For Little Grandma

It takes women from outside a family to perpetuate a name. It takes women like my grandmother: Rita.


Rita died recently. From what I was told, it was a “good death.” Family at her side, acknowledgment, hand-holding, gratitude. Love. We should all hope for what my grandmother got in her final moments.

She married into the Deeren family and without her, the Deerens would have faded into the annals of the Census Bureau decades ago.

I’m the last of the Deerens. Well, not so much “the last” in the sense that all the others have passed. But the family name is in my hands. Three generations ago it was in the hands of my great-grandfather, the first Raymond Deeren. A World War I veteran. A man who killed his own father to protect his mother, another woman who married into the family. Mary married him. Two generations ago, it was in the the hands of my grandfather, Newt, a World War II vet. Rita married him. They had three girls who grew into three strong women now with three different last names. Then the Deeren name fell into my father’s and uncle’s hands. The babies of their generation. A manufacturing engineer and contractor, respectively.

My father never planned on having kids. Lila married him. Then came my sister. My uncle had two girls with Melissa.

The Deeren family, like all others, is a female family. Its “survival” based upon the women who were brave enough to take the name voluntarily, and then, by shotgun accuracy: volume.

Then there’s me. The last Deeren to carry on the name.

I write and wear a condom. I wrote and read the eulogy at my grandmother’s wake. I’ll post it now because, like all eulogies, it’s a celebration. And women like my grandmother should be celebrated at every chance:

“For Little Grandma,

I’m not an expert on the meaning of life nor do I know more than anyone else about the nature of love. I’m also only twenty-eight so, frankly, I won’t waste anyone’s time.

What I will do is offer my short musing on my grandmother’s life of love.

My sister, Janel, and I called her ‘Little Grandma’ because, well, she was little, somewhat quiet, and shorter than our other grandmother. But despite that nickname, I find that the biggest thing about Little Grandma is her capacity for love. And I say that in the present tense because her ability to love others- family, friends, the Church- is present and obvious right here, in all of us. That warm tightness of grief that we feel in days like these is a product of the love Little Grandma poured onto us.

On the topic of our ability and capacity for love, Jesuit Priest Father James Martin said, ‘May we always love prophetically, recklessly, prodigally, dangerously, eternally.’

An example of Little Grandma’s love came in how she met strangers. When she met my girlfriend, she only knew her from, of all places, Facebook. I walked in with my girlfriend, Emma, and without missing a beat, Little Grandma ignored me and said, ‘You must be Emma.’ And she spent the next ten minutes talking to a woman she’d never met while her youngest grandson watched. She already knew her love for me. She now had a new person to give her love to.

That was Rita Deeren. Our Little Grandma, our great-grandmother, our aunt and great-aunt Rita, our friend, our sister, our mother.

Her willingness, her selflessness, to love her church prophetically, her family and friends prodigally, and ever strangers recklessly or dangerously, makes her anything but little. And this warm grief, these tears, this outpouring of support, is proof in her ability to love us all eternally.”

My Grandmother was originally a Merrill. Born in 1927.

My mother was originally a Harwood. Born in 1959.  She pushed me to write the eulogy. Two non-blood Deerens connected by their love for one another and for the family they adopted.

I write a lot about generations. What one gives to the other. What others leave behind. Threads that sew through the years. I don’t ever plan on shooting my own father. Not because I don’t want to protect my mother but because I know I don’t, won’t, have to. My father isn’t his great-grandfather just as much as I’m not my great-grandfather. I think we have the women in our family to thank for that. They’ve slowly tempered the name. Into what, I don’t know. The Deeren men who came before me all work(ed) with their hands and have the scars to prove it. I type. There’s a scar on my thumb from when I cut it making a prop for a high school play. So maybe the women in our lives are pushing us away from actions and more towards words. Maybe those words can lead to better actions. I can get down with that.

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