In my childhood, I tried so many times to convert my grandmother June to Christianity.
I wrote her letters with stories from my Precious Moments Bible. I went to church with Brophy and came home with the stories I learned and pictures I colored in Sunday School and Children’s Church. When I spent the night with her and laid besides her in her full-sized bed, I told her how Jesus loves her and how I wished she would accept him in her heart because I was afraid she’d die and go to Hell and I’d never see her again, my greatest fear.
I asked her, “Do you believe in God?” She said she did.
I asked her, “Do you believe in Jesus?” She said yes.
I asked her, “Then why won’t you accept Jesus into your heart?”
She usually pretended to fall asleep at this point, so I’d nudge her and ask her again. After several times, she’d sigh heavily and reply, “Because I’ve done too much bad for Jesus to ever accept and love me.”
It was so hard for me to believe that.
She loved and accepted me like no one else in my family, including my parents, ever did.
Even though I grew up with everyone in my family but June and Lib going to church and sat in church listening to message after message, song after song, watched Mama read her Bible every single day without fail, participated in choir, puppet ministry, youth ministry, Vacation Bible School, Sunday School, Children’s Church, tried to read my Bible and pray as much as possible, got baptized when I was 11 years old, and more, I never understood grace like I understood it from June.
I did not feel grace, mercy, forgiveness, or acceptance from my parents. I felt like I was constantly trying to catch up to a measuring stick of “be this and I will love you” that moved every time I thought I was close. I wasn’t pretty, thin, smart, or well-behaved enough for them to love or accept or be proud of me. It was always “you’re bad, you’re stupid, you’re wrong, why can’t you just behave yourself?”
Last year, I found letters I shamefully wrote Mama, wherein I apologized for misbehaving and said I wanted to be good and didn’t understand why I kept messing up. It bothers me that she has these letters but none of the short stories I wrote as a child, but it also amazes me how writing has been my easiest form of communicating vulnerably since I learned to write.
As a teenager, I decided through all of my doubts about God that for someone to love and forgive me as deeply and easily as June did, there had to be a Source. That grace and love like that do not exist in a vacuum, especially from someone who did not believe she deserved love, mercy, or grace because of her past.
Ironically, even though I used this as my foundation of belief in God, I still felt that I had to earn his love like I felt I had to earn my parents’ and I came up incredibly short with all three of them. Every prayer I prayed was like those letters I wrote Mama: full of shame and begging for forgiveness, mercy, and love.
When I learned what grace really meant at 28, it gave me a whole new perspective on June.
It was grace and patience when I disobeyed her and she didn’t have the heart to really spank or punish me even though I deserved it.
Grace when she still made me breakfast in the mornings before school even though I kicked and yelled at her when she tried to wake me up.
Grace when I apologized for being so rude and inconsiderate towards her in high school and she said, “It didn’t bother me. I knew you were just angry and hurting really bad at the time with everything going on with your Mama and Daddy.”
Grace when she so badly wanted to adopt me when I was 15/16, and after going to court to start the process, I told her I couldn’t do it because I already felt physically detached from my family; I didn’t want to also be legally detached from them.
Grace when I spent the money she gave me for my senior year college dorm on stupid shit in the midst of my deep depression and she told me she was disappointed in my actions but didn’t yell at me. She made me pay for it with the money I made at my temporary state job over the summer and helped me when I came up just short of what I owed.
Grace when she took me to the beach for the last time the semester before I graduated from college even though I hadn’t managed to make my grades any better, which was supposed to be my part of the deal. She told me it was okay because she knew I was having a really hard time and that it would make me feel better to go to the beach with her. It did.
The B.A. in English I received at the University of South Alabama belonged way more to her than me. When my prepaid tuition ran out from all of the classes I dropped and/or failed, she cashed out a huge chunk of her mutual funds so I wouldn’t have student loans to repay.
She called me nearly every single day to ask me how my day went. She often called me in the mornings to wake me up to make sure I went to class, which more often than not, I didn’t.
I saw grace when I saw June crying, her tongue twisted into the corner of her mouth, from across the Mitchell Center when I walked onstage to accept our college degree.
Grace was also her telling me, “Now that you’re out of college and working, I will no longer be giving you money or paying your bills.” It didn’t feel like grace at the time, but now I see how financially incapacitated I would have been had she not given me the opportunity to learn how to manage my own finances and become a responsible adult.
When June died in May 2006, my college best friend gave me a beautiful card with a note that honored June for the woman she was – a stubborn, smartass, crass chain smoker who loved her dirty romance novels but also who loved me fiercely and never gave up on me, no matter what. She also reminded me how incredibly fortunate I was to have someone by and on my side like her, especially with my dysfunctional relationships with both of my parents.
When I read through and transcribed the letters Mama and I found deep in her closet after she died (like Narnia-deep because as nosy as I was, I never found them growing up), I saw how vibrant and sassy and charming she was.
Zelda Fitzgerald and June were about 33 years apart in age, but my god, they would’ve been best friends and troublemakers had they grown up together in Montgomery around the same time. June had so much fire in her and the boys loved her.
It was after she got pregnant out of wedlock in late 1954, kicked out of her Catholic nursing school in New Orleans, and sent to an unwed mothers’ home in Mobile in 1955 to give birth to a son she would never see again after she was forced to give him up for adoption that the bright hot fluorescent light that was June Vinson dimmed to near total darkness. My presence in her life couldn’t bring back that brightness but it offered her some illumination again.
I know I said I would not get into others’ stories in the process of writing out my stories because I can’t possibly know all of the details, but knowing the little I know about June adds to the mystery of her grace and compassion. How did someone who was so deeply shamed for her behavior and its life-changing consequences growing up find it in her to connect with and love me as wholeheartedly and graciously as she did?
Even after knowing such love, forgiveness, and grace from June, it is still so hard for me to give those things to myself and oftentimes, others. I can be pretty easygoing about most things, but when I am hurt and angry, those feelings run deep, and the very last thing I want to do is be forgiving and compassionate. I often want the other person to hurt as much as I do.
At the same time, empathy towards others comes easily for me. When Daddy told me after raising Adam and me, he didn’t feel like raising two other children, I stepped up to help Ben and Caleb because I never wanted them to feel as unloved and unnoticed as I did growing up. I am very quick, even when I hate myself for it, to put myself in others’ shoes and try to understand where they’re coming from. I am often the first to apologize. I love to support and encourage others.
John and others have said, “I wish you could see yourself the way I see you.” All I so often see is that I’m not the patient, understanding, gracious, loving, and forgiving person June was to me. I’m quick to judge, anger, and condemn like my parents (and also like June was with most other people).
I think others think of me the way I think of me and I am quick to hate them as much as I sometimes hate myself. When I am angry, I become vicious and brutal. Once, during a fight with John’s sister Sara, he told me, “You’re not a horrible person. She needed to hear what you said. However, at the same time, you’re not exactly the person I’d send to talk someone off a ledge.”
The critical voice in my head finds all the reasons why my parents saw me as a burden growing up and pounds away at how much I constantly fuck up and how amazing it is that anyone loves me or even likes me.
I constantly dream of John ignoring and cheating on me because I fear that is what he will eventually do because I am often critical of him, afraid to be vulnerable with him, and still don’t trust that he can see nearly everything about me and still love and want to be with me. I expect him to get fed up with my bullshit and leave.
No one can be June but June, and that’s an expectation I am learning not to weigh so heavily on others. But that voice, that unconditional love, that forgiveness and understanding could be a little louder inside of me. And as I get older and work through so much of the pain I felt growing up, the volume increases.
Moana holds a special place in my heart because it is about the love between a grandmother and her granddaughter and how it empowers Moana to pursue her passion to be a voyager into the great unknown.
There is one scene that touches me so deeply every time I watch the movie. It’s right after Maui ditches Moana because they can’t get past the angry Te Fiti and his hook is all but destroyed in their efforts. He leaves and Moana throws Te Fiti’s heart into the ocean. She can’t do what she feels is her mission. She has let her family down and her island will be destroyed. Mostly, she has let her grandmother down because it was her grandmother who told her to listen to her heart and go.
Just as she is about to turn her boat around, the ocean lights up in the form of a stingray beneath her. It is her grandmother’s spirit, just as her grandmother hoped it would be when she passed. It is here when her grandmother reminds her who she is and reignites her determination to return the heart to Te Fiti. I believe this is where Moana realizes that Te Fiti does not want to be angry and destructive, but is fiercely protective of herself because she was betrayed and her heart was stolen.
In this same way, June lives on in the compassionate voice in my head. Growing up, she knew I was angry because I felt betrayed. She reminds me I am not the person the shaming voice in my head argues I am. She tells me I do not have to live as a shadow of myself out of fear and self-preservation.
June wasn’t perfect and we didn’t always get along. She betrayed me once in such a substantial way it took me weeks to forgive her. She enabled a lot of my self-entitlement and narcissism.
However, she used compassion along with her persistence and called me out on my bullshit basically like, “I love you but you are acting like a selfish, ungrateful asshole.”
Sometimes I feel like this is exactly how I need to be with myself because it was always just enough to give me perspective – even when I heavily resisted it – to stop what I was doing and figure out how to change it.
Occasionally this happened right away, but most of the time, it took me looking back years later, as I am doing now, to see how valuable those words and the frustration and love behind them really are.
From what I still hold onto in my faith in God and grace itself, I see how messy life is and how much conflict plays a role in our growth if we allow it to and how everyone is feeling around the dark room of the great unknown and looking for a light to guide us. It doesn’t always make it easier for us to give each other or especially ourselves a break, but it can lighten our load. I have felt so weighed down my entire life so if I can find a way to drop off some of my pain and burdens, I would love to so I don’t add any to others and can help them do the same.
That is a big part of why I’m writing in this blog. It is me looking for a light so I can be a light.