Burney has always given freely of her time, her money and her possessions. She gives when she has it but she is no Lady Bountiful and gives just as often when she doesn’t. She cites her parents and most notably her grandmother as inspirations.
My great grandmother, Bessie was a beloved saint in Greenwood, the county seat of South Carolina. She served her neighbors, the church, her family and anyone in need that crossed her path. She was dignified and decorous; she cared deeply about honoring God and her fellow citizens. My mother said that one of Bessie’s few points of pride was the fact that no one in her family had ever been to jail or gotten divorced.
“I think it was you that ended the stay out of jail streak”
she said to me, laughing.
Mama—or great mama as we called her, lived out her own marriage at great personal cost. The relentless progression of my great grandfather Edward’s alcoholism brought regular trouble and strain to their relationship. The bond finally snapped when their youngest son Hayes was born and Edward was nowhere to be found. When he finally appeared, galloping into the yard on his horse and went into his wife and infant, he looked at Hayes and said,
“I don’t know whose son he is but he is surely not mine.”
My great grandmother said later that the offense cut so deeply she was never able to forgive him and never willing to share his bed again. But she kept her commitment for better and all the worse that followed until the day he died.
I don’t recall ever having a conversation with great papa; he was a shadowy figure in a rocking chair on the front veranda, smoking a pipe, drinking whiskey and muttering “ho hum.” He presided over each meal at the head of the dining room table with his hair parted, wetted and combed to the side, but never said much. My aunt Marion told me that late in his life when he was largely confined to a back bedroom she could hear him at night shouting obscene demands for carnal knowledge at great mama until he passed out.
Bessie, had a thriving business as a seamstress and was, for many years, the primary bread winner of the household, but I don’t think it ever occurred to her that she had any options regarding her marriage. She made her choice and that was that.
When my mother came to the end of her own marriage she says that the person she most dreaded telling was Bessie. She agonized over every word in the letter she wrote to her grandmother, knowing it would bring pain and disappointment to someone she adored. But when the telephone rang a week or so later this is what she heard:
“Dahlin’, I am loving you so much right now”
My mother cries as she tells me this, knowing what it cost my great grandmother to set aside the propriety that she would not have forsaken for her own happiness. Bessie added in her musical drawl that she was going to send my mother a little folding money to tuck into her purse in anticipation of our move to northern California. Shortly after that a check arrived for a thousand dollars, a substantial gift at any time, but in 1963 it was a kings ransom.
Burney wanted to honor Bessie’s gift and carefully noted every penny she spent, managing to set aside several hundred dollars once she was settled in Marin County. She finally decided to give it to the languishing mission fund at her new church in honor of her grandmother.
In 1982, in the midst of my own descent into alcoholism and drug addiction I discovered I was pregnant. I was no longer involved with my baby’s father and he made it clear that he wanted nothing to do with bringing a child into the world with me. I was torn by an unbearable awareness that I could not abort the life growing inside me nor would I be able to give it up for adoption, nor was I in any way a candidate for motherhood. I was not yet in recovery, I was emotionally volatile and mindful that I was in this alone and seriously lacking in useful skills for parenting.
But I found out quickly that I was not alone. My parents, my family, my friends, my church, all stepped in to help and provide whatever practical, emotional and material support they could. My mother stepped the farthest though, crossing the gaping divide of her hopes and dreams for me and for her first grandchild into reality, ignoring the reaction of her community, setting aside the conservative principles she held dear and remaining steadfastly at my side. She volunteered to be my Lamaze partner, she took walks with me and offered constant pep talks and a few unpleasant lectures, she smoothed the path that led to telling my grandparents and best of all, when I told her that I wanted to keep the baby, she tearfully declared that was her heart’s desire too.
It is Easter and I am thinking of the unimaginable gift of Jesus who emptied Himself, setting aside His throne and fully inhabited the poverty of humanity. Ian Morgan Cron tells a story in his book, Jesus, My Father, The CIA and Me, of hearing The Lord Himself apologize to him in a worship service when he was a boy. Ian says that he asked his trusted nanny later if he had heard wrong, if it was sacrilege to think that Jesus would ask forgiveness of anyone, even a little boy. His wise nanny, paraphrasing the 113th Psalm, told him: “Son, love always stoops”. The gospel that I believe tells me that true love is essentially humility, bending, yielding, setting aside my goods, my rights, my opinions, in the service of understanding and accepting my fellows. I am not always a faithful hearer and doer—not at all—but recognizing all the mercy, all the setting aside that has been directed at me, I have come to believe that the path of decrease, so beautifully reflected in my faith and my family is the only path that matters.