Childhood memories are precious relics that I guard on dusty shelves in the deep recesses of my heart. When I have time to visit this library, I pull out books written by the lives of my grandmothers. As I turn the pages, their work-worn hands come into focus and tell the story of kind deeds.
The oldest woman in our family was my great-grandmother, Martha. When I was very young, my mother would often take me to our family’s Kentucky farm to visit. Great-Grandma was a small, round lady who let her hands, not her tongue, do her talking. In the kitchen her hands were like a conductor, waving around bread dough, mixing cornmeal batter, turning chicken in sizzling oil, and swirling gooey frosting on moist cakes. Never upset by anything out of the daily routine, she was accustomed to hearing her husband call out to a passerby or two.
Have you eaten dinner? Well come on in and join us—tie up your horse here–Marthie’s setting dinner on the table!
When the missionaries arrived, Grandma’s hands supplied them bedding and linens she had sewn with her skillful fingers. Every quilt and pillowcase was embroidered with love as she sat by the fire of an evening, peacefully rocking in her favorite chair. She and Shelby even sacrificed their own bed to those missionaries for months on end, putting their own comfort last–and they did it with humility and joy. Everyone who knew her hailed her as a saint, and rightly so.
The end of her life had a stunning conclusion when she came to herself, after having suffered a stroke at the age of 89. She sat straight up in bed after weeks of semi-consciousness, reaching out her arms to the unseen and pleaded,
I want my crown. Give me my crown!
Then she fell back onto her pillows, asleep in the arms of Jesus.
Martha’s gracious spirit was next passed down to her daughter, Ethel, whose kindness welcomed strangers to her table and never turned away anyone hungry. Ethel was just like her parents regarding hospitality. My grandparents’ home, often nicknamed the Johnson Hotel, was permanently welcome to family and friends traveling through Cincinnati. In spite of the hard times of the 1930’s, there was always plenty of food on the table and warm beds for guests.
During the Depression, her compassion would lead her to take pork sandwiches and a cups of coffee to jobless men, hungry and discouraged, who knocked at her door. The look of desperate gratitude from their eyes into her sympathizing ones was their sole exchange. Even stray animals seemed to sense that scratching at her door would bring them a meat bone or a pan of milk.
Her last act on this earth was to minister kindness to others. Feeling sorry for a lone neighbor across the road, she decided to bake him a cake and personally deliver it. It was on the walk back home that her heart gave out, and she died a few days later in a hospital.
I remember traveling to that red brick hospital for that final visit. Her face shone with a heavenly glow as her spirit was ready to fly away. I can still see her hands reach out to touch the face of my mother as she bent over the hospital bed. A touch of love passed on that mantle of kindness.
Although these two women now live only in memory, their linens, tablecloths and quilts they made years ago have been passed on to me. Holding them is like taking hold of their hands again. Even now as I sleep under the quilt that my grandmother finished for me just before her death, I feel wrapped in that mantle of kindness passed down through the generations.
She stretches out her hands to the distaff, and her hands grasp the spindle. She extends her hand to the poor. And she stretches out her hands to the needy. (Proverbs 31:19-20) NAS