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Issue Date:  April 7, 2006

The full story about my grandmother

The image of a 'saint' yields to a real woman, sinful and inspiring


I have this great photograph of my grandmother on my desk. Wearing a mischievous smile and a flower-print dress, she’s grabbing a handful of cookie dough from the mixing bowl and -- for once, totally unrepentant -- is about to snarf it down. The picture represents everything I knew and loved about my grandmother. She was prim and pious yet could be wonderfully playful and fun. That was my grandmother.

She passed away 10 years ago, in the summer of ’96. I was a year out of college at the time but still just a kid in a lot of ways, and I took the news hard. My grandmother was really gone. At the funeral home, as various members of the family stood up to say nice things about her, I sat glued to my seat, too choked up to say anything, too insecure to let anyone see my sadness. My silence at that moment is something I still regret.

If I had had the nerve that day, I would have waxed poetic about that kind old woman. I would have recalled the simple moments: eating sandwiches and playing board games at her house after school. I would have mentioned her quirks: She was the only one I knew, besides Winnie the Pooh, who used the phrase, “Oh, bother.” And I would have proclaimed her a saint -- an honest-to-goodness saint -- who spent innumerable hours in the last pew of St. Ann Church fingering her rosary beads, whispering the Hail Mary and meditating with her God.

Those were my memories: rose-colored and reassuring. But, as it turns out, I had only half the story.

In recent years, during long talks and long walks with my mom, I discovered a different side to my grandmother. As sure as she was a saint, she was also a sinner.

Living a dream life with six beautiful children and an immensely successful husband, my grandmother’s fortunes took a fateful turn in 1951. On vacation together in Buck Hill Falls, Pa., my grandmother’s husband -- the grandfather I never knew -- took ill with stomach pains. A day later, he was dead, the victim of bleeding ulcers. Although there was nothing my grandmother could have done to save him, she blamed herself for his death and dedicated the rest of her life to making it up to him.

She started, ironically, by disobeying his orders. He had told her that if anything were to happen to him, she was to immediately sell the business -- one of the first Buick dealerships in northeast Ohio -- and use the profits to take care of the family. Instead, my grandmother screwed up her courage and entered the male-dominated world of motorcars, ruffling feathers along the way as a pioneering businesswoman.

Despite her best efforts and glowing praise from local newspapers (one called her “three remarkable persons wrapped in one -- mother, father and business manager”), she eventually realized that she couldn’t do it all. Sales dwindled and, over the course of several years, so did the family’s bank account and esteem in the community.

Then came a devastating blow. Her eldest son was diagnosed with cancer. He died at age 16. A family that had so much suddenly became keenly aware of what they were missing.

In her despair, my grandmother dealt with things the only way she knew how, the only way many people know how: through substance abuse. She drank too much. She became dependent on prescription drugs. She became painfully thin. She became a pain to her family. That, too, was my grandmother.

Sometimes I wonder why I’m looking for more detail about my grandmother’s life, why I continue to ask my mom about her. Why tarnish the saintly image of the sober, contented woman she became in her later years? Recently, the answer has become clear. These stories make my grandmother more real, more complex, more human and no less lovable. Amazingly, through each of her trials, she maintained an unwavering faith in God. Examining her life has allowed me to think about these questions: What makes you a “good Christian”? What makes you a believer? What makes people love God while living with tremendous sorrow?

In the end, my grandmother, 10 years gone, continues to teach me this lesson: All of us go through a process over and over again during our lives. We sin, we repent and we believe -- we’ve gotta believe -- in redemption and resurrection. If life is full of Lents, then it must be full of resurrections.

Brian Kantz is a Buffalo, N.Y.-based writer and editor. His column “The Newbie Dad” appears on and has been heard on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition.

National Catholic Reporter, April 7, 2006

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