Marlene “Memaw” Shetter
As a child, did you have that one person?

That one person who you adored so much, for so long, that it was difficult to imagine a world without them? So formative were they to you, that they literally “built” who you are today?

That’s why I said my prayers precisely the same way every night. Every night.

At the closing of my prayers, I would say; 
Please don’t let anyone break into our house tonight.
Please Lord, don’t let my parents fight.
Please keep me safe at school tomorrow because I’m redheaded and people are mean.

And please let Memaw live to be 100. Amen”

I seriously prayed for her to live that long. Because I loved her that much. And that was my way of expressing (in the only way I knew how) that I could not imagine living life without Memaw.

Why? What did she do for me?

She made me feel safe.
She made sure I was dressed.
She took me to the doctor.
She picked me up from school
She considered it a personal mission to make sure I ate food every day.
She taught me how to love, even when you would rather not.
She introduced me to Jesus.

And that’s the short list.

Because of the conflict-filled nature of my actual home, and the fact that Memaw continued to step in and parent me, I just naturally asked if I could live with her: and I was thrilled when I was allowed to in 8th grade. 

It felt so good to be wanted. To be safe, to be loved.

Easily, Marlene Shetter (pronounced “Shutter”), my grandmother, is the kindest, most giving, selfless, and loving person I’ve ever known. It’s hard to describe her without her sounding saintly, so I promise to do my best to be truthful here.

Confession: I haven’t mastered loving people, giving to people, or learning how to not put myself first. However, when I get any of those things right, it’s only because I learn to drink from the stream of the deep reservoir of her love.  And I know that now I’m a “responsible adult” with a family, a ministry, and deeply effective fashion sense, yet I would give every dollar I have to sit in her kitchen for one last Sunday afternoon dinner with her. And it wouldn’t be about the food, although that aspect of the experience would be outstanding. Mostly, I would listen. I’d listen to her talk about whatever she wanted to. 

Looking back, it’s strange to notice the things she didn’t have:

I was with her a lot but I don’t remember her speaking negatively about anyone.
She didn’t have a lot of conflict in her house, she was the peacemaker.
She didn’t have a vast repertoire of packaged condescending guilt trip/life lessons that left you feeling worse.
She didn’t have grudges. Even if you hurt her. I would know.
She had no limits on how long she loved you. Just ask my dad.

You see, my own mother (Memaw’s daughter) divorced my dad when I was 2 years old in 1982 after only a few years of marriage. Dad never recovered from this and spiraled downward into depression and addiction. I’m not being unkind or disrespectful when I say that my dad was not a dad I was able to depend on, emotionally or physically.

Yet, Memaw continued to love him. (A former son-in-law!)

Years after the divorce, she continued to take him meals on every holiday. Seriously—that was because Memaw had already decided to love my dad early on, and nothing could change that. And She would drive me crazy with reminding me to call him and once I started driving, to “Go see your dad. He misses you.”

My Childhood with Memaw

For all the comfort of living in a safe place and being loved, life at Memaw’s could be quite different. Though this was the 80’s, our lifestyle could easily be mistaken for that of someone growing up (poor) in the 1940’s. No air-conditioning. No video games. Many meatless dinners. We were spanked with “switches.” I recall going to a restaurant five different times as a child….and by “restaurant” I mean McDonalds or Dairy Queen. We only bought clothes at Sears because that was where Memaw had credit. We rested on Sundays after Church and we never missed an episode of The Andy Griffith Show. We had a rotary phone until 1992. Cable TV was out of reach, and I didn’t know you could order pizza for delivery until I was in college in 1998.


You know how the longer you know someone, the more nooks and crannies of their personality you learn? Memaw was no different.

As mentioned, she was an amazing cook. But she had this irrational fear of making someone sick, and often over-cooked the chicken

She also had a peculiar not-quite neurosis that someone would steal her purse. The ironic part of it is that you (or anyone) could have asked for anything in her purse, cash included, and she would have gladly given it to you. But had you tried to snatch her purse she would have fought you to the death. It stayed in the kitchen during the day and at bed time her last activity was to get her purse and place it beside her bed where it stayed until she got up the next morning.

Another funny thing about that purse? In it she ALWAYS had a damp washrag with ivory liquid in a ziplock baggie just in case one of the grandkids touched something dirty and needed to be cleaned up.

She sang loudly. Note I did not say “beautifully”. Yes, she sang a lot, but Memaw (Insert obligatory ‘bless her heart’), had little singing talent. And we loved hearing her sing out-of-tune, whether it was hymns at church, or a duet with George Jones while on her treadmill at home.

Not Fair at all…

I remember thinking it didn’t seem fair in the spring of 2008 when she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. However, not once did any of us do anything but assume that she would fight it and win. And when she had the cancer removed and finished with chemotherapy, we thought she had beaten it.

Only she hadn’t beaten it. It came rocketing back mercilessly, and ripped her away from us.

You see, when I would pray as a child, “Please let Memaw live to be 100,” I just figured that by then I would be in my 60’s—old enough for me to be able to emotionally withstand losing her (yes-a child’s logic).   And I couldn’t have ever imagined losing her when I had just turned 30 years old. Plus, I had never lost anyone close to me. To this day, watching her waste away, by inches and ounces, remains the worst, most hurtful event of my life.

I think Memaw’s spiritual gift was as an encourager. No, she wasn’t hip to the fashion stylings of a teenager in 1994, but she would see what I wore and regardless of what it was, enthusiastically declare “You look so cool! That’s the style now”.  Never mind that I never had a girlfriend. It wasn’t until I met Heather Hildebrand in 1997 that I began to realize that maybe pleated jeans with a crease ironed into them (by Memaw) weren’talways the coolest thing to wear. Yes, it’s a miracle I got married. And it’s more miraculous that I married Heather: she’s nothing but gorgeous. More on her later. 

And one more thing…

To accurately illustrate for you what Memaw was *like*, I need to tell you about the time I most made her angry. Now, understand: I was a good kid. I didn’t get in trouble in high school, played by the rules, and I realize now that’s because I simply didn’t want to disappoint her. 

But there was this one time. And I wish I could blame all it on my cousin Jeremy. Jeremy was a year and a half younger than I was (hey—he still is!) and he was either my best bud or my greatest nemesis, depending on whatever adventure we were on. Both our moms worked, so the summers usually found us both at Memaws. Which was great--there was plenty to do and lots of land to explore and play on.

The only problem was how very different my and Jeremy’s personalities were. I was a control freak and Jeremy was laid back and just wanted to do whatever he deemed fun at the moment. I wanted a plan and a schedule (and still do!). If we were gonna play “cops & robbers” I expected Jeremy to follow correct police procedure and abide by my rules.  Seriously—is that too much to ask? “Play the role authentically, man!”

But going by a simple set of guidelines never worked for Jeremy, and usually ended up in police brutality, with me as the perp. Though he was younger (and far less handsome than I), when puberty hit him, he outgrew me substantially. It was then that I had to back off with the fighting for fear of getting my butt handed to me via Jeremy.

And I remember one particularly bad fight [Note: Boys can get in fist fights, gouge each other with sticks, and kick each other in the crotch all in the timespan of a morning, and then come in for lunch and watch cartoons and be just fine with each other] However, Memaw saw us getting particularly vicious in our “fighting” and we saw her coming to break it up, per usual.

Only this time I noticed she was crying. Which always succeeded in making me feel one inch tall. But then she said:

“Why do y'all treat me this way?” I looked at her as if she had grown a third eye. This was crazy. I had been the one who got kicked in the neck, not her. But then I realized. I realized she loved us so much that seeing us hurt one another hurt her much more deeply.

I had never thought of it like that. It had never crossed my mind we were hurting her. I was heartbroken and swore I would never hurt Memaw again. Lesson learned, fighting stopped. 

I’ll close for now (and I appreciate each of you who have read this entire thing) with one last tribute to Memaw.

When a holiday comes, or every now and then when I look at my kids, I have this deep… ache, missing her, knowing they will never meet Memaw this side of heaven. But there are other times, sometimes in the early hours of the morning that I dream she is still alive. That she is healthy, whole, and approves of me, as she always did. That she approves of my life with Heather and our five babies.

It’s so vivid and real when Memaw “visits’ me like this. And I realize now that anyone who builds so much beautiful space in you remains with you as you try to honor the principles they stood for and tried to teach.

Thank you, Memaw. For so many things. Mostly for teaching me about love and never giving up on me. I will see you again someday….or maybe even tonight.