in golden light and filled my mind with wholesome thoughts of worlds without suffering.

For years, we wrote letters back and forth. I talked about school and summer camp and my struggles with my parents. She wrote about the sun rising over the redwoods, the dogs getting noses full of porcupine quills, the puffy sheep dotting the hillside, and the strength of my heart to love, forgive, and endure.

I once told her what an inspiration she has been to my life, how she’s an angel of unconditional love, my saving grace. She told me she was entirely undeserving of this praise and had no idea how I saw her this way. It doesn’t matter. My vision of my grandmother carried me through loneliness as a child and gave me the courage and role model to be the friend and mother I want to be in this life. Solid, kind, inspiring, and in harmony with nature.

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