Today would have been my grandmother’s 98th birthday. Her name was Marion Betty Kline Johnson. My mom’s mom. To be honest, I don’t know a whole lot about her life but I have strong memories and impressions of her.
She smoked. A lot. When I was in college, I visited her at her apartment in Downer’s Grove, Ilinois where she lived alone after my grandfather died. As I got off the elevator and walked down the hallway, I knew I was getting close because of the signature scent. When I knocked, she opened the door in a smokey haze, warmly hugging me and inviting me in. Her smoking was part of her persona, an irreducible part of the world she inhabited.
When I arrived, the TV was on, 5:00 news, sports segment. “That’s what you’ve got to do for a living, Ben. That’s how you’ll make money. Be a professional athlete.” I wasn’t sure how to take the comment. I was, after all, majoring in Spanish and Humanities at a small liberal arts university. Not exactly on the fast track toward a career in professional sports. I think she was making coversation. She would often make comments while watching TV, especially the news. Once, during a particularly grim “if it bleeds it leads” story, she said, “My God, can you believe what people are doing to each other?” It was a rather melodramatic declaration, but it was also her way of connecting with me over the world as it was. Of course, we agreed so much of the world should be otherwise.
On that trip, she took me for a ride in her car, a large brown sedan. At nearly 70 years old, she had just recently gotten her drivers’ license. As I mentioned in a previous post, my grandfather was a bus driver, so she probably had avoided needing to learn.
“Why is that guy driving so close behind me!?,” she exclaimed, glancing at the rear view mirror.
“Um, I think it’s because you’re not going the speed limit,” I said.
She sighed. “Well, it’s the speed limit. You’re not supposed to go over the speed limit. You’re supposed to stay under it.”
This comment I took to be three things at once: a simple statement of fact, a sincere expression of outrage, and a bit of self-deprecating humor.
As I remember my grandma, I have this sense that she hosted a lot of unrequited longing in her life. For her, there was never enough time. Things never quite worked out the way they should. It was as if she could never completely relax, could not not love the world the way it was. Instead, she’d take a deep drag of her cigarette and let it out slowly, nodding her head, waiting. Remembering her now, I think it is very honest not to be satisfied with the way things are. There’s a lot in the world not to be satisfied with.
My grandma wasn’t particularly affectionate, but I knew she loved me. I could feel that she was glad to see me and sad to see me go. I remember leaving her apartment from that visit. The smell of her cigarettes clung to me in the cab, on the airplane, and on the car ride all the way back to my dorm room in Oregon.
To this day, when I’m walking down the street, especially on a cold winter day, and I pass someone smoking a cigarette, I close my eyes and open my nostrils and breathe deeply, breathing out slowly. I nod my head, thinking of my grandma, waiting with her for the world to become what it should be, “a pleasing aroma to the Lord” (Numbers 29:2).