Brian Mittge - For Grandma Ila, Even the Grave Was Nothing to Fear - 2011

Beginnings:  Just a little note to share the good news that Chris Donaldson has joined us at Olympia preps to start in the work!  He's the young man from Cathlamet who started returning to meetings almost 3 years ago and professed at Olympia convention 2 years ago.  His sister, Kim, and their mother, Connie, have also returned to the fellowship since Chris professed.  Kim's husband also comes to all the meetings and has drawn very close.

Endings:  Also I've been wanting to share a newspaper article that was written by a reporter who gave a very lovely tribute to Ila Beckwith.  She used to babysit him when he was a little boy.

 

For Grandma Ila, Even the Grave Was Nothing to Fear

By Brian Mittge

    When I close my eyes today I am again a small boy utterly enraptured by a trim white house in Salkum with beautifully sculpted, perfectly rounded trees and a wooden bridge in the immaculate front yard.

    On the wooden porch a slight woman stands in a long blue dress, her hair in a bun and a smile on her face. Inside, I know, a towel covers a big bowl full of rising bread dough. Its appealing smell is balanced by a foul odor I also know is coming — she will pour me a big tablespoon full of cod liver oil and insist that I swallow it for my health. With wrinkled nose, I will.

   

    I open my eyes and know that the house is still there, but that this joyful and strong woman, who I’ve known since childhood as “Grandma Ila,” is gone.

    Ila Beckwith wasn’t really my grandmother, but she was the best babysitter a kid (or a parent, now that I think about my working mother’s needs back then) could ask for. Grandma Ila died Monday at age 94 in the home that was so magical for me.

    I’ll always be glad that I made the effort of reconnecting with Ila after I grew up. When I got down on one knee and proposed to a sweet young woman named Sarah 10 years ago at Ike Kinswa State Park, the first person we visited and told was Grandma Ila. She toasted the news by boiling hot water to pour over mint leaves she plucked from the patch growing outside her front door. She served us her tea with real cream. Her humble, unadorned life included many such plain but wholesome luxuries.

    As happy as I am that I kept in contact with Ila, I’ll also always regret that as I got busy with my own children, I saw less of her than I’d hoped. I’ve been meaning to call her for a year, now. Alas, I’ll have to share my greetings with her friends and many children at Saturday’s memorial service instead.

    Soon after my marriage, I talked to Ila on the phone and asked how she was doing.

    “I’m just sitting with my feet dangling in the grave,” she said cheerfully. From anyone else that might sound grim or ironic, but she was as genuinely enthusiastic about the afterlife as she was about the happiness of her days.

    “You’ve got to die of something in order to go to heaven,” she explained.

    Utterly unafraid of death, she was equally delighted with the joys of each approaching day. She made crafts, artfully designed her own stationery and cooked her food over an old-fashioned wood-burning stove.

    “I just get happier by the day,” she once told me. “That’s been happening for a long time now. I don’t know how much happier a person could get.”

    She was a deeply faithful woman, part of a simple and traditional Christian group that focused on missionary work and frequent camp meetings. This brand of Christianity worked very well for Ila, a widow, with its large extended family that gave her an endless pool of people with whom she shared a constant flow of hand-written letters.

    I once asked Ila for tips on how to live with such peace and happiness.

    “One piece of advice,” she said. “Don’t give it!”

    I think often of those words, and others that she shared with me: “Sorrows and joys are interwoven in life. You don’t have to live too many years to learn that.”

    Ila has been in this column before, but not under her real name. I gave her the name Grace when I wrote about how a corrupt and conniving “contractor” scammed her out of $5,000 after first claiming he was doing a free inspection on a roof with a lifetime guarantee. That crime, especially the loss of the money borrowed from her daughter, almost killed her — she got chills and couldn’t sleep as she thought about how foolish she had been.

    Remarkably, the sheriff’s office caught the criminal and worked a rare deal for him to pay back Ila all the money he stole. (He still faced jail time for similar crimes elsewhere.)

    Not only did she survive that turmoil, she made room in her ample heart to forgive the man who repeatedly lied to her.

    In one of my last conversations with Ila, she asked me my age. I was 32 at the time, and told her so.

    “Oh goodnight,” she said. “It don’t take long to climb the ladder of life.”

    How is it at the top? I asked.

    “Oh, it’s wonderful,” she said. “The best is yet to come. Keep hanging on.”

•••

    Brian Mittge, assistant editor of The Chronicle, welcomes comments and news tips via bmittge@chronline.com or (360) 807-8234.