Sunday, September 16, 2007

Electronic Immortality for a Granny

My maternal grandparents near the end of their lives: Amy Youtz Vandersall and Rev. William Austin ("Aust") Vandersall -- in Findlay, Ohio

By coincidence (or mystical correlation) in the last week, I've been given two fascinating gifts. First, aimlessly Googling the other night, I came across a handwritten letter from my own long-dead grandmother, Amy Youtz Vandersall, in an online genealogy site. She'd written it to somebody offering information about tombstones of obscure ancestors, in 1931. Though I'm not particularly interested in the content of her letter, the shock of seeing my grandmother's handwriting, delivered through Google, was considerable. How amazing that this note of hers, on letterhead from the family homestead at 1208 N. Cory St. in Findley, Ohio, an address that carries considerable emotional impact on me because it is where my mother grew up, and where many of her hopes and heartaches originated, should appear on the Internet. If my grandma only knew!

And the very next day, I received an even more astonishing gift from my beloved cousin, Dr. Amy Vandersall (named for that same granny), a retired art history professor who now divides her time between Boulder CO and New Haven CT. What she sent me was our granny's Bible. My cousin Amy and I are both avid word people and, even in our relative apostasy (yes, that IS a pun), we're deeply interested in family history -- not just the lines on genealogical charts, but the stories, the heartaches, the sorrows, and the joys. We think our grandmother was smart in a way that society didn't welcome. Her brain probably tormented her -- there were not enough outlets, though she bore her husband (the traveling evangelist William Austin Vandersall) five smart kids and ran a scrappy little mission of her own. We think she was manic depressive, inheriting it from her father (who committed suicide) and passing it on to at least one of her children, who passed it on to at least one of his.

Anyway, I'm intrigued by the notations on some of the pages -- the margins of Bibles were spaces for not just spiritual, but intellectual engagement back then. For example, on the page shown, John 19, she writes ""It is finished" is one single word in the Greek perfect tense, "It has been completed." This fascinates me -- her curiosity a grammatical, linguistic one, not a comment about dogma. And in Matthew 16 she notes: "Thou art Peter = petros = a piece of rock - "upon this rock = petra = a mass of rock."

There are, of course, comments which do seem to be explicitly spiritual in nature. In the poignant and perplexing story of Jesus's encounter with the "woman of Canaan" in Matthew 15, where he says, "I am not sent but unto the lost sheep," the woman says "Lord help me." She says her daughter is "grievously vexed with a devil." He replies, seemingly cruelly, "It is not meet to take the children's bread and to cast it to dogs." Undeterred, she persists, ""Truth, Lord, yet the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters' table." My grandmother wrote (was she noting an actual moment of bitterness?) "few crumbs of thy mercy." But she added in the margin, ""So we must give God right in all he says vs. us and say, "Truth told" praying till we overcome." And of course, in the scripture Jesus answered "O woman, great is thy faith," and healed the child.

My grandmother had a difficult and, I suspect, tormented life, and she ended it in dementia, shuttled from one child's home to the next until she died in the Fifties. She was often cruel. Everybody did the best they could, I suppose. We never understood her because we never knew her before all her life's difficulties took their toll. In the photo below, sent to me by one of my distant cousins, Frederick A.Thornton, my grandmother looks so lovely (she's the one on the left in the back row -- she was about 24 when this was taken) And now, with this gift of her much-thumbed Bible, I can imagine and try to honor that woman, her fertile mind pulsing with energy and possibility. And I can offer sorrow for her sorrows, and acknowledge that there was also goodness in her DNA. Some of it has survived in me and all the rest of her descendants, and now we can offer her a bit of immortality in this amazing electronic world.

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