Thursday, 11 May 2017

Grace Brackbill Hostetter -- In Memory

My grandparents' engagement photo,
My maternal grandfather and grandmother, B. Charles and Grace Brackbill Hostetter, were married on May 3, 1939. She was twenty, he twenty-two. My grandma, a life-long gardener and all-around lover of plants, had wanted to be married outdoors, in her parents' back yard in eastern Pennsylvania, among the lilac bushes that usually bloomed at that time of year. It was an unseasonably cold spring, however, and rain fell on their wedding day. Married indoors--and without lilacs, after all--Charles and Grace nonetheless enjoyed an uncommonly long and happy union.

This month marks the 78th anniversary of their wedding. Charles died in 1997, a few months short of celebrating 58 years of marriage to Grace. Grace, however, lived on in the kind of robust health and bright spirits that inspires me more and more as I get older. My grandmother died this past August, almost 98 years old and utterly herself--strong minded, humorous, sometimes impatient, gracious to everyone she met--down to the end. As my own mother recently reminded me, this Mother's Day (celebrated in the U.S. on the second Sunday of May) is the first our family has known without Grace Brackbill Hostetter. In my grandmother's memory and in loving honor, I've decided to dedicate today's blog post to her.

Grandpa and Grandma Hostetter and me, c. 1989
My grandmother lived in different parts of the U.S. and in different parts of the world, including Jamaica, Trinidad, and Nigeria. At her memorial service last August, I gave a brief reflection on my memories of her life in North Carolina, the place where her life and my life most overlapped.[i] What follows is a version of that reflection, originally given at Harrisonburg Mennonite Church.

* * * * *

My sisters and brother and I grew up next door to Grandpa and Grandma's. It's a house that has been, in various years, reddish-brown and off-white, but which in my mind will always been green--because that was Grandma's favorite color, the color she wanted her house to be.

For us King siblings who were lucky enough to live one driveway down from our grandparents, that house is one image we share--as we also shared meals around Grandma's dining room table, and car trips to Black Rock or Sunset Beach; as we shared Lake Hickory with her on countless summertime swims.

Grandpa and Grandma--with some of Grandma's beloved
plants--outside their house in North Carolina.
When I recently asked my siblings and their children for memories of Grandma in North Carolina, they gave me such beautiful answers that a host of new images emerged. When a grandchild or two got the urge to built teepees in the back yard, Grandma went out and made teepees with them, with long sticks and African cloth that she supplied from her house. She took grandchildren out walking the lane to collect litter (an environmentalist before it was trendy). Babysitting her great-grandchildren, as she did one day a week for many years, she'd take them swimming or on nature walks, or teach them to make chocolate pudding. She came to everyone's birthday party. None of us ever knocked on her door; we just rang the doorbell as a signal that we were coming in, and then we just went in.

She made chicken and waffles, and homemade rolls, and the oatmeal raisin cookies she'd always offer because they were healthy, when you really wanted chocolate chip. She believed in taking care of her health.

Both of my grandparents were serious swimmers. "When we were little," my sister Sandy recalls, "Grandpa and Grandma would come over to our house to ask if we wanted to go swimming at the lake or at [a neighbor's] pool. We always knew that Grandpa wanted the pool, and Grandma wanted the lake. But Grandma loved swimming so much, she'd always go with you to either place, to the pool or the lake."

Grandma in the last week of her life (August 2016)--
still interested in talking to everyone around her.
Grandma listened to us. She made us feel loved. But it wasn't just us family members who received her love. Grace Hostetter never met a stranger. She was interested in everyone's story.
"We were so lucky," my siblings concluded, one way or another, when I asked them for these memories. "I'm so grateful to have had her--this force of Nature!--in our lives for so long."

As I worked on these reflections of my Grandma's life in North Carolina, it dawned on me that she was the first truly cosmopolitan person I knew. My grandmother showed me the world is made up of so many different countries and cultures--so many different kinds of people, each with their own way of thinking and talking and eating and dressing and praying--and that this diversity is fascinating, is one of God's gifts.

My parents took my sister Linda and me to visit Grandpa and
Grandma, and our uncles Phil and Rick, in Nigeria in 1972.
When you're a kid, you receive this information not through lectures or lessons, but through small daily signs, like the embroidered turban and robe Grandma brought back from Nigeria and wore to give talks in churches about her experience there--or like the sleeveless purple tie-dyed mini-dress that she made from Nigerian cloth, and wore so stylishly in her 60s and 70s. (A dress, I might add, that several of us granddaughters borrowed from her in our 20s, and occasionally continue to wear.)

Or there was her African ground-nut stew, an elaborate meal which as a child I merely tolerated--and which made me feel like a grown-up, when I finally acquired the taste. Grandma was the person you went to in Hickory when you needed a slightly more exotic ingredient. She'd reliably have fresh ginger, and garlic bulbs, and coriander.

She also collaborated with me in some of my early experiments in fashion. I had the ideas, but she had the seamstress's skills, and the interest to boot. My favorite clothing collaboration with Grandma was a pair of newsboy-style gray woolen knickers, circa 1982.
Newsboy knickers!

From Grandma, I also learned to make your daily practices, your everyday lived-in spaces, beautiful: to serve your desserts in small crystal dishes with stems, each one set on a small china plate, or to make centerpieces for your table by arranging candles inside a small houseplant.

Grandma had aesthetic vision. She cared about how things looked. She cared about how people looked, too, including herself--not exactly a quintessential Mennonite trait, but one I secretly loved her for, because it was one way in which she was gloriously human, involved in this concrete world.
Grandma with all 8 of her children, Christmas 2015

At the same time, I always knew that Grandma loved God and believed in serving God through serving other people. It's a legacy alive and well in her children--in my mother, I my uncles and aunt, in the people all of them married--and these people, the extended Hostetter family, were my first role models, my first teacher of how to be a compassionate, God-loving, other-loving citizen of this world.

This is the family--this is the legacy--that my grandma, Grace Brackbill Hostetter, helped to create.

[i] These are memories mainly from my adolescence, the last time I lived in North Carolina. I may try to write more, in a few weeks, about my later impressions of Grandma, as I left my 20s and she entered her 70s.


  1. I loved reading this tribute to Grandmother today! Made me cry and made me realize how much I miss her and what a pivotal person she has been in my life. Thanks!

  2. Thank you, Leeler! I know, I cried too as I wrote (re-wrote) this. I am so grateful for her example. Hers was a life truly well lived.

  3. Beautiful reflection. Beautiful family.

    1. Thank you, Dianna! I'm very grateful for -- and very fortunate in -- this family.

    2. not sure why I missed a number of these blogs--- but on this my 76th bday!!! what a wonderful tribute to my mom and family-- how rich we are!! thanks pgk

    3. I'm glad you found it and were able to read it -- and on your birthday, too. A serendipity.