The most special part of Christmas was being able to share it with my grandmother. Christmas was always her favorite time of year, and it filled her with joy to have the house filled with her family. After missing Christmas with her last year due to COVID, we were overjoyed to spend the season with her this year. It always fills my heart to watch her watch all her great-grand-children. Saying goodbye when we leave is always heartbreaking because, while we hope otherwise, we know it could be the last time.
While she seemed in very good health over the Christmas season, within in a couple weeks of returning to Panama, I got the phone call that I had been dreading. Grandma had gone into the hospital for an infection. While they initially expected her to make a recovery, they couldn’t get her oxygen levels up. They offered to intubate her, but she declined. She told her kids that she was ready to join Papa Pete (her husband who had passed three years earlier) and meet Jesus. She was completely at peace with her decision. It took a few days, but with medication, her passing was relatively pain free. Her children stayed by her side and read to her from the Bible for hours. While she was in and out, she had moments of real clarity and tried to give them instructions and leave them with parting words. I was lucky enough to get to talk with her on the phone one last time. She told me what a good mother I was and reminded me how the most important thing is to share love with everyone and love them in the way that they needed.
I got a flight out of Panama as soon as I could, but she passed the day before my flight. I arrived in time to attend the service and give the eulogy. Even though it was supposed to be small service of just family, a hundred people came. She was so beloved in the family and the community. In honor of her, I wore her pin with cardinals (her favorite bird). Several people remarked to me that they had seen more cardinals in their yard that morning than ever before. We knew her spirit was strong among us. We spent the rest of the week with family trying to organize her belongings, but also enjoy our time together. She was the foundation and the glue of the family. With all of us spread so far apart, we are not sure what will bring us together again in the future. Hopefully we will find a way.
Below is the eulogy that I wrote for her. It’s hard to do justice to a life so fully lived and to a woman so loved. Hopefully it honored her memory and brought comfort to those who loved her.
Thank you all so much for coming today to honor and remember one of the most beloved women, Elizabeth Ann Thering Specht. I am Stacey, her oldest of five grandchildren- not the favorite grandchild (we all know Brandon has that title).
I last spoke to my grandmother this week when she was in the hospital. By that time, she had expressed her wish that she was ready to see her husband again and be embraced by Jesus. When we spoke, she was alert and like usual, she had so much to say. My sister, Heidi and I were on speaker phone with her. I had prepared all these things in my head of what my last, parting words to her would be- how I would bestow years of gratitude and love into one final message- but like usual, I could hardly get a word in. So I’m not sure what she heard of what I said, but I heard what she said.
She said, “Go Bills!”
That’s a true story, but she also said, “Stacey and Heidi, you are such good mothers.” In that one sentence she said so much because it spoke to her highest value, motherhood. She went on to tell us to continue to love all the people in our lives and to tell us that all people need to be loved differently.
Motherhood and love, the messages she felt were the most important to share in her last moments. Motherhood and love were one in the same to her. She was a true believer in God. She knew that “God is Love” and so is being a mother was her calling and her way to share God’s love with everyone in her life.
I remember her once asking me if I ever prayed to the Virgin Mary. I told her I didn’t, I just went straight to Jesus. She told me she often spoke to the Virgin Mother because she felt Mary truly understood her needs as a woman and as a mother. When she was burdened she turned to the one in heaven she felt understood her best, a mother. I didn’t have kids then, and I didn’t totally understand it, but I do now. Now that I understand that Grandma Betty had embraced that identity of a mother and embodied all it meant- having to be the source of love, light and unwavering strength for a family and community.
I want to be clear that when I talk about motherhood, I’m talking about the concept beyond the biological role. Motherhood is something we can all embody regardless of our gender or if we have our own biological children.
Of course, she was an amazing mother to her three children, the most epic grandmother to her five grandchildren, and she had the blessing to even hold her five great-grandchildren. She was the true foundation of this family, but her role as a mother extended far beyond that. She was a nurturer, a caregiver, a welcomer, and embodiment of God’s love to everyone who crossed her threshold. She even was a beloved symbol of safety to the hundreds of children she helped cross the street in her years as a school crossing guard. It’s why her house was never empty. Because when you sat at her table, you felt warmth, you felt special, and you knew love.
We often sugar coat the joys of motherhood and talk about the magic, but I want to take a second to also recognize the hardship. Motherhood is a relentless responsibility, and Grandma Betty was no stranger to the weight of suffering it can bring.
Even before kids, her early years of marriage were incredibly difficult as she was the caretaker for her new husband after an automobile accident. As a young woman who had never left the farm, she had to travel to a large city, find an apartment to live in alone, find a job and spend every free hour in the hospital watching over her husband and making deals with God for his life. Even after he was released, she bore the weight of being his primary caregiver through years of disability and recovery. Many young women with their whole lives ahead of themselves wouldn’t have stayed, but she assumed the responsibility, and their love grew into the most solid and endearing partnership creating the foundation for their blossoming family tree.
As a loving daughter, she mothered her own mother for years after a disabling stroke, and then cared for her father until his passing. She also knew the worst pain of having children who suffer from illness. She often told me, “If you have your health, you have everything.” because she knew the true torment of watching your loved ones suffer.
When my father was suggesting words for this eulogy, he said, “She had a great life.” But actually, like any life fully lived, it was a life often marked with anguish and the deepest burdens only a mother can bear. But the reason it seems like a great life is because of how she bore those burdens, with grace, with a smile and sense of humor, with resilience, and with love.
Amidst the suffering, she always found joy. She used to reminisce about when her kids were young and they lived near their cousins. She loved having her house filled with children playing. Her children tell stories of all the special experiences she made for them. Even things like setting a tent up in the backyard to have a camping sleepover and waking them up with breakfast cooked over the campfire.
As a mother, she was slow to anger and quick with comfort. She knew that children needed unconditional love, to feel seen and to feel secure. Her children also remember her endless energy. She loved to work out in her garden, ride her bike everyday, and bake amazing cookies, pies and cakes. All to create a home where people felt loved and welcomed.
I believe that we grandchildren really got the best of her. My sister and I were lucky enough to be sent to Buffalo for a month every summer to join our three boy cousins under the care of our grandparents. Grandma Betty filled those summers with daily adventures, and Papa Pete was always along for the ride. All five of us kids would pack into their car and we would go to Darien Lake, Niagara Falls, have a KFC picnic in the town park, pick out books at the library, hike through the woods to Pautlers, play Bingo at the church, and for some reason, often have ice cream at the cemetery (or Marble Orchard as Papa Pete liked to call it). She filled those months with so much laughter and fun. Those summers were a magical time of indulgence, play, and the joy of true childhood.
As good as the summers were, nothing beat Christmas at Grandma’s house. Christmas was Grandma’s favorite season. She often hosted her loved ones to Christmas Eve dinner after the candlelight service. Her house was filled with cheerful decorations, countless cookies and treats, and so many Santas. My six year old counted over one hundred Santas in her house this Christmas. It is no surprise that Santa meant so much to her as he is the truest symbol of childhood joy, generosity, and magic- all things she kept close to her heart. To celebrate Christmas in her presence was to know the glow and warmth of the true spirit of Christmas.
It was as I got older, as I got married and had my own children that I started to really appreciate her for being more than a fun grandmother. Instead, I saw her fully as an independent, determined, strong woman who had fully embraced her role as a wife and mother and embodied everything that meant- joy, suffering, dedication, but most of all, love. I would sit at her table and listen to her stories and soak up her words of wisdom.
She often spoke about “not sweating the small stuff,” the importance of forgiveness, her belief in treating everyone fairly and with kindness. These were all values we all saw her live fully. These values are why we all felt so embraced by her love. It is why we all held her in such high regard, and why we all feel such fierce sadness at her passing.
It would have never been enough time with her, but she was at peace, she was ready. She felt she had fully lived a life full of love, and she is right.
Grandma Betty often told her loved ones, “I love you with my whole heart” or “I love you from the bottom of my heart.” It was true that she loved in the deepest way. And in turn, she was so beloved by all who knew her. She has made a mark on all of our hearts and her spirit will continue to guide this family. Grandma Betty, we love you with our whole hearts.