Ma Jewel

I find it to be true that there are certain people we know only in context of the relationship we have with them. As children this is particularly true. I remember those very awkward moments of running into your teacher at the grocery store and feeling like the world was misaligned. Teachers are only at school. They don’t eat food or have families. What is this craziness, a teacher at the grocery store?  More strange, perhaps, is when you learn your preacher also performs rock and roll music. Has the world gone mad?

In my experience, this knowing in the context of relationship is best displayed in familial relationships. Your Aunt is merely who she is to you, to understand her as a complex and complete person never crosses your mind.  Maybe that idea is just true of all people. Maybe we know most people merely through our own lens. I know there was a time this was true from my understanding of my grandmother.

When I was a teenager, she was Ma Jewel, forever connected to Pa Ed in a connection akin to lmnop. She was a beauty operator, her title for her occupation, and ran a salon from her home. In this way, she was more than the title Ma Jewel, Grandmother, because her profession was as much a part of her home life as was her kitchen full of chicken and dumplings.  But in the decision to move back to Tennessee for college, I was able to get to move past that relational understanding to know better, yet never fully,  the woman who was Myra Jewel Burris Kinser.

Living with her for six weeks before I could move into my college dorm, I would rise at 6:00 a.m. to walk the path at the park with her every morning before she would head to work in the shop. Each morning, we would put in two or three miles while chatting about this or that. It was on this path, I began to realize how very little I knew about my grandmother outside of the context of her being my Ma Jewel. I realized I had a great desire to know her as a person. As a woman with a past and a future. A woman with dreams and experiences that were deeper than taking us, grandchildren, to Chattanooga and fixing us our favorite meals at the holidays. As I embarked on a new chapter of my life, I wanted to know more about her in her early twenties. An unmarried woman living in a time of war. A person, like me, wondering what the future would hold. Would she find love? Would she go on great adventures? Would she be happy?

The biggest obstacle standing in the way of this desire to know her better was a very real sense of privacy. My grandmother, like many of her generation, did not feel the same need to share in detail their stories like the generations that would follow. Many times, as I would ask questions, she would answer them in a sentence or two and then move the conversation forward to something else. I decided early on to take what I could get and be prepared to ask the same questions in different ways in hopes of getting more layers of information. Slowly, yet surely, I began to know Jewel, the woman.  I heard her stories of being a dutiful daughter. I learned how she didn’t always agree with her parents decisions, but she never stopped respecting their position. I learned the impact of having an ill mother had on her and how that informed the way she thought. I began to understand her language of love. Not an overly affectionate language, nor one that is steeped in romantic sensibilities, but a language built on constant commitment, of service and provision.  I learned that her pride in her children was unending and that her expectations of them were high.  She believed in the normal social constructs. She did not care how much money you had, but she found no excuse for anyone being dirty or unkempt.  She held herself to a high moral standard and she treated you as she did herself, with kindness and discipline. She met the needs of others, quietly, because she believed it was important for the self-worth of the person she was trying to help that she did not make a fuss.

My Ma Jewel was brave and adventurous. She crossed the country during the war to escort her sister-in-law, and then worked until she could pay her way back home. There are pictures of her that have no explanation. Always dressed in style. Always coiffed and with lipstick. The stories depicted in the pictures were not shared with me, and while she was living I did not know the pictures existed. But I love to look at them. To see her in her youth, carefree in demeanor, but reserved and disciplined in display. There was a sparkle in her eye that did not speak to mischief, but instead to full living. That sparkle never left her eyes.

In truly knowing someone, it is important to understand their failings and their weaknesses. She was not quick to show you hers. Nor was she unaware of them. Parts of my life were an inigma to my Ma Jewel. I nursed my children. I homeschooled my children. I struggled with faith and church. She never shied away from calling on me and questioning my actions or intentions. She would ask questions and then she would listen. She would allow me to ask her questions too, and she would answer. She would talk to me and tell me her opinions and her convictions. I appreciated her willingness to talk with me, even in disagreement. I knew at times she was disappointed in me. But she never failed to let me know she loved me, even while disappointed. There were a couple of times, especially with homeschooling, that she wanted to come and spend the week with me, so she could understand what I was doing. She would observe at the beginning of the week, but by the end she was willing to get her hands dirty, teaching along with me. From her I learned that disagreement was not a reason for a bad relationship. I also learned that even after you had a chance to explain your reasoning, the people you love may still think you are wrong. And that is ok. It is from her I began to truly appreciate the conviction with compassion concept, which I believe is the one of the most important aspects of faith living.

I make no pretense to know fully my Ma Jewel, but I do feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to know the parts of her she shared. I am grateful for the legacy of love she extended and the bonds of family that begin with her and my Pa. I am grateful to have known her as a devoted grandmother, but more grateful to have known her, if only in portion, as a woman of faith. It is my hope that my eventual grandchildren will get to know me as a person beyond the relationship. In that, they will have to know about her.

Happy Birthday Ma Jewel. I am grateful for having loved you and loving you still.

Myra Jewel Burris Kinser

Born July 6, 1922– Living in our hearts forever.



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