By Bishop Jane Allen Middleton
How do I choose just one woman who has been influential in my life? In fact, it has taken a village of women to make me who I am.
But if I must chose only one, it has to be Mae Rachel Garwood Nelson, my maternal grandmother. Born in 1898 to a Danish mother and an English/Pennsylvania Dutch father on a farm in Kansas, she was the oldest of four daughters. She was needed to help with her family and one of her great regrets was that she had to quit school at the end of eighth grade. But lack of education served to make her more determined to do something important with her life. She took a correspondence course from the University of Chicago (at least that is the family story, perhaps it was another institution in Chicago!) and received her certificate as a licensed practical nurse. She worked in her profession all of her life, for dentists, doctors and in private duty nursing.
She resolved that her two children, my mother and uncle, would have the opportunities she didn’t have. In spite of the reality that they reached college age in the depths of the depression, my mother received a degree from the University of Kansas and my uncle received a medical degree from that same school. At one point my grandparents moved to Lawrence, KS where they all lived together, my grandmother working as a nurse and my grandfather as a carpenter and all of them living together in order to save enough money to keep their children in school.
Anytime we had a family crisis she was there – my brother’s surgery, our mother’s illness, my father’s broken ankle, and the births of my siblings. She was never paid much, but each special occasion brought a loving card, a note, and a dollar from her. And she said although she knew she wasn’t paid much, the doctors she worked for were always generous in giving her time off.
My grandmother could talk to anyone at any time. Another of my favorite family stories was told by my uncle. My grandmother traveled to visit her family by train or by bus and she would always regale us with stories about the interesting and wonderful people she met on these trips. My uncle picked her up at the bus station one time and as usual she told him she had met a delightful woman on the trip. My uncle immediately asked, “And how is her mother?” My grandmother was well into an explanation about her traveling companion’s mother before she realized he had tricked her.
What my grandmother provided was a powerful foundation of determination, hope, love and faith. She was one who set goals and accomplished them. When my grandfather died suddenly at the age of 59, her life changed dramatically but she carried on. She had never driven in her life but with instructions from her friend, Jewel, she passed her driving test (she practiced in the cemetery and the only critique she received from the officer who tested her was that she turned corners too sharply!). After a lengthy recovery from a stroke, my grandmother had to leave her small home town at the age of 85 and move into elderly housing in Kansas City. She knew most of the other residents in no time.
My grandmother was everyone’s cheerleader, encouraging us, counseling us, and always helping us look for possibilities in the midst of trials. Her love was expressed by caring acts. Her faith was unshakable. One of my strongest memories was of her each morning sitting at her kitchen table reading her Bible with the Upper Room. She had a deep and real prayer life. And she was a faithful member of the Marion Evangelical United Brethren Church, which then became The United Methodist Church. I am grateful for the influence of Mae Nelson on my life.
Bishop Jane Allen Middleton serves as Interim Resident Bishop of the New York Annual Conference. She was elected to the episcopacy in 2004 and assigned to the Harrisburg area where her focus as a bishop was on empowering churches for their ministry to make disciples of Jesus Christ; equipping clergy and laity for transformational leadership; and energizing the conference for mission near and far to bring hope and healing to the hungry, homeless, and marginalized.