My maternal grandmother was a tiny, beautiful woman. I never remember her being anything but lovely. Even her shoes were lovely. I distinctly remember one set of high-heels that had a clear, plastic arch over the toes. They looked like what I'd always imagined Cinderella's glass slippers to be. When she wasn't looking, I'd slip them on and walk around for a moment, curtsying a little. One summer (when I was about age 12) I couldn't squeeze my feet into them anymore, and I was heartbroken and embarrassed. I hadn't inherited her genteel genes after all. I was doomed to be average.
As the only girl in my immediate family, I often spent time alone with my grandma. She and her second husband lived in Palm Springs part of the year, but she would come back to her house in northern Utah to escape the California summer heat and enjoy the house by the river that her first husband - my grandpa - built her. She often needed a little company, so I would sleep over with her in this house on the river. At night, after we had both changed into our nightgowns, she would open the windows to let in the evening breeze and the sound of river. I would lie next to her in her bed, listening to her fall asleep, and watch her sheer curtains blow forward and drift back, like the rise and fall of her breath. It was sacred and intimate in a way that almost seemed foreign the next morning as we moved about in the bright sunlight, getting breakfast and making our small talk.
A few weeks ago when we were passing through my hometown after a camping trip, we drove by that house by the river, a house that - during my childhood - had been my world. It looked different. Somehow all the magic was gone. It was like those poor animals people shoot, stuff, and hang on their walls. They aren't alive anymore, but they're still there, looking at you. That's what that house is like now. It's there, but there's no real life in it. I guess that's because it once looked so lively to me: my grandma's flower beds full of annuals she chose and planted every year, the succulents that opened like roses against the rocks, the flower pots I watered for her every summer. It was alive to me because she was there. Now her grave is up in the cemetery, near the mouth of the canyon and next to the university campus. It's the most serene spot in the world. But other than the gravestone, what evidence is left of her life?
So much of history is sad to me. Countless people gone and little evidence to show for their individual lives. What is their proof of how they lived? What do they leave behind?
In this chapter, Jesus is preparing to die. He's been trying to tell his disciples, but they aren't ready to hear that. He goes to eat dinner at the house of Simon the Leper (which, if I can be totally irreverent here, doesn't sound real appetizing), and as they are in the middle of eating, a woman comes in. She does something that seems strange at first. She pours oil on Jesus's head. But instead of being surprised, the disciples are angry. That oil is expensive. In fact, it's called "a very precious ointment," and is so special that she brings it in an alabaster box. The disciples suggest she sell it and give the money to the poor instead of "wasting" it like this. They are furious.
Jesus chastises them. He explains that, unbeknownst to her, she was preparing him for his burial. She was fulfilling prophecy. She knew that, above all things in the world, he was the most sacred, and she worshiped him. Then he says something that has been in my mind for weeks now. He says that his gospel will be preached throughout the whole world, and when it is, "this, that this woman hath done, [will] be told for a memorial of her." In other words, she's going to be famous for this.
Now, when we pick up this book, she is there. Every time we read of the crucifixion, she is there. She is intricately connected to what she loved most.
Some people have palaces or temples or statues built to memorialize them, to push against the erasure of death. My grandma has a gravestone. Some people have nothing. But maybe, in the end, it's what others have to tell of us that is the greatest memorial. Matthew, Mark, and John all include the woman in their telling of Jesus's life. John even tells us her name: Mary. Jesus prophesies that the world will always remember her. She memorializes Jesus, and he does the same for her.
My grandmother once told me she felt 16 all her life, and I've seen her that way all of mine. She once stopped a young boy on the street on a cold winter day. He had no coat, and not being able to walk past him, she took him to the nearest department store and bought him one. She cried over her children more than most mothers. And had reason to. Once, just after my grandpa died, she was pulled over for speeding. When the policeman approached her window to talk to her, all she could do was weep, she was so lost and bereaved. Once she carried a lot on her tiny shoulders. Once she made a house sacred and her soft breathing kept me company through the long night.