Her picture is on the mantelpiece at my house, taken at an age younger than I ever knew her, but the eyes and the smile are the same.
A short, vivid woman who taught first graders for decades before becoming an elementary school principal, Maggie was my grandmother’s best friend. One a single school teacher and the other a widowed church worker, they went everywhere together. Although she needed a cushion to see over the dashboard, Maggie drove.
And when my grandmother became a grandmother, which is to say when my parents adopted me, Maggie felt excitement just as great as anyone who was legally part of the family. For the first few years, she struggled to claim an identity in relationship to me. She wanted to be a grandmother, too, to be that connected. There are cards in the scrapbook my mother kept; she signed them:
Somewhere along the way, someone called her my godmother, and that’s what stuck.
When my mother came to see me at college, to tell me Maggie had died, I remember it felt like a physical injury. I didn’t know a life without her. Even after I outgrew sitting on her lap and playing with the gold chain she so often wore, Maggie was the person who I could run to when the rest of the world was unfair. Diminished by a hazily diagnosed medical condition, she became a ridiculously tiny figure in a nursing home bed. Disease took her, and I am 50 now, and 71 seems too young to die, even if she didn’t seem young to me then.
When I say she haunted me, I don’t mean to suggest that I believe in ghosts, or that she appeared in a supernatural fashion.
What I mean is that she remained uncannily close to me for many years after her death. I dreamed her, often, and woke feeling I had been with her again. I thought of what she would have done or said on a holiday or a birthday. I missed her. I wished she could have seen my children. She only needed five more years to meet the first one. But it wasn’t like that. It wasn’t like that.
Now, because she was not only a first grade teacher but also a Methodist Sunday School teacher from the time she was a young girl, Maggie would have been the first to assure me that this life is not the end. I believe that Maggie is part of the cloud of witnesses, the gathering of the saints beyond our sight. But she is also part of me, the part I feared had broken when the bad news crashed into my heart on a cold, grey day long ago.
Her love for me, shown with kindness and humor for the twenty years we shared our lives, became part of my love for my children. Her passion for sharing the word of God with children informed my realization of a calling to ministry. And the winsome twinkle in her eye, the thing she lost at the end, comes back to me in memory and reminds me that you can be faithful without being self-righteous.
My internal injury healed. It took time, but it got better. It took time, and remembering Maggie.
(I’m using this reflection at an annual Service of Remembrance at a local funeral home tonight.)