My maternal grandmother died late Friday afternoon peacefully, it appears, after lying down to nap. We called her Momo. This was her moniker of choice as she felt she was too young to be called 'grandma' when grandchildren started coming along. She was not old enough to be a grandmother. (She was roughly my age now when I was born so I can relate to that sentiment.)
I was very blessed to spend the first few years of my life with her and Dado, as my parents lived in the same city. Some of my earliest memories are at their home in their kitchen. Throughout childhood I can remember her being a night owl. Perhaps that's where I get it from. Dado would go to bed and I would crawl in with him, just touching his side, eventually falling asleep listening to him snore while she busied around the house.
That is one of my best memories and when I recall it, I am filled with a sense of warmth, security, and wellbeing. It's important to remember things like that in life. It give us the strength to move on when faced with difficulties unimaginable.
Anna Denham was saintly. I'm not sure I ever heard her speak a negative word about anyone--even when on one occasion she talked about a parishioner in Louisiana who was very ugly to her and my grandfather. She stated the facts about the situation but never spoke against him.
She was slow to speak, and quick to smile. She served willingly and put others first. That's how her faith compelled her to live. And she indeed lived according to her faith.
She would tell me more than once how she came to this faith as a young person through a evangelist that came to her church near Portland, Oregon. This particular female evangelist had been trained through the famed (and somewhat controversial) evangelist and preacher, Aimee Semple McPherson. She talked about going to the altar and having a profound spiritual experience that changed and shaped her life for years to come.
I believe this experience planted seeds in her that a woman can make an impact as a leader, even in the a church world dominated by men in leadership. In my opinion, she was clearly ahead of her times in this regard. Alongside my grandfather many years, she led by example and when necessary, used words for emphasis.
Once I was with my cousins around her kitchen table. I did something naughty (hard to believe I know). She reprimanded me with a surprised tone, "Jonathan Benz". I was devastated. The thought of letting her down was more than I could bear. That was the first and last time that happened.
My grandmother told the Knoxville News Sentinel in 2011 that the West Coast was a "very progressive" place to live. She had wanted to go to college in California but instead met Ed Denham in Kentucky saying, "My education was marrying a minister." Anyone raised in a minister's home can attest to the veracity of that statement.
I think she carried this progressive spirit throughout her life, even when she lived and ministered in places that would be considered "less than". She showed us that people were more important than policies, relationships more important than rules, spirit more important than letter of the law.
She embodied this spirit of service whether hosting children's radio Bible hours in the 1950s, bringing hope to the poor in Appalachia, ministering to grieving families who lost soldiers in WWII and Vietnam, or ministering to the aged in nursing homes. She once told me that she hoped she would never finish out life with the elderly in a nursing home. "They act so old" and then added laughing, "I'm older than most of them already." She valued an energetic life and in recent months the only lament I overheard was that she couldn't move more quickly and be more active in her day-to-day life.
Over the Holidays, I was in Florida for Christmas. She was making breakfast one morning and asked if I wanted bacon for breakfast. I obliged, in spite of her ever-weakening physical capacity, because I knew that this was a small gesture of love that would in turn bring her great joy. It reminded me of the many times in her kitchen she served me and other family and friends. I believe it's the simple, mundane times that shape us the most profoundly and that we end up longing for most.
I will miss her chocolate chip cake and the late night phone calls. I will miss her red hair (never colored or died, of course). I will miss her spirit, smile, acceptance, embrace, and always reliable kiss on the cheek.
I will miss her dearly. I already do.