My grandmother proposed to my wife months before I did. They’d just met the day before, but Grandma, a no-nonsense New Englander, never wasted time on subtlety. “So Andrea,” she said when I stepped out of the room, “are you ready to join this family?”
“I…I don’t know,” my startled girlfriend responded.
“Why not?” shot back Grandma. Andrea stumbled through some kind of non-committal evasion. “Well,” Grandma said with a twinkle in her eye—and I know she had a twinkle in her eye because when did she not?—“you’re not pregnant so you have time…you aren’t pregnant, right?”
She was the last of my grandparents and one of the last of her generation. In theory, I do not put much stock in titles such as “The Greatest Generation.” If one is inclined to feel rueful about the state of America today, it would be hard to exempt our grandparents from some share in responsibility. But even so, it is impossible to look at my grandmother’s life, and the life of her husband, and their contemporaries without a degree of awe. Grandma was born on January 28, 1920—the day after Wyoming voted to ratify the women’s suffrage amendment and eleven days after the Prohibition took effect. Woodrow Wilson, though largely incapacitated by stroke, remained president and the debate over the Treaty of Versailles continued to rage in the U.S. Senate. She came of age during the Great Depression and the Second World War, both of which will soon be gone from living memory. Grandma’s death severs our family’s last living link to the epochal events of the 1930s and ’40s. Her passing represents the passing of a historical era; however, her death ultimately symbolizes something at once both far more profound and more commonplace. The most important thing about my grandmother’s death is that it will be undone.
Ruth Barbara Johnston grew up in Boston, the daughter of a schoolteacher, who adored her to the exclusion of all others. Her father took her side in every sibling squabble, sowing a seed of unspoken resentment in her younger brother, which lasted nearly a lifetime. (Not until my grandmother asked her brother’s forgiveness on his deathbed would that bitterness truly be laid to rest.) Her father defended her at every turn. When a pair of high school boys harassed her on her way home, her father flew out the door in a rage. In an act that would be unthinkable today—but was perhaps less so in the days of corporal punishment in school—he chased down the boys, grabbed them by their hair, and cracked their heads together three times. Indeed, he scared off any boy who might have been interested in her. Despite being a great beauty, she did not go on dates in high school. Looking back, her father’s attitude towards her appears overbearingly doting and excessively protective; yet, Grandma never seems to have found it so.
The family weathered the Great Depression in comparative luxury. Like most teachers, her father held onto his position, and her mother turned their rather extravagant home into a successful ten-room boarding house. Grandma first met Henry Porter Perkins—then a craftsman of custom-built wooden pleasure boats—when he came to the house seeking a place to stay in a driving rainstorm. He looked, according to my grandmother, like a drowned rat. “I was not impressed,” Grandma told me. He, meanwhile, was immediately smitten—and quickly downcast when my grandmother curtly informed him that all the rooms were taken. As he turned to leave, her mother interceded and asked if he would be willing to sleep in an unused walk-in pantry. He quickly agreed. Despite the inauspicious first impression, Grandpa spent the next two years slowly winning her over. They were wed on April 18, 1942—the same day as James Doolittle’s famous Tokyo Raid.
In early 1943, Grandpa joined the Navy as a warrant officer and soon found himself thousands of miles away in the Pacific Ocean. That fall, he was granted thirty days leave to see his wife and family. He wrote Grandma to tell her that he would arrive in San Francisco sometime around October and that he would then take the railroad to the East Coast. Grandma waited impatiently for his arrival, then decided she would wait no more. She took a train bound for California without knowing for certain if Grandpa was still at sea or if he might even then be on his way east. She knew Grandpa’s best friend on his ship lived in San Francisco, so upon arriving, she picked up a phone book and called everyone with the friend’s last name until she found his wife. Never shy, Grandma secured an invitation to stay with the woman until Grandpa arrived. She gambled on him calling home as soon as he was able rather than simply jumping on the first available train. Fortunately, he did as she hoped and found, to his surprise, that she was already in San Francisco! Together, they road the railroad back home to Boston, where he stayed for just two weeks before heading back to sea.
Over the next nine months, Grandma carried their first child while her husband sailed further and further away into fiercer and fiercer combat. Late in her second trimester, Grandpa began serving as a machinist on board the cruiser U.S.S. Biloxi while American forces island-hopped across the Pacific in some of the most ferocious fighting of the Second World War. As Grandma was giving birth to my aunt Barbara on July 28, 1944, Biloxi shelled Japanese forces in the Philippine Sea. When Barbara was three months old, Biloxi fought in the largest and most complex naval battle in history, the Battle of Leyte Gulf. At seven months old, Biloxi supported the Marines, who stormed the island of Iwo Jima. Through binoculars, Grandpa watched the initial—and, as it turned out, far less famous—raising of the American flag on the island. During the battle for Okinawa a month later, a Japanese kamikaze pilot crashed his plane carrying a 1,200-pound bomb into Biloxi. The bomb failed to explode, saving the cruiser and her crew from a watery grave. Grandpa’s commission as a warrant officer continued after the war ended. A month after the annihilation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Grandpa walked through the destruction of the latter city when Biloxi arrived there to evacuate prisoners of war. Barbara was fourteen months old. My grandfather would not meet his firstborn until after her second birthday.
Thriftiness was never one of my grandmother’s many virtues. She had been insulated from the Great Depression’s harshest effects by her father’s position as a schoolteacher and the relative success of her mother’s boarding house. Throughout the war, Grandpa dutifully sent home paycheck after paycheck and then returned home, he once wryly told my father, to “the best-dressed woman in Boston.” Grandpa became a schoolteacher and eventually the founding principle of a highly regarded vocational training institute in Maine. Their second child—my father—was born in 1948 in Augusta. In 1953, Grandpa began a twenty-year career as a nuclear engineer for Westinghouse Electric Corporation. He joined as Westinghouse was finishing the design and build process for the U.S.S. Nautilus, the world’s first nuclear powered vessel and the first submarine to reach the North Pole. Grandpa was then part of the design team for the U.S.S. Skipjack, a significantly improved nuclear submarine—Skipjack would be the fastest submarine in the world for the next two decades.
Grandpa and Grandma were New Englanders to the core. The Perkins and Johnston families both emigrated directly to Boston—though centuries apart. Henry Perkins came to Massachusetts Bay Colony in the 1630s. Thomas Johnston, my grandmother’s father, arrived in 1912 from Belfast, Ireland at the age of nineteen. By then our branch of the Perkins family had long since left Boston for the cold north of Maine. As with so many other American families, regional ties old and new were broken in the postwar years. A decade into their marriage, Grandpa’s Westinghouse career brought the family to Pittsburgh—they would never again live in New England. Grandpa left Westinghouse twenty years later, for a brief, but lucrative, five-year stint as a contractor for nuclear power plants. That job took him all over the United States. They spent the last decades of their lives in the Deep South—first in a house my grandfather designed on Dauphin Island, Alabama before moving to nearby Mobile, and then finally to Savannah, Georgia to be near my aunt and cousin.
Grandpa began developing Alzheimer’s at the age of eighty-five, although he was not diagnosed until five years later. In those last years, his sharp mind deteriorated and his body collapsed. Grandma suffered through it all beside him, her indomitable spirit unquenched. Even in the valley of the shadow of death, her sense of humor persisted. She loved to tell stories about Grandpa at the end that were at once funny and wrenching. “Ruth,” he once said, “I have a confession. I’ve been eating lunch all week with a beautiful woman.”
“I know,” she replied, radiant—this time I know she was radiant because that radiance lit up her face every time she told the story—“it was me.”
That was the delightful, if still tragic, version of the more common and uglier incidents in which, near the end, Grandpa would rant and rage at her—demanding that she stop pretending to be his wife, who was much prettier than this ugly old imposter. Grandma didn’t tell those stories much.
After he passed, Grandma moved into a carriage house apartment behind my aunt’s beautiful and historic townhouse in Savannah. There she lived until the last few weeks of her life, undaunted by the challenge and the physical difficulty of living alone for the first time in her life—it being no small feat for a woman in her nineties to climb the steep, narrow stairs up to her apartment on a regular basis.
It strikes me as fitting that Grandma died in Flannery O’Connor’s birthplace. Despite great differences in their cultural background, my grandmother shared certain character traits with the great Southern writer: a sometimes morbid sense of humor, delight in mild scandal, and mischievous pleasure in shocking delicate sensibilities. She and a friend would mail each other obituaries they found particularly ridiculous or narcissistic, edited with witticisms and wry commentary. Grandma loved a good story and an unexpected twist. One of her favorite anecdotes concerned hundreds of mating frogs that once descended on the courtyard she shared with my aunt. The unrepeatable punch line involved a certain alliterative nickname given by my aunt to this pack of procreating creatures. She liked to tell it to people whom she thought it might scandalize—including at a dinner to which my father, who works in Christian ministry, had invited his boss.
For those of us who knew her, the historical importance of her death pales in comparison to the personal tragedy of losing her. For, like all deaths, my grandmother’s death primarily severs our family’s link to her—to her wit and humor, her vibrant personality and faithful character, her storytelling and long memory.
It’s standard practice in these kinds of remembrances to omit or to sanitize the details of death—to insulate ourselves from the nature of death, to make death a natural and comfortable friend. But this is ultimately a lie. In the deepest sense, death is unnatural. Death is wrong. Death is an enemy—the last enemy to be conquered.
Here’s how my grandmother died: She fell. Then she had a stroke. Her brain hemorrhaged. She stopped eating. And my father and my aunt fed her ice chips and talked with her or to her and stayed by her side day and night, and my father prayed that the end would come peacefully and swiftly. In no way was her passing physically peaceful, it surely didn’t feel swift enough; a week later she was gone and that was a blessing—an awful, shattering blessing. Despite heavy sedation, Grandma died in great physical anguish with complete spiritual peace and even, she said, great excitement—to see Jesus; her husband, my grandfather; her grandson, my cousin; and other family and friends, who had passed before. That’s remarkable—a remarkable blessing for those she left behind.
Even amidst a hazy fog of medication and severe pain, Grandma’s sense of humor surfaced, just as it had during her husband’s protracted illness and death. As my father held vigil at her bedside one night, she suddenly began groaning and calling for her daughter. Dad, functioning on almost no sleep over the previous two nights and fearing that the end was nigh, sprang into action. “Okay, Mom,” he stammered, “I’ll go get her. You stay right here!” As he rushed out of the room, he heard his mother call out in that distinct New England manner of hers, “And just where do you think I’m going?” Another morning near the end, she awoke, slowly took in the room, and then disgustedly exclaimed: “Oh hell! Am I still here?”
Ruth Johnston Perkins died between Ascension and Pentecost. A week and a half later—just after Trinity Sunday—her great-granddaughter, Ruth Chapman Perkins, was born. Grandma Ruth exited the world with great physical suffering, and eleven days later my wife brought our daughter into the world, through forty hours of agonizingly painful labor. The blood of Grandma Ruth runs in little Ruth’s veins. In time Ruthie will know the stories of her forebears—the legacy of her grandparents’ faith and faithfulness, their strength of character and industriousness. We pray she will carry that legacy on, a proud and faithful bearer of her family history.
Because of the manner of her death—with her indefatigable spirit intact through the last—you might say that Grandma conquered death. She was not overcome by fear of the unknown, despite physical agony, she was never brought to despair. David Mills wrote that his father’s death taught him “that to die with dignity means to accept what God has given you and deal with it till the end…It means actually to live as if the Lord gives, and the Lord takes away, and in either case blessed be the name of the Lord.” Certainly, my grandmother did that, and thus, in a manner of speaking, she did triumph over death. Her spirit lives on, too, through the name and life of our daughter. In facing the death of his father, director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon said he “was quite comforted by the idea that when people die, by talking about them and celebrating them, you keep them alive.” As we celebrate the life of our little Ruth, we will also be celebrating the life of her great-grandmother. In this manner we do—and we will—“keep Grandma alive.”
Grandma’s courage at the end and the birth of our daughter have both been sources of great comfort to our family. Ultimately, however, they are not enough to defeat death—not nearly enough. The manner of Grandma’s passing reveals the depth of her faith and character, but Grandma’s dignity did not defeat death. Though her legacy lives on in the name and life of our daughter, it does not keep Grandma alive in any way other than a metaphorical sense. As the psalmist grimly and correctly observes: “…even the wise die; / the fool and the stupid alike must perish / and leave their wealth to others. / Their graves are their homes forever, / their dwelling places to all generations, / though they called lands by their own names. / Man in his pomp will not remain; / he is like the beasts that perish.” Nothing Grandma did, and nothing we do, could overcome death. Grandma faced death: Death took her.
Death’s victories, however, are inevitably Phyrric. Grandma’s dignity and legacy—powerless as they may be on their own—are nevertheless symbolic victories. In contemporary parlance, a “symbolic act” is one which lacks substance. It’s superficial rather than real. For instance, a strongly worded diplomatic condemnation accompanied by no other action is often characterized as symbolic—which is to say that, despite the rhetorical vehemence, such a statement is ultimately meaningless. It is “merely symbolic.” The dismissal of mere symbolism is not restricted to cynical observers of international politics. At the school where I teach, students confronted by symbolism in literature often react in frustration—Why don’t authors cut out the unnecessary nonsense and just say what they mean? The symbolic is superfluous.
In the vocabulary of Christianity, however, nothing is ever “merely symbolic.” To be symbolic is not to be artificial or superficial; it simply means that the symbol is not complete on its own. It points to and makes real a greater reality, a more comprehensive truth. Grandma’s faith and fearlessness to the end did not defeat death in and of itself, but it followed from, anticipates, and makes real Christ’s triumph over death. Her courage flowed out of Christ’s own resurrection, it points forward to the promise we have of the future resurrection of all God’s children. The passing down of Grandma’s name, the memories her children and grandchildren have of her, the stories we will tell her great-grandchildren—these do not reverse the curse of death, but they do remind us that Grandma is a part of what the author of Hebrews called “a great cloud of witnesses.” My daughter’s name points us to Grandma’s place in that communion of the saints, a communion unbroken by death. Grandma is now “unclothed” of her body, as St. Paul puts it, but present with Christ. On the last day, she will be restored to her body, to a renewed and perfected body.
Grandma triumphed over death and so will we. This is so, neither because we can thwart death with our dignity, nor because by keeping alive the memory of the dead. No. Death’s defeat rests on far surer a foundation. Death is defeated because, in the words of the great Paschal hymn, “Christ is risen from the dead, / Trampling down death by death, / And upon those in the tombs / Bestowing life!” It was there in the tomb of Christ that the personal and historical met—and so it will be in the tombs of his saints. The God, who is God, became a human being, died on a Roman cross, was raised from the dead, and ascended into heaven. And the God, who created all things, will return to put all things to right. He will undo and reverse the curse of death. My grandmother’s tired, worn out, battered, emptied, and hemorrhaged body will—“in a flash, at a trumpet crash”—all at once be as Christ is. Her speech—garbled by stroke, silenced in death—will be changed to a pure speech. She will lift her beatified voice—she and all the nations—and “together they will call upon the name of the Lord and worship him with one accord.”
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