…she is fierce. (Shakespeare)
This is a tribute to the ministry of my Nana, Carlene Wade Jackson, given by me at her memorial service on July 27, 2016. Interspersed are a few favorite pictures.
My cousin Matthew and I (we are three years old in this picture) had the privilege of being the first grandchildren to grace the arms of Carlene and Johnny Jackson Sr. (front and center) and so the task has fallen to us this afternoon to help remember our Nana on behalf of the grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
I am the oldest grandchild by a whopping three days – something I attempted to lord over Matthew all during our childhood, to no avail. And now, at our age, I suppose it isn’t something to brag about.
But even though our birth order never really mattered to anyone but me, there was one thing that did set me apart from Matthew. I was a granddaughter. This is same thing that sets Jemimah, Jennifer, and Judea, apart from Joshua, Micah, Jonathan, James, Jacob and Sam. We were the four granddaughters of a Nana who was the mother of four sons. And as such we were both a mystery and a delight to her. We were all a little feistier than she had expected, but I think if you knew her it is obvious where our spunk and independent spirit came from.
Nana was never short on opinions or love, especially for her granddaughters. And while there were many things she attempted to teach us regarding the behavior of ladies (some successfully, some were lost causes) the lessons I personally learned most from her, I learned by watching her live and love for the past forty-one years.
Like many Jacksons before me, I am by calling and trade, a minister. And while I may have learned how to preach from the men in the family, I learned how to minister from my Nana.
My Nana had an exceptional gift of hospitality. Any of you who had the privilege of eating a meal my Nana’s table, knew she was an amazing cook, the kind of home cook who put out a spread of southern-cooking’s greatest hits each time she stepped into the kitchen. During my childhood, my family lived all over the country – from Florida to Alaska, and often our trips home to Little Rock coincided with major events: holidays, ordination services, revival weeks, weddings, all of which birthed my favorite part of coming home: Sunday evening gatherings at Nana and Granddaddy’s. In those days, before we all grew up, my grandparents’ house was a wonderful gathering place for friends and family, especially after church services. Their house, at 2905 Echo Valley Drive had been built the year I was born, and remained the one constant physical space in my life for thirty-nine years. That house had a long hallway that was always the location for pint-sized football games and wrestling sessions – a hallway I generally stayed out of, preferring instead to linger in the the formal living and dining room where people sat in front of plates piled high with fried chicken, black-eyed peas, mashed potatoes, mac–n-cheese, sautéed squash, bowls of corn chowder, chicken-n-dumplings, cornbread and rolls on the side, followed by pies, my Mama Ruby’s chocolate chip cookies and my Nana’s famous pound cakes. All around the tables – and there were plenty of tables in my Nana’s home – I alone took home five card tables when we sold her house – the grown-ups talked religion, movies, occasionally politics, and always football, and I loved to listen to their chatter. In the background, grown-ups and kids tinkered on the piano, sometimes a full-on gospel quartet forming, often and the guest of honor taking the hot seat, leading everyone in a round of rousing hymns.
In the family room, football was most likely on the TV, children darting in and out, playing hide and seek grabbing bites of rolls and honey baked ham in between their games.
Our family is like everyone else’s – we are not perfect. We have had our fights, our heartbreaks, our wounded pride and hurt feelings. That is just life between humans – messy and beautiful and frayed around the edges. But nothing can ever diminish the love and warmth I felt as a child in my Nana’s home; the feeling that I was the luckiest girl in the world to be a part of something so magical. All the laughter, all the singing, the great food, the intense discussions, the storytelling… Those nights were a powerful life force that enveloped me, comforted me, and inspired me. They taught me so much about love and community. And they were all because of my Nana. Her love of ministering through hospitality was a gift from God that brought people together around the table to pray and to break bread, and I have spent my entire adult life trying to recreate it in my own home.
Another gift of ministry that Nana possessed was the gift of ministering to children. Nana loved small children and worked tirelessly for years as the Preschool or Nursery director in her churches. A few years ago I inherited several of her instructional books like this one, tabbed, marked, underlined, with notes in the margins. I especially love one section called Some Do’s for Nursery Workers. This list includes such hits as
- Remove your hat.
- Get down on the child’s level, even if it means sitting on the floor most of the time.
- Use a soft voice.
- Listen and observe more than you talk.
It is a pretty neat thing to have a Nana who is rich in knowledge about early childhood development, who would sit on the floor and play with us, who would sing songs about Jesus to us in her soft voice, who would listen to our thoughts and opinions. In fact it was my Nana who taught me – by how she treated me and my cousins, and how she treated the children in her church – that children are just as worthy of learning the Gospel as any adult. That just as much time and preparation should go into preparing their Sunday School lesson as for any adult class. In Nana’s world, little children were not second-class citizens, but instead we were people in our own right. A powerful message to a granddaughter like me.
And thirdly, my Nana taught me about the ministry of friendships. Because we lived out of state for most of my childhood, my summer visits to Arkansas would often be extended and I would happily shuffle from my mother’s parents’ home to my Nana and Granddaddy’s home to the homes of my aunts and uncles. But life for them didn’t stop just because there was a kid thrown into the mix for several weeks. Which meant I got to tag along as they went about their normal lives – going to the church office with my Granddaddy, folding laundry with my Aunt Vicki, and window shopping with my Aunt Kathy. And when I was with Nana, I got to go visiting. I cannot tell you how many times we went and visited friends such as Miss Gwen, Miss Fern, or Miss Marilynn, and many more. In fact I think everyone here could add name after name to the list of my Nana’s best friends. No one has ever had as many best friends as she did. Dropping off food, running errands for her elderly friends, helping with small housekeeping jobs for the injured or expecting, she did all of this and more while still often cooking three meals a day for Granddaddy . But mostly what my Nana did for her friends was to listen and pray. I will forever hold dear the image of her on the phone at that little desk she had built into the bookcases near the kitchen, how she would give those little nods and murmurs of agreement or in some cases her lip smacks of disapproval. “Well, I swan!” she would exclaim when shocked while she listened to a friend share her story. And I will always remember Nana sitting on the edge of her bed, updating her prayer request list in her little spiral notebooks. Years and years of names and recipes often lumped together between the ruled lines. My Nana was a wonderful friend to so many women – she treasured them, looked after them, tended to their physical, spiritual, and emotional needs. Up until the very end she kept her address book right beside her, a book that was overflowing with notes and names and reminders of people to pray for. I try, like her, to be a friend that listens, and prays.
My Nana may have looked small, and sweet and soft on the outside – and she was, she was the “most feminine woman” ever as my Granddaddy would have said.
But in my eyes she was also fierce and strong – strong of will, strong of opinion, strong of conviction. But most of all strong and fierce in her love – for her friends, for all the children in her life – her sons, her grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, for my Granddaddy, but most of she was fierce in her love for Jesus.