My grandmother, born in Atlanta in 1899, was a classic Southern woman of the era, with the singular ambition of rearing a family.  She had no checking account, and managed the house on a cash allowance from her husband. She tried driving once, and after steering the car into a ditch never attempted it again.

I picture Carrie Ware, my grandmother, as I knew her in my childhood: a short woman with graying hair and a pale complexion, slightly bow-legged, her knuckles swollen from arthritis and ruddy from washing clothes and dishes by hand.  Yet every time I looked at her, she smiled, and everything I did seemed to please her.  I would sit on the tile floor of the kitchen, a domain she ruled like a queen, and soak in her unreserved goodwill.

Every meal at Grandmother’s house felt like a birthday meal.  She served two meats with each meal, and years later I realized she did that just for us, knowing how poor we were.  On holidays she soared to new heights, spreading a banquet of collard greens, yellow squash, cracklin’ cornbread, creamed corn, fried okra, and a sweet potato casserole covered with tiny marshmallows.  Besides the turkey and dressing and cranberry sauce, she served roast beef or country ham with a sugary crust.  We took away enough leftovers to eat like royalty for a week.

As Grandmother aged, her arthritic fingers grew even more twisted, the knuckles swollen and hard like the knots on a tree.  Then came the time when she sorrowfully told us she could no longer cook.

She used to sit in her deep-cushioned chair and flip through the pages of magazines.  For her, reading involved more parts of the body than just the eyes.  I liked watching her move her lips as she read, slowly sliding her index finger across the page.  If I listened closely I could hear her pronounce each word in a whisper.  She would study the enticing ads and smile at the promises of herbal-essence hair, a better time in the Bahamas, a more shapely figure, and a sexy tan.  After reading a few articles, she would struggle out of her chair and turn down the thermostat.  In a nightly ritual, my grandfather, pretending to watch TV but snoring audibly, would awake in a few minutes, stand up, and turn the thermostat even higher than it had been before.

After her husband (my grandfather) died, and the family home got demolished to make way for a new highway, my grandmother’s life took a downturn.  Although the city bought her another house, noise from the apartment building next door kept her from sleeping.  Two years later she traded that house for yet another one.  The following year she was diagnosed with cancer and moved one last time, into a home run by Catholic sisters for people with incurable cancer.

Grandmother spent two years in the nursing home.  Unlike many, this one was cheery and well-maintained, with parquet floors and a flower garden outside.  The Dominican Sisters of Hawthorne – an order founded by the daughter of the author Nathaniel Hawthorne – gave loving care.  They brought in fresh flowers from the garden, monitored pain medications, and organized group activities for the residents.

Watching her those last two years, I learned that aging can be a blessing as well as a curse.  For sixty years she had worried about her role, how well she was fulfilling the duties of wife, mother, and grandmother.  Now she seemed content, and happily cared for.  No longer needing to prove herself, she let go her own concerns and concentrated on loving us, her family.

When my brother rebelled and we heard wild reports of him doing drugs and living in a commune, she reacted with concern, yes, but without the tense anxiety felt by others in the family.  She loved him however he was, and always would.  So she prayed for him daily and kept sending him birthday presents and Christmas cards, though he never acknowledged them or answered her letters.

When her own son, my uncle, became convinced that America was turning socialist and fled to Australia, I’m sure she felt great pain.  He wrote her strident sermons about how she needed to leave her church and come to a true church, like his.  Yet I never heard her say a condemning word.  She would read his letters over and over, clinging to bits of news, fondling the few pictures he sent of his children.  She did not judge him, or try to defend her beliefs that he attacked.  She simply loved him.

Apparently, my grandmother had given up the long, futile effort of trying to change people.  Perhaps that kind of love only comes with the fatigue and wisdom of old age.

Life slowed down, her interests narrowed, and she mostly appreciated small things: acts of kindness, a spark of beauty.  When family members visited her, conversation would drift between topics such as gas prices, a faraway war, the elections, a recent earthquake, newfangled inventions.  Grandmother would sit peacefully, not quite taking it all in, then suddenly say something like, “Isn’t that a lovely daisy?”  No one else had noticed the splash of color on her bureau.

Often we view old age with a spirit of fear and denial.  I’m grateful for the chance to have watched my grandmother grow old, for I saw glimpses of God in her those last few years.  She had time, all the time a person could want, and she filled it by praying and reading spiritual books.  She was free, truly free, of worry about possessions and beauty and competition.  Ready to leave life, she died without fear.

After her death I read through her journals, which revealed some of the secrets of her life.  A preacher’s daughter from northern Georgia, she lost her fiancé to World War I and then fell in love with a divorced man eleven years her senior.  When her father, a Methodist circuit-rider, heard the news, he traveled from Tennessee to Atlanta, a hundred and fifty miles on horseback, in an attempt to dissuade her from marrying Karl Yancey.  She ignored his advice and entered a marriage that quickly soured.  And though Carrie Yancey contemplated divorce many times, and prepared her children for that possibility, she felt obliged to live out the consequences of her mistake.

Sometimes I thumb through photo books I’ve inherited from her.  There’s the brick house we loved to visit, with the stone columns Grandfather kept backing his car into, and the feathery mimosa tree out front.  I used to climb that huge tree and sit in its branches, knowing my father had planted it as a tiny sapling.  What was it like for her to lose her firstborn son—my father—to polio, before he reached the age of 24?  And here’s my grandmother as a flirty teenager, her arm draped over a young man standing next to a water wheel.  Is this the fiancé she lost to war?  And there are my cousins who sailed away to Australia, never to see her again.

A pang of realization strikes me that I never really knew Carrie Yancey.  I mainly saw her with a dustpan in her hand, or humming to the biscuits as she measured out dough on a baking sheet.  To me she was a role, grandmother, not a person with loves both lost and unrequited, and life dreams unrealized.

She left me the gift of grace, which I can never repay.  Because it was grace, she never made me feel I had to.

 

 

 

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57 responses to “Aging Grace-fully”

  1. What a lovely piece.

    I have been a Messianic Jew for 34 years. I have reached anectdotage at 73.5. My mom had a first love to whom she was “engaged” and with whom she had a joint checking account. It never went any further and she married my quite difficult father on their 4th date. She loved him. But, it was turmoil.

    I remember Mom out of the blue commenting on the beauty of a flower bed in her old age. My dad had died and she helped me to learn how to grow old grace-fully in her widowhood. She was a gentle, sweet woman who constantly expressed her love to her children and grandchildren through small acts of kindness and looks that could melt the most distant heart. May God rest her precious, compassionate soul.

  2. Gayle Park says:

    What a beautiful tribute to your Grandmother! My Grandma was born the same year and was a southern lady from Roanoke,Virginia. She and her husband relocated to Ohio for a job for my grandfather, who I never met since he died at age sixty.She had ten children, twenty six grandchildren. Somehow she made each of us feel special.

  3. Nancy Reiterman says:

    Mr. Yancey,
    It’s good to hear your perspective.
    I try to imagine what it should be like to ‘grow old gracefully”. Especially because I can still hear my mother say, “I’ll be damned if I will grow old gracefully. I’m going to fight it the whole way”. And she did. It wasn’t pretty.
    So now, just a few days after my 63rd birthday as my body begins to remind me daily of my opportunities to be grace-filled I pray through the daily release of self and the filling of the Spirit searching for a right heart attitude and the strength to submit rather than fight.
    With so many of us growing old, there are lots of opportunities for grace. I am on a search to find wisdom and empathy on this subject. It’s hard when most of the people around are so much younger. I’m looking forward to reading more from you on the subject.

  4. Ann O'Malley says:

    I try to remember to thank God regularly for the human examples He’s given us, like your Grandma Carrie. I would be so lost without them. The best part is that they weren’t perfect, but were growing in His grace. Their stories give me the comfort of knowing that I don’t have to be perfect and that by God’s grace I can keep growing.

    One challenge that I’m facing as I age is having the faith to trust God with my finances. Somehow that seems like the kind of issue better suited to the young, who have more options and opportunities available to them, and therefore more hope. (I’ll probably be blogging about this in the future.)

    As a baby Christian in my teens I loved the stories of people who trusted God day by day for their most basic needs. I longed to have that kind of faith.

    But now, in my sixties, financial uncertainty is scarier and sometimes feels like failure. It’s scary because I don’t have as many options for earning money as young people do. And it feels like failure because of the Bible’s teaching about personal responsibility and following God’s will. If I was a really good Christian, wouldn’t I be better prepared for potential financial difficulties? Or did I fail to discern God’s will at some point?

    But God continues to grow me, and I know He’ll see me through somehow. At my worst, I struggle with my doubts. At my best, I look forward to seeing how He’ll provide for me in the coming months and years.

  5. Jean Joyce says:

    I would like to know what happened to my previous response to your blog on Aging Gracefully?? I hope it is not lost? I believe I followed all the directions.
    Yes, I did just say that only to be informed Capture Code was not “readable”? So I tried again, hence this second response?

    • Philip Yancey says:

      We’ll check into this to see what might have happened. I know that’s frustrating, because the same thing has happened to me on others’ blogs. I’m so sorry. –Philip

  6. Jean Joyce says:

    Thank you for sharing beautiful memories of your Grandmother Carrie. Her influence in your formation as a child growing into adulthood no doubt has
    helped form your sensitivities regarding relationships and life. It is precisely
    this, that for me at least, shines throughout your writing. Although I did not
    have such fond memories, growing up, I value the knowledge that happy
    memories are possible because of reminders like those you shared in this
    blog. Although my own formation into adulthood was at times very painful, I discovered certain encounters with some extraordinary people interspersed throughout my early years into the present 81 yrs, served as manna in the desert!
    Having read your books over the years, I have come to believe you are such a person.
    I believe it was Helen Keller who described such encounters as “red letter days”.
    I am extremely grateful to our Creator for blessing me with the ability to recognize
    this ‘light in the darkness’ so to speak. God taught me from childhood to see His light and love appearing during the worst days of my life as well as in the best days of my life! Although there are times when I was bewildered, uncertain, even afraid and there are experiences I certainly do not want to do over again, I would not exchange my life’s experience for anything in the world because of the profound blessings it
    brought into my life! Although my body reminds me that I am certainly 81 years old,
    my mind and spirit affirms the incredible TRUTH that GOD IS LOVE, GOD IS ALIVE, and GOD IS ETERNAL. Thank you for sharing your journey with the rest of your
    “family” out here!

    • Philip Yancey says:

      This is a lovely note, and I thank you for writing it. You have been through a lot, but you have emerged strong and faithful, and now you are giving away grace and encouragement to others–including me. –Philip

  7. Sharon Struve says:

    I am finding that aging is not for the weak person at all. It takes all my strength to hang on to God’s hand as he leads me through pain and loss of things like walking erect and doing all the things I did before like walk two miles every day, etc., etc. God has blessed me with a voice that can still quite well so I can use that talent to give Him glory and honor that is due His holy name. What a gift He has given us in His Son!!!!!!!

  8. DENISE GOMES-DIAS says:

    Dear Philip, who could fully predict the potential of a seed thrown by Grace-gifted hands? So far away from the scenarios you pictured, I’m so blessed by reading the tribute to your Grandmother. I send my love and gratitude to you and your family. Greetings from Brazil!

  9. Ken Schaalje says:

    Thank you Philip for such a wonderful story. It is such a pleasure and JOY to read of a lady like your Grandmother. Always thinking of and praying for others and putting herself second to them, despite them going in different directions. Continued Blessings to you and others as your story is read.

  10. Wayne says:

    Thank you for sharing this. There is so much in this that I can relate to. The questions left unanswered by those who have gone on before us. I, too recently inherited family pics and look at them and wonder about the person and the life they lived, etc.

  11. Robert Killian-Dawson says:

    Thank you very much for this moving article, Philip. I look forward to receiving your postings each month, and this was no exception. Best, Robert

  12. Thank you, Philip, for such a moving account of your grandmother. I can only hope that when I have gone (I am now 90+) my family will think of me like that, in some little way! I pray for them so much, but living in France, which is so “unreligious”, especially in school, I can only hope that one day they will find God for themselves. They are incredibly kind, and my youngest son (50) who lives at home, couldn/t be more helpful and kind to his old Bammer. Thank you Philip for all your wonderful books which have kept my faith going. I am a real ambassador for them!

  13. Beautiful! Your words touched my soul as I pondered the legacy I might leave to my grandchildren. The only legacy worth leaving is that of grace towards them and others so that they might see what grace looks like when it is lived out.

  14. Ann Foster says:

    So many questions we all wished we had asked.

  15. Andrew Borrett says:

    Thank you for bringing into focus and distilling into words what many of us feel, have experienced, and appreciate.

  16. Elsie Wietzke says:

    Your reflection is touching and profound, and I was moved to tears. I am approaching 90, but the girl I was remains within me. Hopefully, I have acquired a bit more wisdom on my journey. Certainly, I have a much deeper awareness of God’s Grace and the divine direction to gift others with grace and with live. I will indeed be blessed if my cherished grandchildren will be able to remember me with the love and awareness with which you recall your dear Carrie. Thank you, as aleays, Philip!

  17. Rian Butcher says:

    This week I will turn 79. It is amazing how much heavier the ladder was when I put up the Christmas lights on the house. I can’t walk like I used to do and things have slowed down. Our church still needs me and even more so I need my church. End of life planning is more urgent and I wonder where the years have gone. I love my wonderful grandchildren and I know they love me. The memories of your own grandmother challenge and humble me. May I show grace as she did and as brief did for me.

  18. JH says:

    I’d say you knew your grandmother very well, Mr Yancey; you were blessed.

  19. Avenel Grace says:

    Dear Phillip,
    What a beautiful story about a beautiful woman.
    I never knew my Grandmother, but I had an aunt, who used to come and stay with us for long periods. She was crippled with arthritis, and largely bed ridden.
    She was the most wonderful company, and I never once heard her complain, or saw any indication of unrest or displeasure in her circumstances.
    What lessons we can learn from those who find rest in the love of Jesus.

  20. Ruth Lott says:

    Philip, I thoroughly enjoyed the trip down “Memory Lane.” This tribute to your grandmother brought back many fond memories. She permitted me to call her Aunt Carrie and I loved visiting with her whenever I got to Atlanta. She was indeed a very special and loving woman. Thank you for sharing.

  21. BamaCarol says:

    What a wonderful tribute to your grandmother. And she is waiting for you in heaven so you will see her again, how wonderful! Reminds me of both of my grandmothers and the wonderful times I had at their homes when a child.

  22. Yvonne Thigpen says:

    A beautiful tribute, and a familiar thought process about my own grandmother. Thanks!

  23. Judie Roth says:

    I have enjoyed this man’s writing

  24. Ken davis says:

    I loved this. I am challenge to try to leave that kind of legacy

  25. Woody Chenault says:

    Philip,
    Thank you so much for your recent writings about your Grandmother Yancey, and her “aging gracefully”. You certainly reflect her gift of grace in your personal life. The article reminded me of my Grandmother Parks, and great aunt Kathleen, both of whom we visited each summer in the mountains of Virginia where I was born before my parents moved to Illinois. Another great book on this subject of aging gracefully is Joan Chittister’s “The Gift of Aging”, which I finished this summer, and will read again soon. Your distant friend,
    Woody

  26. Dean says:

    Philip,

    I sure appreciate you. The questions I’ve had while hanging onto my thread of faith, I find echoed in some way in your books and blog posts. I still hang on. Honestly, you’re a big part of me having any faith left at all. Thank you for asking the questions so many ignore – I believe they ignore them out of fear. Fear that God isn’t big enough or graceful enough to handle our doubts and questions. But if he is god and he is real, he gave me the mind to challenge and reason and search for truth. If he IS truth, he’ll be there and ready for a lost child of his scrambling for him in darkness. Thanks for being a flicker in that lonely dark, and for helping me along my journey . I know you’re just a human like me. But you’re a special one. Some days, I am just holding on to the hope that he exists, never mind all the petty ridiculous things some seem to get hung up on. At
    the end, if the God I think is there, and the Jesus i love exists, I’ll be so thankful. I could give a damn about whether he blesses me and gives me all the things I used to pray for. I’ll just be so happy he actually exists. That will be enough for me. Hugs and appreciation – dean

  27. Pam Wilganoski says:

    I love these kind of stories.I,m curious about people’s lives.Everyone has a Story.

  28. Alice Houel says:

    Thank you, Philip, for another touching reflexion.
    What a blessing to be able to age so…and as I now see my own father ( though from afar) aging so grace-fully and grate-fully, I am truly grateful myself for his example.
    May we all be able to age this way!
    God’s blessings.
    Alice

  29. Dean says:

    Thanks Philip, what a beautiful person. Inspiring.

  30. Phyllis Dolislager says:

    Heart-felt memories. Thanks for sharing.
    Glad that you got to experience such an extra-ordinary woman’s life. Does this influence your writing? Neat that she kept journals.
    Blessings to you.
    BTW just finished reading The Question That Never Goes Away. Profound. Can’t begin to tell you how many times I read Where Is God When It Hurts? It helped me get over many dark spots with Post-Polio syndrome.

  31. Marianne Jones says:

    So beautiful! Thank you for sharing this lovely tribute. May we all learn to live so gracefully.

  32. Barbara says:

    What a beautiful story of love and inspiration as told by her grandson. She must be so proud of you for carrying on those same traits. Your books have so blessed me!
    Thank you for sharing!

  33. Sally Adler says:

    What a lovely , loving tribute to your precious Grandmother. Having just lost my 98 year old Mother, I can relate to much of your essay in that personal way. My heart aches but with gratefulness for allowing me to love and be loved by her for most of my life. Thank you for always touching my heart with your words.

  34. Belinda L. Galvez says:

    Aaaaawww…a bittersweet reading for me. I grew up not feeling I had a grandmother though we live together in one house. My other grandmother (my father’s side) was living too far from us. Now that I’m a grandma to three children made me sad realizing I really missed that experience having one who should have loved me, just what I have to my precious grandkids❤️
    …this reading made me teary-eyed..thanks for sharing. God bless you, Sir!

  35. Beautifully written Philip! I loved hearing about your grandmother, and the way she showed love and kindness to everyone. She is still inspiring each of us through your writings. Thanks for sharing this information about her. I need to be more like her😊

  36. Roseann Frielink says:

    What a lovely tribute to a lovely woman! And such an example of unconditional love. Thank you. I am a grandmother of a three year old. I pray I will be so giving as the years roll on.

  37. Miriam Ayala says:

    Beautiful tribute to a grandmother that spells LOVE ❤️.
    Blessings,
    Miriam

  38. Kappy Kling says:

    Beautiful Philip. As always, thank you for your writing. Kappy

  39. Carrie Makin says:

    Your grandmother reminds me of my own in many ways. Sweet memories.

    And such a lovely name ❤️

  40. Jana Walczuk says:

    Eloquent tribute.

  41. Helen Honea Knight says:

    Beautiful.

  42. Paulette Woods says:

    Your words this morning were like having a precious conversation with a friend. Thank you for your courage to put your story, your journey into words that I can wrap my heart around – I’ve read you for many, many years – always honest and real. Being from Georgia I really connected with the Southern kitchen and the food we have in common . . . but especially the grandmother. My Granny was love transmitted! Have a blessed day – you bless many! pwoods

  43. Sr. Irene Novak says:

    Thank you, Philip for sharing these beautiful lessons of your grandmother with us. Truly an inspiring way to start any day. I have learned she evangelized through action more than by word. You are a very lucky person.

  44. Connie Bartholomew says:

    Thank you for sharing some of your history. Came away with a few questions. Like, what became of.your brothers? The picture suggests you had a sister? I guess that information wasn’t necessary in conveying your thoughts.
    I am 75 yrs. old. I’ve followed you for many years. I had a very active life in the church. But now, due to health issues, I find myself “useless”. I struggle with finding meaning and purpose. If only MY children and grandchildren will have fond memories of me.

    • Philip Yancey says:

      The photo of the family is actually Carrie’s family, so it shows my father (Marshall, the oldest boy) and his two brothers and sister. All have now died. The very first photo at the top shows Carrie with my brother and me (he’s the older one). He had a disabling stroke some nine years ago, but manages to live on his own in the San Jose area. He’s had quite an odyssey in life, which I’m writing about in a memoir. He is 71, and knows that “useless” feeling. I like your goal of creating fond memories for your own offspring, and hope you can find a community of support to recognize and share your gifts.

  45. Tom King says:

    Wonderful story about a grandmother full of grace to be passed on to us. Mine lovingly told me to “make yourself useful” and so I have tried these many years. She took care of me in my early years when my mom’s hands were busy taking off the wet diapers from my 4 siblings and putting on the dry. Again and again.

    Grandma gave me her small book of poetry by Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass….and the “body electric” gave me a lifelong love of charged-up poems. I’ve since somehow lost the book, and though my octogenarian memory is losing some former residents, like good music, I’ll always remember those powerful snippets of good verse.

    Thanks for sharing your gifts, Philip. That’s what our grandmothers gave us to give.

  46. Darlene Hixon says:

    Thank you Philip for this beautiful writing of grace revealed and shared through your grandmothers life. Absolutely beautiful.

  47. Sarah Dawson says:

    Wonderful article, Philip. Thank you.

  48. Joseph W Carroll says:

    From one who has reached the arthritis stage of life, I feel the connection. Am wondering about your wayward brother.

  49. Pam Allnutt says:

    I love this tribute to your grandmother, and appreciate the gathering wisdom that comes as we look at our elders through our own aging eyes. Being a grandmother, myself, I am learning to let go of expectations, and just enjoy being with them and watching them learn and grow. It is grace that reminds me of how God loves me, no matter what. Thank you for continuing to write your stories that showcase God’s love emerging amid this complex and hurting world – a shining light touching the next generation with gnarled fingers and accepting eyes.

  50. Diana Millar says:

    That’s lovely, thank you. It is sad that we don’t see our grandparents as people until we reach the age of grand-parenthood ourselves. There are so many questions which can never be answered because we didn’t think to ask them. I’ve begun writing about my childhood and family as a record for my grandchildren, I know it will be decades before they find it interesting but I hope it will answer some of the questions they only think of after I’m a long time with the Lord.

  51. Diane Turner says:

    Compassion reigns throughout your thoughts as you wander through the memories you hold of your precious grandmother! I wish more children today were as close to their relatives as this, for there are jewels that await their taking. I was fortunate to remain close to my grandparents, too, though we lived around the country. (My father was in the Air Force.) I had a great aunt–a “spinster” of the old days in rural Tennessee–who lived with relatives and kept a scraggly handwritten journal of a particular period in the late 1800’s, for her future family to read. I treasure those and have recorded them for my family. Thank you for sharing these heartfelt times with your dear grandmother!

  52. Wilma Wall says:

    The emotions in me this morning are quite sad after reading your story about your Grandmother. I am glad she was in a lovely home for her last two years. I am a Grandmother now. I long to just enjoy my young grandchildren but my roll as a mother to my adult children and their children never seems to rest awhile. My hands have started to deform from arthritis and I know one day life will change. I think what got to me about your Grandmother was when you read her journal. She was a woman with life and heartache. When she died and went to heaven I know God received Carrie not Grandma or Mom. And that has to be enough for me.

  53. Jan Gledhill says:

    A beautiful story of a life well lived. Through tragedy and hardship, came beauty and example. We modern women can learn many lessons from her,one that I personally treasure is not expecting children,grandchildren to be like you or to try to change them but simply to accept and love them. Thank you ,Philip,for sharing this,I will pas it on.
    In Christ
    Jan

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