My grandmother was named Elsie Lee Ashcraft, but I called her Mimi. She was born a Watson in Tinsman, Arkansas, one of the poorest parts of the state. Today the population is seventy-five, and I’m fairly certain I’m kin to most of those folks (that’s Southern for “they’re my family”). Mimi was married twice; she watched both husbands die slow deaths, her first husband when was only thirty-two and their youngest child was three.
Elsie attended college for a few years and worked for a stint at the FBI. Beyond that, her life was normal. She raised three kids, cared for two dying husbands, and stepped in to take care of me when her daughter’s life hit a particularly rough patch. Mimi lived within throwing distance of my house; I spent the majority of my childhood there until I was twelve. We did normal (I think) things, like cooking, eating, watching TV, putting together puzzles, organizing baseball cards, attending church, shopping, and going to yard sales.
I was terrified of my father after he left; I remember one day when Mimi blocked him from coming into the house—her 5-foot, 110-pound frame seeming larger than life to me, even though my dad dwarfed her. She was fierce; legend was she spanked my uncle, her oldest son, when was eighteen years old because he balled up his fists during an argument.
Another time Mimi decided to cultivate a garden to grow food for the poorer people in our neighborhood who had trouble making ends meet. A man down the street told her that a bunch of women couldn’t clear the field and properly tend a garden. He was wrong. She was always doing things like that—loving people. She often cooked meals for people in our church and neighborhood. She frequently visited sick people and the elderly. She was, in sum, a good woman.
Mimi died when I was twelve or so. This was her second time getting cancer, and this one was a bit too much. It was a pretty quick process from diagnosis to treatment to death, but there’s this one moment that stands out to me. I was riding next to her in her blue Pontiac sedan when I heard her softly singing “Amazing Grace.” I looked at her and noticed that all that was left of her hair were a few wisps here and there. Mimi sang all the time, but this time tears streamed down her face. Mine contorted in anger. “How can she be singing that song, in this moment? What is so gracious about dying. Dying!
In a culture enamored with celebrity status, Mimi would stick out like a sore thumb. Or rather she’d just blend right in with the rest of the masses. She was so ordinary, so normal. She had no following, no impact, no platform. Her life was mostly confined to a few small towns in Arkansas. She raised kids; she (practically) raised a grandkid. She cooked. She cleaned. She gardened. She loved. She just lived the plodding, faithful life of a woman who loved Jesus with all she was.
I reflect often on that moment in the car with Mimi, and on her life as a whole. She wanted me to know Christ, but it wasn’t until years after her death that I would come to know him. But it was her faithful life, her singing “Amazing Grace” with no hair, that led me to Christ. I knew who Jesus is because I knew who my grandmother was. As culture—even Christian culture—shouts that we must do more, be more, impact more, platform more, Mimi is a good reminder, to me at least, to curb my ambition and instead simply, faithfully seek Christ—to do good, cook meals, tend a garden, and love people.