My grandma’s funeral took place on Friday and I delivered a tribute to her during the service. Writing it was far more emotional and cathartic than I expected. Though I always loved and respected my grandmother, I never really understood her. Her death – and the stories shared by her friends and family over the past week – provided me with a whole new perspective on how her life shaped her. I can’t believe it took this long – and saying a final goodbye – for me to put all the puzzle pieces together. I got choked up at the podium several times, my heart swelling with compassion for my grandma and how she handled adversity. I decided to share my memorial service speech here as a reminder of how everything shapes and impacts us and those around us. Perhaps some of you will recognize this in those you love before they’re gone. I sure hope so.
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I’ll be honest: when our family asked me to speak today about my Grandma Benson, I hesitated. Not because I was nervous, but because I had no idea how in the world I would convey to you who she really was. And no one I talked to could come up with that one perfect word to describe her. She was that unique.

But over the past week since Grandma’s death, I’ve been hearing stories from friends and family, poring over her notebooks, recalling memories I have of her…and suddenly it’s all starting to make sense. The pieces of the puzzle finally fit for me. I just wish she were here so I could tell her I get it now. I always loved her – but now I feel like I get her. And I think I’ve found the word that describes her best from my viewpoint: she was resilient.

Let’s get dressed up and read the Bible!
{my dad’s on the far left}

Dorothy Ethel Benson was the daughter of a minister and the wife of a minister, which meant lots and lots of moving around. As someone who has lived in the same state for most of my life, it’s really hard for me to wrap my head and heart around the idea of never being able to settle down. How do you cultivate friendships and make yourself at home when you’re packing up every few years? How do you learn to get close to people? Was it an honor and a joy to help her family, to serve others and serve God at churches across the country? Of course. Was it also hard and painfully lonely sometimes? No doubt. 

I suspect it’s why my grandma remained so close to her brothers and sister – they were her only constant growing up, siblings and friends she could count on – wherever, whenever. It’s remarkable to me that, in retirement, all four of them came together again – living not only in the same city, but in the same apartment complex – where they could have fun together, share meals together, live just down the hall from each other, host Swedish Christmas celebrations for our extended family. The importance of that bond my grandma had with her siblings was something I long underestimated – but I totally get it now. No one house or town probably ever really felt like home to her – but being with them did.   

Facing all those frequent changes, new beginnings and high expectations from each new church community couldn’t have been easy for my grandma when she was a young woman, especially when the ultimate new beginning – the birth of her first child – took such a horrible turn.  I feel like the traumatic birth and death of her son – a baby boy named John – deserves more than a line in her obituary. One cannot experience such profound trauma and loss without being forever changed. Mothers I know who have lost their children say it’s a heart break and heartache they carry with them always. And for Grandma, it happened at a time when there was no formal support system, grief counseling or research on how to heal mentally and physically from a loss like that. Back then, you barely even talked about it. Today, we’d never expect a quick rebound from a mother in mourning. But Grandma made a conscious decision to forge ahead – to rely on her faith, to take one day at a time, to not let that loss be the end of her life.

Dorothy Benson was resilient. She went on to raise three wonderfully different, fiercely independent kids who lived, as she often said, “such interesting lives.” Let’s be honest – she was not the most affectionate mom on the block or leading the PTA bake sales. But if love were a contest, measured by the amount a mother worried about her kids, she’d take the cake. No matter how old she or they got, she worried about them – where they were, what they were doing, if they were safe, if they were happy. I think it probably took great courage to become a mom after what she had been through – and it’s no wonder she was forever worried about her brood.

At my wedding – 1999

The other thing my grandma did in order to not just survive but thrive was to follow her heart and find comfort in her passions. My grandma traveled the world – Hong Kong, Israel, Egypt, Germany, England. She took up china painting and created gorgeous pieces for friends and family. She loved to play the piano. She was a voracious reader. She adored watching pro tennis matches and loved re-hashing certain shots and points with my dad on the phone. She delighted in life’s little joys – a tiny trinket, a blooming flower, a piece of chocolate.

Oh goodness – let’s not forget the chocolate! There’s a famous quote from Ernestine Ulmer that goes, “Life is uncertain. Eat dessert first.” Well, Grandma Benson took that quote to heart. Wherever we ate out – she wanted to get her dessert first. Just to make sure they wouldn’t run out. She especially loved buffets because you could see all the dessert choices! For years, she lamented about her possible allergy to chocolate…but over the past two decades, she threw caution to the wind. She would beam with this mischievous grin whenever chocolate appeared before her – as if she were about to get away with something so outlandish. Chocolate was one way to that woman’s heart.

Humor was another. Grandma appreciated dry, clever, quirky humor – she loved British comedies and anyone who could make her giggle. But it was often Grandma who was making others giggle.  She had this quiet, reserved persona – and then, out of nowhere, she could give you whiplash with a perfectly timed quip. So fast and clever and unexpected, you had to slam on the brakes to catch it. The staff at Augustana, where she spent her last years, got such a kick out of her quick wit. Just a couple of weeks ago, as her health took a turn for the worse, Grandma spent much of her time with her eyes closed, seemingly unaware of the world around her. Her beloved nurse Esther told us that as a couple of staff members tried to move Grandma’s bed, something went awry and the bed dropped a couple of feet. Grandma opened her eyes and said, “Am I dead?” And the staffers couldn’t help but burst out laughing!

Over the past week, I’ve had the great pleasure of thumbing through Grandma’s old notebooks. I don’t know how she kept track of anything – there would be phone numbers for people on one page, then a note to self like: “Be sure food is low in saturated fats” and then on the next page her Visa card number. Just totally random stuff. But then I came across a page with her handwriting in blue pen that stopped me in my tracks. She had transcribed an excerpt from the book The Next Place by local author Warren Hansen. To take the time to write this passage must have held special meaning to her and it filled my heart to read it. It said:

“I’ll be embraced by all the family and friends 
I’ve ever known.
Although I might not see their faces, 
all our hearts will be as one.
And the circle of our spirits 
will shine brighter than the sun.
I will cherish all the friendship 
I was fortunate to find,
All the love and all the laughter 
in the place I leave behind.
All these good things will go with me, they will make my spirit glow
And that light will shine forever in the next place that I go.”

My grandma was so many things – irreverent, eccentric, generous, loyal, smart, and she led such an interesting life. But she did that by choice. She chose to thrive, to be resilient in the face of hardship, to find the good and stay focused on that. And I think she’d be delighted if she knew she had inspired all of us to leave here today doing the same.