“Though a famous person is great, a wealthy person is great, and a powerful person is great, the great people that the world is most in need of are those who have great hearts. It is those that think not only of themselves but are interested in the welfare of others as well . . . Let’s be like that. Let’s not rob the poor to make ourselves rich, or try to acquire unnecessary fame to make ourselves great. Let’s be ourselves – plain people, with a deep understanding and a sense of justice. Let’s be honest, sincere, and sensible. Let’s work hard to be great, but let’s remember to be great – from our hearts.”
– Bette Louise Dean, from her valedictorian speech, 1940
My grandma and friend, Betty Louise Dean, passed away this July at 99 years of age. Yesterday we celebrated her life on what would have been her 100th birthday. It’s a difficult thing to express in words the degree to which she impacted my life. There are the memories of specific events that stand out, then there are those everyday memories of being together that are difficult to fully describe embedded as they are in the bedrock of my life. Nevertheless, as a way of paying homage to her life, I’ll leave a few notes here about what I remember and appreciate most about my grandma.
Betty had a way of seeing into the true nature of a thing and of celebrating its innate value in a way both artful and sensible. For instance, she bought an old rock saw at a second hand sale and brought it home. She used the saw to slice through brown featureless rocks to reveal dazzling patterns and colors. With the slices she created beautiful stained glass lamps that were the epitome of functional art.
Sensible creativity was a way of life for Betty. Every time I came for a visit her couch had new upholstery: old sheets she’d found at a thrift store put to good use. Old drift wood pieces became a striking mandala she hung above the mantle. In the window ledge of the laundry room were cups of water each with an avocado pit suspended by toothpicks so the smooth bum of the pit hung down into the water. She nurtured one of those until it grew into a tree that filled the vaulted ceiling of her living room.
For Betty, ideas could also be beautiful and practical. I remember a conversation we had before her dementia had set in. In anticipation of her death she’d been reading books about the afterlife. One of the books explained that when we die we turn into angels. Her comment was, “Who knows. Maybe it’s true!” I always appreciated her curiosity and openness. They meant conversations with her were deep and wide ranging. Her agile mind was a match for any topic. From her I learned wit, open mindedness, and intellectual creativity.
Curiosity and tolerance informed her gardening style too. I remember how she let the thyme grow outside its bed where it proceeded to fill in the cracks between the pavers. Wild periwinkle, considered a weed by some, grew in between the roses softening the thorny stems. The effect was one of abundance. There was enough room for all plants.
This attitude was apparent in how she treated people. Everyone was welcome in her home, and if you were a friend then you were family. Stepping across the threshold into Grandma’s house was like entering another world and Grandma was like some figure right out of a Celtic fairytale, imbuing her house, the garden, and the sacred space of her home with her very spirit. Being in Grandma’s world meant anything was possible, and more specifically developing into the person I was meant to be was possible. She recognized that people weren't static, they were dynamic, each with their own way of being. She made space for that becoming in her life. Without a word, she allowed it to happen naturally. She was a living example of what it means to be "great from our hearts." I can’t emphasize enough the impact this had on my life. Coming from Lake Oswego where I was constantly being compared to others and the pressure to perform and achieve was relentless, her implicit trust in the natural process of becoming gave me permission to grow at my own pace in my own way. I did more growing in the few short weeks I spent at her house every year than I did at almost any other time.
As a counselor in training the lesson of Grandma’s welcoming attitude and gentle nurturance is timely. As I step into this new role I know Grandma will be right there with me reminding me to believe in people, to make room, to allow, and to keep an open mind. She'll be there reminding me that people already know who they are and when given the right conditions will grow into themselves naturally.