Evelyn Olga Peterson | 2.14.1926 – 6.6.2016
[The following words were shared in remembrance of her life on 6.11.16 at Atonement Lutheran Church]:
If you knew my grandmother, Evelyn Peterson, even a little bit well, you knew that she loved to tell stories. If you had the good fortune to spend a lot of time with her, or to know her really well, you may have even heard some of her stories more than once.
I want to honor her today, in part, by sharing with you some of these stories, and what it was she taught me through the telling of them.
Born on Valentine’s Day to Scandinavian farmers in a small town in Iowa, her father published a birth announcement in the local paper that read: “Ben Erickson reports that a new daughter showed up at his home on St. Valentine’s day“.
Over time, this story somehow morphed a bit, and by the time I heard about this birth announcement from my grandmother, she told me that he had written “a little sweetheart showed up at his home on St. Valentine’s day”.
The point of this re-telling of the birth announcement, however, is that it was true: a sweeter heart there never was.
My grandmother’s most defining characteristic was the sincerity with which she loved other people. Her love was lifelong and enduring, relentlessly forgiving, and unconditional. She saw goodness in people where others could not, and delighted in any opportunity to make someone she loved feel special and important. And if you were really listening to all of her stories, it became clear that almost all of the stories she told reflected this deep love she had for others.
She spoke of her own parents with such pride and affection. The way she talked about her father’s playfulness, her mother’s humility, both of their hard-working spirits, and their commitment to their faith, you could hear the love and adoration for them in her voice.
This always made a big impression on me when she spoke of them because I experienced her as embodiment of those same qualities. I once told her this, saying, “I think you are a lot like your parents”, and she replied “well, we grew up working alongside them on the farm”. Even as a young child, I understood what she meant by this. They taught her about virtue and about values through their example, rather than their words.
And what wonderful things she must have been taught through their example, because when she walked off the farm, and out into the world – as the first person in her family to attend college – she was ready to embrace this big, new world she would find herself living in with all the love, humility and faithfulness she had learned at home.
While her parents may have held a great place of honor in Evelyn’s big beautiful heart, she had room for everyone else too.
My grandmother adored her sisters and brothers, and often described them to me as her oldest and dearest friends. When Evelyn’s oldest sister, Irene, left the farm, she was so heartbroken by her absence that she begged her mother not to wash the bed sheets because they smelled like Irene’s perfume.
I could probably spend the rest of the afternoon recounting all of my grandmother’s beautiful stories about her siblings – the way her oldest brother helped her be able to afford college, and how devoted he was to her own children, the sacrifices her older sister made to help take care of the younger children on the farm, the courage and the depth of spirit she saw in her other brother, the closeness she shared with her sister nearest to her age, and the affection she had for her baby sister. She was proud of all of them – proud of who they were, and proud to belong to them.
What I learned from all of her stories about her beloved brothers and sisters was how important sibling love is, and how rewarding it could be. Often times, our siblings are our best allies, teachers and friends throughout much of our life, and if we take good care of these relationships, we can expect to be able to lean on each other well from the beginning of our lives until the very end. Well into their mid to late 90’s, my grandma was in regular contact with her living siblings — speaking with them on the phone weekly and even daily sometimes. They were each other’s greatest, most enduring support systems.
And while her brothers and sisters may have been her oldest and dearest friends, they were certainly not her only friends.
In fact, to be Evelyn’s friend, meant you were going to be her lifelong friend. She stayed in touch with people she had met while living all over the country, wrote them letters – or eventually emails – spoke to them as often as possible by phone, and prayed for their families regularly. My grandmother was always quite frugal with her money, yet I often noticed that she had a wonderful long-distance phone plan. Maybe one of her only real extravagances, but to her – it was money well spent.
She loved her husband, Bill, with a kind of devotion that I have rarely – if ever – seen from anyone else I’ve known. She supported his career and his creative ambitions, moving all over the country as his company directed, and never once complained about this. She simply rolled up her sleeves, made a new house into a home, found a church, befriended neighbors, and got involved in her children’s schools and activities.
Both of my grandparents lived far away from their parents, and my grandma decided early on in their marriage that every time she put a letter in the mail for her own parents, she would put one in the mail for my grandfather’s parents too. His family became her family; it was one of the many, may ways she showed her love for him.
She was also so proud of him – proud of his good looks, his brilliant mind, his beautiful singing voice, his commitment to God and to church, his service to his country, and his devotion to his family.
He was proud of her too.
He loved her cooking, and the way she took care of their home and their children. He would often invite people from work – colleagues and clients – over for dinner at their home without much notice, and while this is something that would drive most women completely crazy, my grandmother was so proud that my grandfather thought her kitchen and her hospitality would be the best way to impress someone in town.
As my grandfather became more and more incapacitated by Parkinson’s disease at the end of his life, she took care of him without argument. It was hard and it was painful for her most of the time, but she brought the same determination and devotion into that part of their marriage as she had to any other part before then. Her word was her bond, her promises were gold, and if she said she was going to do something, she was going to do it. When she said “for better or for worse” she meant it.
My grandmother taught me more about the determination of true love during these final years with my grandpa.
Of course, it may not surprise you to know that my grandmother’s children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren all benefited immeasurably from her love and devotion to them as well. My grandma talked about all four of her children – well into their adulthoods – with the kind of joy and affection in her voice that you usually only hear from new mother’s of tiny babies. She was completely smitten with each one of them.
While I was preparing for this eulogy, I asked my mom and her brothers if there was anything in particular they wanted me to include on their behalf today. And while they each had their own way of saying it, they all said the same thing: “I knew my mom would have done anything for me”.
And boy, was that true.
I only saw my grandmother as a mother to her adult children, but if any one of them needed something from her, she would drop everything, and go to them. I think every single one of her grandchildren would probably say that she helped raise them when they were tiny. And while she may have done that in part because she loved to be with us grandkids, she also did this because she wanted to help her own children manage the impossibly wonderful burden of good parenting.
And how lucky for us – because I know firsthand how much her grandchildren benefited from all of her loving attention.
Last Christmas, while we were all gathered at her house, I said that every single time I called her on the phone, she would say to me “well, isn’t that just the sweetest voice in all the world”. Several of my cousins immediately replied, “she says the same exact thing to me!” She made us all feel like the center of the whole universe, and I believe that her heart was big and deep enough for this to be true.
While she was being taken care of in hospice last week, I spoke with a good family friend of ours on the phone who told me that until she had met my grandmother, she had never known a grandmother could be so involved, so devoted, and so in love with her grandkids. This friend then told me that my grandma’s example of grand-mothering had made a huge impression on the way she herself wanted to be a grandparent. It brings me so much joy to think that in some way other peoples’ grandchildren too are the beneficiaries of my grandma’s beautiful example of love.
You might think she would have just about exhausted her ability to love other people by the time her great-grandchildren were being born, but it’s almost as if she became even more enchanted with the people in her life the older she got. She spent a month of every winter visiting her two great-grandsons in Louisiana, and looked forward to it all year. Last year, my older sister and I had babies 6 weeks apart and it nearly broke my grandma’s heart that she couldn’t be in the delivery rooms with us, she wanted to meet them so badly.
And just in case you thought my grandma’s love for others only extended to her friends and family, it was available in nearly equal measure for people she barely knew, and oftentimes people she had never even met. Just a few weeks ago, she was telling me a story about a little boy in her Sunday school class from the 1960’s that she often still thought about, and hoped he was well. This past week, I attended her prayer circle here at the church and learned she was still actively promoting various mission and charity opportunities, and faithfully collecting donations for people in need all over the world.
In these last couple of weeks, while reflecting on her life I have asked myself, how is it possible that one woman loved this well, this much, and this steadfastly? I believe she loved this well because she believed that God first loved her this well.
She never missed an opportunity to remind me about how great, and how big the love of God is. And she never doubted that the love of God was sincere towards every single one of His creations. She simply shared in that abundance of Love, and gave freely from it’s overflow.
As some of you may know, ever since I was a little tiny toddler, I have always called my grandmother “Mana”. It’s an affectionate name I gave her before I could say the word “grandma”. I have two sisters, Leslie and Bailey, who then also called her Mana. When we were growing up, we had a little saying in our house that went like this: “Leslie is a Mommy’s girl, Bailey is a daddy’s girl, and Whitney is a Mana’s girl”.
She was my angel right from the beginning. The sweetness of her spirit and the radiance of her love made me want to be near her. Until I met my own daughter, whom I named Evelyn after her, I don’t think I’ve ever loved someone as purely, immediately, and tenderly as I have loved my grandmother.
As soon I understood that her time on earth would be coming to a close, I knew I wanted to spend as much of those last days, hours and minutes with her as I could. I kept telling my family and the hospices nurses that she didn’t like to be alone, but really I think I was sitting by her bedside for my sake most of all.
By some miracle of grace or timing or both, I was with her when she took her last breath, and when her heart sweet, sweet heart beat it’s last note.
And in that last moment, her final letting go, I felt a wave of the most exquisite tenderness roll right into my own body and fill my whole heart with joy. I knew then – in a way I have been unable to explain, nor deny – that she was happy, and that she was HOME.
Reunited now with so many of the greatest loves of her life, and most importantly reunited with the One that made her, I know that her love has been made perfect and her joy is complete.
Mana, we will all miss you terribly every single day. But, I also know that the best way for us to honor you now is to love each other well… just as Christ Jesus first loved us.