While my grandma Ovsanna was still alive, my parents and I would pop into her house on our way home from Tuesday night Bible study. She’d be nestled in her big boxy armchair covered with a patchwork of odd fabrics. My parents would sit in the dining room chairs neatly lined up in front of the window, while I’d perch next to her on a worn-out ottoman. In typical Armenian-grandma style, nothing in her kaleidoscopic tchotchke-filled house matched, but every hand-crocheted doily, porcelain figurine, and Bible verse cut out of a magazine was placed just so. And Nene would pretend not to notice if I got up to scavenge in her bread box (which never actually held bread) for nuts or homemade cookies.
Instead of engaging in small talk, we’d share with her about that night’s Bible study, and sometimes that led us into profound theological discussions. “Don’t confuse me with complicated details,” Nene would finally say, waving her hand as if physically brushing away any talk of controversial doctrines. “All I need is to know that Jesus died for my sins, and to follow Him.”
We’d chuckle at her signature scowl and tease her just a little, but we knew she was right. Her simple, childlike, unwavering faith in Jesus Christ had been a beacon for nearly 70 years, pointing who-knows-how-many people to the Savior. She didn’t need to understand eschatology, different denominations’ beliefs, or apologetics to live daily for Jesus and worship Him.
Nene was a survivor of the Armenian genocide in Turkey. She was 4 when she and her pregnant mother walked hungry and barefoot for a month to the harbor, then sailed to Istanbul and, eventually, Greece. Before she turned 9, she experienced more hardship and ill treatment than I likely will in my lifetime, not the least of which was losing her right leg below the knee to gangrene. She was robbed of her homeland, her education, her childhood, and her mobility. But her gumption was intact, and when she encountered Jesus at the age of 20, thanks to a young man named Vartevar who gave her a New Testament Bible, she became unstoppable.
Ovsanna later married that young man and, despite what some would see as handicaps, brought her husband and two children (the elder being my father) through wartime poverty. The stories I didn’t appreciate in my teens now whisper to me, and I wish I could pin down all the details—how Nene and Dede came through storm after storm, both in Greece and later in Canada, where I was born. I wish I knew of each time God answered their bold, faithful prayers again and again and again. But the photographs—both in yellowed albums and in my brain—testify to the joy and love they shared so generously with everyone who crossed their paths.
Even after she was widowed, Nene shared the gospel with as many people as she could—in cabs, she’d offer the driver a gospel tract in the language of his choice. On public transit, she’d turn to the person next to her and ask, “You love Jesus?” One day that person was June’s cousin Thelma, which is how we met “Junie.”
Nene and Thelma became friends during their shared bus rides, and one day Thelma mentioned she had a cousin in Jamaica who wanted to come to Canada. My father offered to sponsor June, and some time later, she arrived in Montreal. June became a member of our church and though she never married or had children of her own, she generously funded our Sunday school programs.
Nene regularly prayed with June, who became like another daughter. We’d ask, “Nene, how can you pray with June? You don’t speak English and she doesn’t speak Armenian!” “Never you mind,” she’d reply sternly. “Me, Junie, we endestend.” And then she’d burst into giggles, her green eyes gleaming.
June worked long hours as a nurse until a mysterious illness kept her house-bound in her tiny, cluttered apartment for about 20 years. We continued going to see her long after my grandma had passed, and those visits felt familiar—June had the same, simple faith in Jesus despite all the hardships she’d seen, and I can’t help but think that Nene had mentored her well. Differences in skin color, language, and age were no match for their bond. Eventually, Alzheimer’s disease began to set in, so June now lives in a nursing home, but she still praises the Lord and remembers her dear friend Ovsanna.
My grandma has been gone for 13 years, and I’ve missed her sorely, yet it’s only recently that I’ve been plagued with questions I wish I could ask her as we sit on the old bench outside her front door and people-watch: What gets you out of bed every morning, especially on the tough days? What do you ask God for the most? What is your biggest wish? How do you not give in to the pressure to do more or be more?
You see, Nene didn’t try to gain the admiration of others. She didn’t try to figure out her calling. She didn’t even have a to-do list to speak of. She reported for duty every morning and let the Holy Spirit guide her.
I like to think I have inherited many of Nene’s qualities—her creativity, her thriftiness, her contentment with a simple, quiet life. Yet I am painfully aware of our differences. While I’m always looking for ways to upgrade my life, overcome my deficiencies, and accomplish my goals (if I could just settle on what those are!), she put her energy into worshipping her Savior, obeying her Lord, and being a light to others. My motives seem noble, but I wonder whether they too often miss the mark.
I think about the dollars and hours I’ve invested in webinars, books, blogs, programs, Facebook groups, apps, and magazines with the hopes of managing my time better, advancing my career, losing weight, improving my chances of marriage, being a better speaker, and hosting the perfect party. I’ve counted steps, mapped out objectives, tracked habits, journaled sporadically about changes I have worked on, and, let’s be honest, thrown my fair share of navel-gazing, over-thinking pity parties. I wonder whether this has been the best strategy for my life. I wonder what Nene’s approach would have been, had she been born two generations later and in Canada.
Nene didn’t fuss with the things I’ve turned to as solutions, and yet she accomplished so much. I imagine that if she were here, she’d take my hand, pat it, and tell me I’m trying too hard. She’d remind me that God didn’t create me to spend my days on earth trying to live up to a worldly standard of beauty, success, and virtue, but to know Him and make Him known. She’d give me permission to just be and to revel in my relationship with Jesus.
There’s nothing wrong with reading books or setting goals, and the endless sources of inspiration available to me today can be helpful, but as I think about Nene and June, I’m reminded that all those things should only serve to enhance my life. My foundation, my solid rock, must be Christ and Christ alone.