In Memory of My Grandmother, the Saint

One of my earliest and most consistent memories of my grandmother is of her changing the flowers that would sit behind the pulpit above the baptismal pool. It may seem odd that such a mundane and routine memory stands out to me, but I think it epitomizes how she lived her life, in service of the small things that made life beautiful.

It is the small things, after all, that I will remember. Her fascination with rabbits (one in every room in the house, many more, alive and ceramic, in the garden). Mornings spent at her house eating “sirruls” (cocktails of blended leftover cereal). The foods she would bring over in tupperware containers that she had preserved in the freezer (sometimes, we suspected, for years). Her Thanksgiving stockings (because stockings at Christmas weren’t enough). All the little comments she would make (like “he’s got the smelliest breath” and “it’s too bad she didn’t get her sister’s looks”). Her dry, stoic sense of humor and the way she would roll her eyes at the foolishness around her. (Mom and Dad, for the record, I first learned how to roll my eyes at you from my grandmother.) How in her old age she would sometimes speak in her own language (which we referred to as “Potsiguese”).

Collected together, these memories make a vibrant bouquet. She valued life and beauty, stored up every ounce of plenty she had to share with others. Rabbits and flowers multiplied and took over her garden, just as the fruits of the Spirit took over her life.

I sometimes think there are two kinds of faithful heroes: There are those who face tremendous odds in famous battles of spiritual leadership, overcoming terrible moments of temptation and persecution, stories that go down in history. Then there are those who rise up daily to perform what many of us might consider the mundane minutia of keeping up the temple, the Levitical priests who day-in, day-out do the so-called “trivial work” behind the curtain of the temple, without recognition, never asking for a thing in return.

My grandmother was a Levite priest at heart. She busied herself with the keeping of God’s temple. Even if a task was as tedious and minor as placing a new urn of flowers at the altar, so to speak. Did we need the flowers? Were the flowers commanded? That wasn’t the point. She found importance in all the small things many of us would overlook, unless one day they disappeared. She would be the one to see to it that the incense was burning, the lamp was lit, the shewbread on display. She was an unsung hero.

Potsi Gwaltney was a busy bee for the Kingdom of God. Like a bee, she busied herself with service, bearing gifts to friends and neighbors, chatting with loved ones, making bloom the sweet flowers of life, and applying the sweetness we all seek in our treasured moments. And like a bee, her snappiness could have quite the sting to it. But without God’s busy bees, there is no sweet honeycomb, and all the flowers disappear. Without workers in the temple, the temple falls apart.

My grandmother taught me that our relationship to God, much like our relationships to one another, did not always require grand, gallant gestures, but rather continual maintenance and attention to detail. She kept her house (and her yard) well. She kept her marriage well. She kept her service to God well. She did this by staying busy and living for others. I only ever saw her take time for herself to do one thing: rest. And as much as she put up with Cha-Chi all these years, rest was one thing she needed often.

Over the summer, while we waited for my grandmother to be called home, in a city in Italy some heretical bureaucrats in silly hats voted to determine whether to canonize Theresa of Calcutta as a saint. I don’t need no stinkin’ Vatican to tell me that Grandmother Pateresia was a saint among servants.

The saints of the Church are called to be priests, our bodies the temple, our lives living sacrifices. Pateresia Pyott Gwaltney the Pious was a priestess, a pinnacle of the temple, a prepared sacrifice. Like her Lord, she sighed, it is finished, and as her last act of service and dedication she brought her family together, just as she had with her prepared meals at every Thanksgiving dinner since I was a child. I was reminded of the psalm, “you prepare a table for me in the presence of my enemies.” She labored to prepare the table of God, and now a home is prepared for her.

When I was a child I took for granted the light my grandmother would shine. I didn’t get what the big deal was about the flowers, or appreciate how she quietly moved about setting up every occasion. She came to teach me that when you have the humble heart of a servant, every gesture is a grand gesture. To this day, when I see that someone has put out flowers to enhance the beauty of any place of gathering and worship, I think of my grandmother’s eye for the small things that, when taken together, came from a big heart.

My grandmother was one of those rare souls who was a queen bee and a worker bee all at once. The table is set. Goodness and mercy followed her through all the days of her life. I am very sad today, but I am overflowing with the joy of knowing that she will dwell in the house of her Lord forever, because it was the house and its Lord that she dedicated her life to serving.

[Read at my funeral service of my grandmother, Pateresia Gwaltney, who passed away last Monday at the age of 82.]

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