For those of you who don't know me, I'm Jessica Gardner, Frances' granddaughter. I'm the oldest of her four grandchildren, the only granddaughter, and Virginia's daughter.
My memories of Nana span almost four decades and I could stand here all day sharing stories with you, but rather than do that, I want to focus on what I believe made Nana the woman she was . . . counting her blessings every day.
Late last week, as we were preparing for Nana's passing, I spoke with Denise McCloud, here at the Church. She shared with me how she and Pastor Susie went to visit Nana recently. Nana was sleeping with the most peaceful expression on her face and her hands were folded neatly across her chest, as though in prayer. I remember smiling through my tears, as I heard this story and then shared with Denise that for as long as I've known Nana, she always slept that way - on her back with her fingers interlaced across her chest as though in prayer. I've never seen anyone sleep as peacefully as Nana did.
As we spoke, I continued to share that it was my belief that the reason Nana slept so peacefully every night, never suffering from insomnia or other disruptions to her sleep, was because she always spoke kindly, found the best in others, focused on her blessings rather than what she didn't have or trying to keep up with the Jones's, treated people with respect and the way she wanted to be treated, lived her life with humility, and turned her struggles over to God every night. I never heard Nana gossip, speak ugly about anyone, curse, complain, or hold a grudge, even at times when no one would have faulted her for it. One of her favorite proverbs was Proverbs 15:1, "A soft answer turneth away wrath; but grievous words stir up anger." It was one of her most fundamental beliefs.
She was a devout Christian, but you didn't know it because she was constantly telling you about it. You knew it through her deeds and the way she lived her life. Whether she was finding a low-cost, good home for a family in financial distress, bringing a table to a newlywed without any furniture, or dealing with her customers at the bank, Nana was selfless in her actions. She thought of others before she thought of herself and, in my mind, was the originator of the question "What would Jesus do?" I know she asked herself this question many times every day.
Every night, she ended her day the same way. She dropped to her knees, thanked God for the many gifts he had given her (even if sometimes those gifts took the form of "opportunities" or "challenges") and asked for His blessings for all of her loved ones - naming each of them individually. Nana's prayers were never pre-scripted. Each one was unique. She never asked God for material things; rather she thanked him for giving her strength, courage, patience, humility, and providing for her and her family. She knew he had a plan for her and she never questioned it.
For Nana, family always came first. Even when she was working, if any of us would call her, she would always take the call. She may not have been able to speak at that moment other than to say, "Jessica, dear, I'm with a customer now. Can I call you back?" in her sweet Southern drawl, but she never asked anyone to take a message from her family.
I remember that Nana used to always tell me that I was her favorite granddaughter. Now, the fact is that I am her ONLY granddaughter. At first, I didn't like it when she said this to me, but I came to understand that this was her way of telling me what a special blessing having a granddaughter was and I began to look forward to the compliment. When she retired from NationsBank, now Bank of America, a customer presented her with a gift of drugstore chocolates. I remember standing there as she accepted the gift, held the box like it was a rare jewel, looked at the man, and sincerely said, "Oh, that's JUST what I have wanted! A box of really fine chocolates! Thank you so much!" When my parents divorced, she reached out to my dad to let him know that she still loved him and that he was always welcome in her home. Twenty-five years later, he still remembers those words and the impact they had on him, as he related the story to me for the first time, just the other night. He wasn't her ex-son-in-law. He was and has always remained the man who married her daughter and gave her two beautiful grandchildren. Paying you a sincere compliment was one way she counted her blessings every day. She filled herself up by sincerely lifting you up with heart-felt, soft words.
Nana wasn't rich in material goods, but she was rich in all the things that mattered: love, gratitude, compassion, friends, and family. She loved to tell us that we must always count our blessings every day and that included the things we might not think were blessings. She taught me to always find the bright side of life. I might have to search for it, but it was always there. I think my own optimism in life came from her.
One of my favorite things about Nana is how she loved to write letters. I would receive letters from her weekly, no matter what. Sometimes, those letters would be personal letters written just to me. Sometimes they would be copies of letters she had sent to someone else, but thought I'd be interested in. Sometimes, they'd simply be newspaper clippings that she thought might be relevent to my life. I've kept the letters that touched me most and found one recently that I'd been saving just for today.
She wrote this letter seven years ago, in April 2002, as she was recovering from a stroke and just before she went blind. What I love about this letter, is how rather than focusing on her aches, pains, and new limitations, she chose to count her blessings and share them. I think she sent this letter only to me, although it reads like a letter she copied and sent to multiple family members. Maybe she somehow knew this was the perfect way to remember her today. It was simply titled "Happy Days I Recall."
Of course, a happy day was when Daddy (Jesse Paulk) and I married on September 30, 1938.
The happiest day was when I knew Jesus was my Lord and Savior - my strength and my redeemer.
I do not remember being baptized, but when I was a little girl about 6 or 7, Momma had a new dress for me and Momma and Daddy took me to Sunday School. We sat in little chairs in front of churt - about 7 or 8 children and their parents talked to us. I am sure that was the day I was baptized. I have always loved the Lord, but as I grow older, I realize each day - He is my strength and redeemer. He will never leave me or forsake me, if only I believe and I do.
Another great and happy day was when the nure handed me a darling baby girl - Virginia - September 12, 1948. Daddy and I thought we owned the world with Virginia, so sweet and precious.
Another day to remember was when a bouncing baby boy was handed to me, February 22, 1951 - Michael. Daddy thought the whole world was handed to him with that special baby boy. Virginia and Michael have both given us great pleasures then Daddy was taken away on September 12, 1961.
With dear thoughts of Daddy and God's help, they grew up and were a real pleasure, dear children. Never any trouble. I had many smiles each day.
Then came along another darling baby girl in Tampa on June 16, 1971, Jessica. (My first grandchild.) She was so cute and sweet. I remember driving over to Tampa to see the precious new arrival. Such a pleasure you have been. Then came another bouncing baby boy in Ft. Myers, Florida on October 5, 1974, David Gardner. All these dear little babies have made life worth living.
A few years ago, Jessica invited me to Washington, DC for Christmas. As the plane reached DC, I stood by the window and looked at the Capitol, never expecting to see it with my own eyes. I stood there in awe thinking about all the goverment under that dome. It was a sight I shall never forget. That Christmas she got many wonderful passes for us to see all of DC. David, bless his heart, got a wheel chair and pushed me all over Washington. Sights I had only studied in school - never expecting to see with my own eyes. Potomac River was real. All of the beautiful sights of DC and thanks to Jessica and David for all these wonderful sights. Even Christmas Eve services in the beautiful National Cathedral and then a drive to Roanoke, Virginia. I slept in the back seat all the way, but the next day, going back through all those mountains. Had I known I sure would not have slept. Anyway, was a wonderful Christmas - being with Virginia, Jessica, and David. Will always be a wonderful memory.
Then I think of Jesse and Ryan, (my grandsons from my son Michael). I only saw darling pictures of Jesse for a few months with Michael holding him in his arms. Such a precious picture. Then I few to Colorado when he was baptized at home. The preacher came to the house and Maureen (Michael's wife) and Michael had a few friends in. Jesse arrived November 30, 1981 and was named for his grandfather, Jesse Edward Paulk, and someone in Maureen's family was named Michael, so was a nice name - Jesse Michael Paulk - from both sides of the family.
Ryan arrived in a Dunedin, Florida on May 1, 1985 and named Ryan Thomas Paulk. I remember driving to the hospital when he was only a few hours old. He was so dear and sweet.