Maybe one of the hardest things to do is to find the right words to tell someone you really care about just how much they mean to you. That’s the predicament I find myself in as I type these words.
My paternal grandmother, Emma Mae (Brewer) Gilliland, turned 99 this week. She has been blessed to live long and well, but it is those of us who have been fortunate enough to be part of her life that are really blessed.
That’s because my grandmother Emma Mae is special. Exactly what makes her special is hard to put into words, but maybe the best way to describe her comes from an autobiography I read many years ago by Gale Sayers titled “I Am Third.”
The main theme of the book, and I do not remember the exact words, is something like – The Lord is first, my friends are second, and I am third.
That is how my grandmother has lived her life. The Lord always comes first, her family and friends – often those she does not even know – come second, and she is somewhere on down the line.
I imagine there are some out there thinking that those are just words, that no one really lives that way. But if that’s what you think, you do not know my grandmother, or my late grandfather, Delbert Joseph Gilliland, who was 97 when he passed away on July 5, 2012.
I do not know a lot about either of my paternal grandparents’ early life. But I have never needed to. Because beyond all else, I have always known that they love me unconditionally, that their biggest concern in regard to me is my spiritual well-being, and that if I ever really needed anything, they would be there for me.
What else can anyone ask for?
I do know that my grandparents met at a spring on a farm near Willetsville. From what I recall, grandpa was working as a farm hand and went to get a drink from the spring, grandma went there to get some water for a home where she working, and that whatever conversation they had that day must have gone well because they were married for 74-plus years.
I also know that in their early married years they had a little cabin near a creek a few miles outside of Lynchburg, where they spent weekends fishing and relaxing.
I know they were the first ones to take me fishing, at a farm pond somewhere when I was quite young. I remember using a cane pole and catching several fish – or at least someone catching lots of fish – but little else. And while I do not fish as much as I once did, it is a pastime I have enjoyed ever since that first time.
I also know that they started what is now the Northside Church of Christ in Hillsboro, and while they both had full-time jobs, it was the church that was their real life’s work.
As I sit here and think about them and their lives, all kinds of memories flood my mind. The Mountain Dew grandpa always had readily available, Sunday dinners, their little dog named Tiny Tim, living a month with them after a fire at my childhood home, mowing their lawn, and simple conversations about whatever might be on my mind (because grandma always listened and rarely, if ever, spoke of herself), the three places they lived during my lifetime, and so much more.
Up until less than a year ago, grandma lived in the third home on her own and still drove. A small stroke robbed her of her strength and she had to move in with my parents, but her mind is still sharp.
A couple days ago I stopped by to say hi and asked her how she was doing. She said she’d rather be up and about, but that’s not possible now, so she might as well be happy with things the way they are – all said with her infectious smile.
Each time I stop by to visit, she opens her eyes wide and gives me that warming smile. Then comes a quick kiss, just as it does when I depart. Those are precious moments forever seared into my heart.
I have never asked my grandmother if she has had a good life. I do not feel a need to. I know she has – mostly because she has lived true to her beliefs.
From time to time I run into someone who recalls my grandmother, or asks how she is doing. Pretty much without fail they tell me what a great person she is, and how lucky I am to have her for a grandmother. It’s always nice to know that people hold your loved ones in esteem, but they aren’t telling me anything I don’t already know.
In case you don’t know, grandma, you have been an inspiration to your entire family in more ways than you will ever know. You have been our rock, while being as gentle as a lamb.
Thank you for being my grandma, grandma. You have truly blessed my life.
Reach Jeff Gilliland at 937-402-2522 or on Twitter @13gillilandj.
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