Jeanette K. Boerner O’Donnell (4/19/1893 to 12/21/1984) was the only grandparent I knew growing up in Lancaster, California, in the mid 70’s. I was 8 and she was 80 when she came to live in our home for about two years. We stood eye to eye and weighed about the same. She had a crown of silvery hair and kept her shoulders straight when she walked. Her gentle demeanor made others feel welcome. She was loved by those who knew her.
Jeanette was born in Cedarburg, Wisconsin, and lived there until she moved to California in the 1920’s to attend college (see genealogy). She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English in 1929 and then moved to Lancaster, California, where she was involved in her church. She was gifted in music and played the clarinet, the mandolin and the piano. Her love for God as a young girl continued into her adult life and she was not shy about sharing the Lord with others she met along the way.
She occupied the little bedroom near the front of the house. My room was next to hers, cattycorner across the hall. I walked past her bedroom each morning as I headed to the kitchen for breakfast. Usually awake at sunrise, she had the habit of praising God before getting out of bed, and sometimes I could hear her whispering praises to the Lord. This was her habit every morning. She would hold her hands slightly above the bedcovers and count praises on her fingertips. A hundred praises before she got out of bed. She liked to start each day with worship and honor to the Lord and often had tears by the time she finished her hundredth praise; tears and a smile. Her love for God was genuine, and it flowed out of her in praise for Him and love for others. My grandmother believed in godly habits, as they led to godly character.
My grandmother used to say, “Be disciplined in your life.” By discipline she meant, “do what you ought to do, whether you want to do it or not, because it’s right.” When she spoke of doing what is “right”, she often meant according to the standard of God’s Word. For her, the Bible was the guide for Christian faith and conduct. The Christian was to learn God’s Word and then live it on daily basis. She modeled her Christian faith regularly. She also taught me basic rules of etiquette. She demonstrated politeness and good manners toward others and always had good posture when standing, walking or sitting. As a family, we were very poor financially, but she explained that was no excuse for poor manners, a poor work ethic, or a poor education. Above all, it was no excuse to be poor in love. As Christians, we were to look to Christ, both as our Savior and role model. I must admit, at that time, I did not understand my grandmother, and it took nearly fifteen years of growing up before I began to appreciate her in a fuller way. That’s the way it goes in life. We sometimes learn things we don’t fully understand until later, or we don’t appreciate some people until we grow older.
My grandmother was an anomaly to me. She was out of place in the world that I knew. My parents, siblings and friends were consumed with their own lives and were steeped in worldly values. Everyone did what was right in their own eyes, but my grandmother sought the Lord. She was a light in a dark place. She represented the highest and best in good behavior at a time when all others around me represented the lowest and worst. It’s easy to be worldly when everyone around you is worldly, but she chose to be godly and to live by biblical values.
She was not afraid to share Christ with others. I was with her once in a department store when she decided to share Christ with the man standing next to her. The man was well over six feet, bearded, scruffy, and wearing a black leather jacket with writing on the back. My grandmother turned to him and asked, “Have you made the most important decision of your life?” I did not understand what she was asking him. About fifteen minutes later she was standing with him over in a corner of the store and was sharing the gospel of Christ with him. She explained that Jesus had died on the cross for his sins and was assuring him that he could receive the gift of eternal life if he would trust in Christ as his Savior. A moment later they both closed their eyes and she prayed with him. She was bold when sharing the Gospel of God’s grace.
I remember a conflict I’d had with her once at the house. I’d defied her one morning when she’d asked me to perform a trivial task. I remember looking her square in the eyes and saying “no”. She asked me again to do what she wanted, and again I said “no”. She said, “If you don’t do what I ask, you can spend an hour in your room.” I told her, “No I won’t.” I don’t know why I defied her. She promptly grabbed me by my ear and walked me across the living room and down the hall and put me in my bedroom and said, “stay in your room for an hour and then come out and do what I’ve asked.” I told her “no” and proceeded to wrestle with her. She walked out of the room and shut the door behind her. I grabbed the door and pulled it open, and she pulled it shut, then we tugged on the door back and forth for a few seconds until I finally gave up and sat down on my bed. I sat and read my Curious George book, angry that I was made to stay in my room for an hour. After about twenty minutes I thought perhaps she’d gone away, so I quietly snuck over to the door and gently placed my hands on the knob, and with a quick turn I pulled on the door and was surprised to see my grandmother standing on the other side. She was surprised at my attempt to escape. She quickly pulled the door shut and said, “I’ll stand here the whole hour if that’s what it takes to keep you in your room.” And that’s exactly what she did. Afterwards she let me out and I did what she asked. My respect for her increased greatly.
My grandmother moved away after being with us for nearly two years. Eventually she went to live with my uncle in North Hollywood. She stayed there until her death in 1984. She suffered a stroke one day at the house and died a few days later at a local hospital. My older sister Cindy was able to visit our grandmother in the hospital before she died. Cindy kissed her cheek, thanked her for her love, sang a hymn and prayed with her while holding her hand. Though limited by her stroke, my grandmother continued to pray and praise the Lord until she died. Her faith was strong to the end of her life. She was trophy of God’s grace to all her knew her.
In closing, there was a great spiritual void in my life after my grandmother moved away. There was no one to help me memorize Scripture or teach me right from wrong. As I grew older the ways of the world filled my soul and I fell into darkness. By the time I was 21 I’d ruined my life with drugs and was living on the streets of Las Vegas, Nevada. I woke one morning to the sound of children walking past the fence near the alley where I’d slept the night before. Years of bad choices and heavy drug use had caught up with me and the few weeks I’d spent living on the streets and at the Salvation Army were enough to wake me to the despair of my situation. Worldly living had produced such a darkness within me, there were times I had considered suicide as a solution to end the misery that was my pathetic life. However, there was hope that morning on the grass. God’s voice broke through, as the influence of a godly grandmother came to my mind. I was thinking about Psalm chapter 1, which my grandmother helped me memorize when I was 8. I kept repeating that Psalm over in my mind, and it helped me focus on God rather than the despair of my situation. From that moment onward I began to look to the Lord and Scripture for guidance. My life has been an uphill climb out of the ash heap ever since then, and I thank God for His blessing me more than I deserve. I am thankful for the godly grandmother He placed in my life at a young age. The biblical seeds she planted took root and have been growing ever since. My life is richer because of her.
Steven R. Cook, D.Min.