Nanny called Mom and Dad's place on New Year's Day by "a happy accident". Meaning to have called my Aunt Joy, she dialed long distance to Alberta from Ontario and was surprised to hear her grandson's voice on the end.
I had arrived at Mom and Dad's earlier that day, so the three of us could share a New Year's meal together. When Nanny called, I was thrilled to my fingertips.
Let's see… how can I make this simple?
Nanny — Alice Thomas — was my grandfather's sister, my father's aunt. They grew up in the face of tough circumstances, as most families of The Great Depression did, but she developed a insatiable craving for music. Being a child of the Salvation Army, it was difficult not to! Unable to afford a piano in childhood, she more than made up for that lack later in life when she received her ARCT.
Grandpa Thomas married Ruth Smith, my dad's mom and my Grandma Thomas. Well before I was born, Grandma's own mother passed away. Her father (Ben "Grampy" Smith) married Alice Thomas, making her my dad's grandmother as well as aunt. So this makes her my great-grandmother and my great-aunt (did I get that right, Mom?). Are you spinning yet?
Blood ties and marriage aside, Nanny became a role model for me. Mom and Dad would regale us as children with stories of Grampy and Nanny — a partner in love, in marriage and in ministry for life. Mom always told me that she learned what a true, tender, gentle and loving marriage looked like from Gramps and Nan. Post-Sunday-Service meals were traditional ham and scalloped potatoes (Nanny loved Dad so much that she left the onions out of one end of the potatoes so he wouldn't have to pick them out… spoiled, I say!).
Grampy and Nanny loved Jesus with every bit of who they were. Perfect they weren't, but music was next to godliness (although I'm pretty sure cleanliness was up there too for Nan) and the Thomas' and the Smiths became known for the musical gusto. Nanny learned the piano and organ with talent and grace, and was the organist at a local Peterborough funeral home for sixty years. She could play nearly any song any family requested by ear — no sheet music required. The family joke goes that one day the funeral home director panicked because a grieving family had requested Amazing Grace a cappella. He had never heard of "Amazing Grace A Cappella" and ran to Nanny terrified "Do you know how to play Amazing Grace A Cappella?" Nan couldn't stop laughing. She certainly knew how to "play" that!
Both Gramps and Nan following in the Salvation Army tradition, "gruff ol' Ben Smith" (as Gramps was called) was the choirmaster for decades at the Peterborough Temple. Nanny was the pianst and organist for nearly over fifty years.
Both were spiritual giants in my child's mind, even though I only remember meeting Grampy as an almost-three year old. By the time I was four, he had passed away of a stroke. Nanny, however, is still alive and still passes on her words of wisdom even now.
My Dad told me a story once. It's stuck with me for many, many years. While the Sally Ann is renowned for its social justice and commitment to living like Christ especially the in the most difficult places, it isn't perfect. Even movements born out of poverty have their moments of legalism, classism and snobbery.
One Sundary morning, a local bag lady decided to attend services. Instead of staying at the back, she was brazen enough to sit all the way at the front, one pew behind Nanny who kept her place close to the piano. Unthinkable!
But the gusty impertinence didn't stop there. Nooooo sirree! Nanny, known for having every hair in place in order to accomodate the sharp Sally Ann cap, had a few tresses loose. The dirty, smelly, foul bag lady reached across the pew and gently put her hair back into place.
With the ire of church leaders at the front bearing down on the poor woman, Nanny quietly turned around and simply said: "It's quite all right dear. Thank you." And Nanny accepted the hair adjustment with as much grace as if the Pope had righted her locks.
As I listened to the older, more frail Nanny on the phone last week, she said: "My dear Erin, if I was younger still, I would come out west and work alongside you… for the Lord."
For the Lord.
With Nanny, it was (and is) always for the Lord.
No one is beyond Love. No one is beyond grace. No one is beyond having our loose ends being patted down by smelly people who might just be Jesus in disguise.
I'm not a part of the Salvation Army anymore. My family left it when I was about four… maybe three. But that never mattered to Nanny. She always wanted to know how my piano lessons were going, but never judged me or expressed disappointment when I quit them after 10 years. However, she always always ALWAYS asked me about how I was doing in the Lord.
Some folks use the phrase to catch us in guilty places or condemnation.
Nanny never did. Not once. Not even when I wasn't living in the Lord. She prayed love over me, spoke it over me, lived it over me, and wrote it over me. The way I see it: she's my heritage. I don't just mean the Smith/Thomas tangle, or the Salvation Army; but rather she's a part of the great cloud of witnesses who walk with me every single day. As all my ancestors do, all throughout history who walked in the Lord, Nanny walks with me — imperfect, made a giant in my mind even as an adult, and now frail.
This is my heritage: one of love, determination, humilty to tear down walls, music and more love.
I couldn't have asked for better.