Tag Archives: grandma

Flowers, Music, and Grandparents


I’ve written a lot lately about my Grandma Klassen, who passed away this week. But I’m going to start this post about my Grandma Goerzen.

She died when I was just an infant. I never knew her, but as the years pass, it seems that I remember her better and better.

After we moved out to the farm where she and Grandpa Goerzen lived for decades, we noticed some flowers she had planted 30 years ago were still coming up, having withstood hail, hot summers, frost, construction equipment, and neglect all that time. Terah said, “It’s like your grandma left us a housewarming gift.”

Some of these flowers had never bloomed. Until this week.

One bloomed for the first time the day Grandma Klassen died.

A second bloom appeared the day of her funeral.

Music #1

My jr. high and high school band teacher loves music (and old engines, but that’s another story). You couldn’t sign up for “band” at my high school; you’d sign up for the class called LIFE. To him, music and life are indistinguishable. He says that anybody can speak to somebody, but music is the best way to speak to the heart.

My Grandpa Klassen died when I was 11. Grandma Klassen, before her health declined, loved to tell me the story of the music at his funeral. At his funeral, my mom and I played a piano duet of Nearer, My God to Thee which we had already learned for a different event. When we were done, Rev. Epp went to the pulpit and said something along the lines of, “If the music in heaven is as good as that, it’ll be a great place indeed.”

I was just 11, and though music did speak to me at that age already, I don’t think I understood how it moved people, such as my grandma, until many years later.

Music #2

Grandma Klassen loved music, too, and that’s reflected in each of her children — all of them play trumpet, for instance. So it’s no surprise that there was a lot of music this week.

She died as two of her children were singing hymns to her at her room in the nursing home.

Two of her grandchildren played trumpet for her at her burial.

And my brother and his wife played trumpet and piano at her funeral.

It was all beautiful, and like my band teacher said, it spoke to my heart.

Music #3

I knew about gradma’s love of music for quite awhile. When she was in better health, I took her to concerts sometimes. One of her favorite hymns was Joyful, Joyful, but she hadn’t known it was based on Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. I learned that the Wichita Symphony Orchestra was performing the 9th, and took her to the performance. She loved it, and I seem to recall that she kept talking about it for a few years afterwards. It certainly didn’t hurt that the singing on the 4th movement was in German. I burned her a “new-fangled” CD of it, which I frequently saw in or near her CD player.

The Kansas Mennonite Men’s Chorus is an all-volunteer choir with about 300 members. They give a couple of concerts a year, and occasionally tour throughout North America and Europe. Their motto is “we sing that others may live” because 100% of money collected at their concerts goes directly to charity.

Attending one of their concerts is a powerful experience not easily forgotten. I think the only time I’ve heard a choir come close to being as amazing as that was when I had the opportunity to attend a Robert Shaw concert a few years ago.

I went with grandma to one of the Kansas Mennonite Men’s Chorus performances a few years ago. As you might expect, she loved it — I think she called it “powerfully good.”

This year, I finally joined the choir. I still remember that first practice. We “warmed up” by singing Holy God, We Praise Thy Name — a song that has opened every KMMC concert for years. These people hadn’t sung together for almost a year, and there were plenty of new people like me there too. But it only took a few bars of singing before I realized just what it was I had joined. The choir started out with the quietest, but most powerful singing you can imagine: “Holy God, we praise thy name.” By the time we got to the end of the page, the building was ringing from 300 men singing “Infinite thy vast domain, everlasting is thy reign!” at the top of their voices, in perfect harmony. We got to the end. The director said. . . “Wow.”

I don’t think a first practice ever spoke to my heart before that day.

Music #4

Nearly 20 years ago, Grandma Klassen bought me a new bible. After she gave it to me, I asked her what some of her favorite passages were. She took me straight to the blessing in Numbers 6, and made sure I underlined it and bookmarked it. It goes like this:

“The Lord bless you,
The Lord keep you,
Make his face to shine upon you and be gracious unto you,
The Lord life up his countenance upon you and give you peace.”

My uncle had read this blessing to her the last time he talked to her. And the KMMC for years has ended their concerts with a beautiful benediction based on this passage. Grandma heard it at the concert I attended with her. It has been a favorite of my mom for years, too.

So I had the thought: we really ought to sing it as a benediction at her funeral. It was hard to find the right mix of people on short notice, but we wound up with me singing baritone, my brother singing 2nd tenor (we both normally sing bass), and his wife both playing piano and singing 1st tenor, and relying on the piano to fill in the bass part.

We had a little chance to practice before the funeral, but not a lot. The two of them have done a lot musically, but I haven’t nearly as much, so I got in some extra practice at home, too.

When it came time to sing, it was an emotional moment for sure — more than a bit hard to focus, knowing the history and meaning of these words. When we got to “and give you peace”, and moved into the chorus of “amen” that finishes the song, I almost broke down right there, but didn’t quite.

We didn’t give a perfect performance, for sure, on such short notice. (And they had me singing with them, so we wouldn’t have been perfect even with plenty of notice!)

But it didn’t have to be perfect. After we ended the last, quiet “amen”, I think I heard about a half-dozen noses blowing all at once. My band teacher was right about music speaking to the heart.

Later, during lunch, my aunt said to me, “Wow, John, I’ve never heard you sing before!” “That’s right, and this may be the last time you hear me sing, too! I don’t normally sing in a small group like this.”

A few minutes later, my uncle that gave the message came over and talked to the three of us. “John, today you three brainwashed me.” “Oh?” “Yes. For years, I thought that there was no music as beautiful as the trumpet. After hearing you three sing, I have to reconsider.”

And so my band teacher was also right: music is life. My grandma was a person that could hardly speak without touching the heart. That beautiful melody of her life didn’t stop when she died Tuesday afternoon. I’ve been hearing it all week.


Yesterday was my grandma Klassen’s funeral at Alexanderwohl Mennonite Church, where she had been a member for decades.

My uncle, a pastor, gave the meditation. He had been a missionary in Vietnam during the war, and he remained there after the United States withdrawal. During that time, things were very dangerous for him, and all means of communicating with the family back home were completely cut off. My grandparents had no way of knowing if he was OK.

He later heard of a conversation my grandma had with a neighbor one day during this time:

Neighbor: “You must be so worried about your son in Vietnam!”

Grandma: “Not really. I gave him back to the Lord the day he graduated high school.”

Neighbor: “If you’re not worried, then I’m REALLY worried!”

Grandma: “Why worry? Heaven is just as close to Vietnam as it is to Kansas.”

That exchange sums her up pretty well, I think. She was so deeply religious that it gave her a great sense of peace about life.

We heard so many stories about her this week. We heard how, when she was already in her upper 80s, she helped a farmer get his equipment out of the mud and ran some heavy farm machinery. She was in charge of my cousin’s schoolwork for a little while (she lived with them back then, and his parents were taking a trip). She apparently made sure he did every little assignment left for him in exacting detail, even the ones that his mother had said were “extra”, just in case he needed something else to do. Apparently when his parents got back, he said he loved his time with grandma, but begged them to never put her in charge of his schoolwork again!

I told the story of learning to play chess when I was a child. My grandpa was teaching me the game. I was having some trouble learning some of the rules, and was frustrated because he was also beating me (like usual). After a little while of me getting more and more frustrated, grandma said something to him in German and all of a sudden I started winning.

Yesterday evening was the community Good Friday church, with the combined choirs of our church and Alexanderwohl singing. That wasn’t the easiest thing to do after the funeral in the morning, but I’m glad I did. Tomorrow I’ll be singing again for Easter.


Jacob has lately been telling us “gate gamma kassen so sick” (Great Grandma Klassen is so sick), after his visit to the hospital, and it’s true.

Today started normal enough, but by 2:45 I got an email from my mom, saying that grandma had taken yet another turn for the worse; her pulse was racing, her temperature feverish, and her breathing shallow and difficult. The last grandchild that was going to be there made it, and got the last flicker of recognition from grandma. I wrapped some things up at work.

Then I made the short drive from work to the nursing home, and got there just after 4. I went in to her room there, and it was full of family. Two of her children were singing her favorite hymns. I can never forget my uncle’s deep bass voice as he stood at her bedside, holding her arm, while my aunt patted her head, both of them singing. Grandma’s only remaining sibling, her younger brother Melvin, sat on the other side of the bed, looking on.

Grandma’s white table and chairs, which were in grandma and grandpa’s house as long as I can remember, and followed grandma through all of the four other places she lived in the last years of her life, were in her room at the nursing home too. It always felt like home to be with grandma and those familiar things that she always took with her. Despite what was happening, I was glad she was back at home.

My uncle motioned me over to her bedside, and I took her hand for a few minutes. It felt cold and weak; for the first time, she didn’t grab my hand at all.

A nurse came in to check oxygen saturation, but the machine wasn’t able to get a reading due to poor circulation to her hand. She wasn’t able to get a heart rate either because the heart was racing so fast. She discussed briefly whether the family wanted them to continue giving her oxygen, and they decided that they would, for her comfort.

My uncle and aunt kept singing. I blew my nose and dabbed at my eyes, and there were hugs all around. And just a few minutes later, grandma peacefully stopped breathing, maybe 20 minutes after I had arrived.

They went to get the nurse, who came back to listen to grandma’s heart again, though we knew what she would find. She took the stethoscope off, and she almost lost her composure, but managed to say “you can turn the oxygen off now.” Several people gave grandma a last hug.

After a few minutes with just the family, they told the nurses to go ahead and call the funeral home. That set off a lot of activity making arrangements for the next few days, funeral plans, and the like. I stepped back into grandma’s room a few times, while the family was in the sitting area right outside it discussing. I looked around at the family photos on the wall, the old table and chairs, the recliner. Now, these are the things that were grandma’s. It didn’t feel like home anymore.

Terah and Jacob were stuck at home — Terah’s car was at the mechanic for repair today. I called to give her the news. She wanted to come to be with the family, but I didn’t really want to leave. She tried calling some friends to see if they could give her a lift to the mechanic, but not one of them was available. I talked to her again and suggested she just call the mechanic. She wasn’t even halfway through describing the situation when he interrupted with, “We’ll have it at your place right away!” “Well, I don’t expect you to have to do that, or you could certainly wait until you close.” “Nope, this isn’t your average community, we’ll bring it right over. You should be there.”

Grandma has enjoyed a simple life and had requested a simple death: no extraordinary measures at the end of life, no embalming either. So, by law, the burial must happen within 24 hours of death, and will be tomorrow.

After all the arrangements, people realized nobody had supper yet. We went to the quickest available option — pizza — and ate there. It was paid for out of grandma’s remaining money — the last meal of so many that she provided for her family over the years. It was a happy meal.

As I drove home, NPR news was on the radio. There were the same stories we hear all the time: the economy, the mideast, the president. Normally I’m interested, but today I shut it off. Today is different.

Tomorrow, for the second time in four years, I will help carry a grandparent’s casket a few days before Easter.

I’ll end tonight with this photo. It was taken soon after Jacob was born. Grandma came to the hospital and held him. That smile sums her up perfectly.



Today over lunch, I and 6 others went to visit Grandma.

She was in her room, looking better physically today than yesterday. When I walked in, I said brightly, “Hi Grandma!” She took my hand warmly, and said to me, “Now I don’t think we’ve met. Who are you?”

I knew that moment would happen someday, but still was surprised when it happened.

Mom told her that we were there to tell her we love her. Grandma counted out the seven of us, and said, “All these wonderful people here to tell that to ME?” That’s Grandma still there!

It was a difficult moment. Many of us were tearful, and Grandma was sick enough that she sometimes lost the battle to stay awake. But we were all glad it was happening.

Mom thought it right (me too) that she should tell Grandma about the latest word from the doctors. The conversation went, in part, something like this, with my mom addressing her mother:

My Mom: “Mom, the doctors say your heart is probably wearing out.”

My Grandma: *shrug* “Yeah.”

My Mom: “And your body is probably tiring out too.”

My Gramdma: “Yes it is. I’m 94.”

It’s not that Grandma was depressed or anything. Just that she had long ago been at peace with the idea of death, and actually told us more than once that the was rather surprised that she has lived to be as old as she has. So it wasn’t frightening or surprising to her to confront her own mortality. To her, it was a fact, and an obvious one at that.

My brother brought along Grandma’s old Bible. She had given it to him a few years ago. It was filled with highlights and handwritten notes from cover to cover. She had carefully analyzed it, and when she bought a new Bible, had carefully copied the notes to it. My brother read to her two passages that she had highlighted:Psalm 23: (which she has noted as “a favorite of many Christians”) and Numbers 6:24-26. He then held her hand and said a prayer with her. Then he said a blessing for her, and as he was getting to the end, she interrupted, saying the last word for him: “forever!”

She still had her sense of humor, and made us all laugh several times. She said, as she always has when any of us stop by to visit, how happy she is that we came by, and what a wonderful family she has. She said several times “Danke schön, Danke schön, Danke schön!” (Thank you, thank you, thank you! — she had made sure to teach a few German words to all of us as kids.)

When it was time to go, she got lots of hugs from us, and made a point to tell each of us individually “thank you for coming!”

As we walked down the hall, I was reminded of her old tradition going back many years. Whenever we would leave her house, she’d wave to us from the porch. And, if it was dark, we’d turn on the car light and wave back. Since she’s been in the nursing home, she’ll wave to us from her doorway as we walk down the hall.

And, sure enough, today’s visit ended with her waving to us from her doorway with both hands (as she always does) and a big smile. We all waved back with a smile as we walked away, too.

I don’t know if this will be the last goodbye with her, but if it is, I can’t think of a better one.


When I was a child, I was learning to play piano. My parents didn’t have one at the time, but my grandparents did. Every evening, we’d go over to their house so I could practice. I suspect I was more interested in other things most of the time, though — whether Grandma has some cherry moos in her fridge, or whether Grandpa would play chess with me or do something fun in his workshop.

Grandma would often be in her curlers, and we’d often leave her in the evening saying goodbye in the pink fluorescent lights she had shining on her plants by the door.

Other times, we’d just go to visit, or I’d ride my bike over. I liked helping Grandma cook or bake peppernuts. And when I was trying to learn chess from Grandpa, and Grandma thought he was being too hard on me, she’d say something to him in German and I’d magically start winning.

Grandma volunteered at a local thrift store weaving rugs. These were made by hand on old looms in a traditional way, mainly out of donated clothes and drapes that were too tattered to sell. My mom used to drop me off with grandma while she went shopping. I maybe brought my lunch, and watched grandma, until one time I asked her if I could help. She let me, and eventually the store manager told grandma that I ought to be able to work on my own loom. Pretty soon we had a routine down: in summer, Grandma would pick me up at home, I’d read a computing magazine in the car to town, and work at a loom side-by-side with Grandma. That lasted until I got too busy in high school. But ever since then, Grandma delighted in telling this whole story almost every time she saw me, and she remembered word for word what the store manager said — something I never quite could remember.

I remember watching Grandma care for my brothers when they were sick, or helping out my parents with whatever they needed help with. We had a tradition for a number of years of spending New Year’s Eve at Grandma and Grandpa’s house, and going back home the next morning. The three of us boys slept in a cold upstairs room, but we didn’t care because the bed had more layers on it than we could count, and an electric blanket besides.

When my Grandpa Klassen passed away in 1990, Grandma missed him but didn’t get too worked up about it. She was convinced that he was in a better place, and appeared to be at peace with it. Death was a normal part of life to her, and it didn’t surprise her that it happened.

In the last few years, Grandma’s health has been failing. Her knees have been bothering her for years, and she has also been struggling with dementia for a few years. It’s been hard on me to visit her, because in some ways she hasn’t been the same person I remember for awhile now, and in other ways she’s exactly the same. Lately she hasn’t always remembered where I live, or what Terah and Jacob’s names are, we knew to expect that and are respectful of the situation. For years now, Grandma has been saying, “I don’t know why the Good Lord doesn’t take me up to be with him yet. My bags are packed and I’m ready!”

Last time I saw her, I mentioned that we used to do weaving together, and she couldn’t remember. That was a sure sign to me that things had taken a turn for the worse. Our last several visits have ended with a big hug, and her still iron grip on my hand, with her saying, “Thank you for coming! My family is so good to me. We love each other!”

She’s been battling infections and heart problems the past few weeks. This evening, I got an email from my mom saying “It’s time” to say our goodbyes. She had been to see Grandma today, and Grandma still managed to tell her, “We love each other.”

As much as time has changed her in the past few years, she’s still there, the same loving Grandma as ever.