Aunt Mary Jane gives the best hugs.
You can ask anyone who knows her, family or not. She gives you a big ol' squeeze that's long and heartfelt: one of those hugs where you immediately understand what it is to be truly loved, one of those you kind of wish you could pull out of your pocket anytime you need encouragement, one of those where you feel welcomed home, even if you're the one welcoming her into your house.
Good hugs are great, but great hugs can be life changing. Every time I get the chance to see her, or any of the Ashley family, the reunion is full of hugs, kisses, and standing with our arms slung over each others' shoulders. These are universal signs of acceptance, pride, protection, support, grace, and love. Upon first observation, it might be assumed that we are just a touchy family: some people just are that way. However, upon first-hand experience of the Ashley love, I'd bet money you'd change your mind about it being that simple.
We come from Quincy, FL, by way of Gadsden, AL and somewhere in Virginia. Grandpa was one of 11 kids in Alabama, and Grandma was from a blended family--her step-sister we have always called Aunt Claire, and to all of us, she really is that.
Grandma and Grandpa raised 4 kids in Quincy, living in the same house for...ever...next to the Anderson's. We shared meals with the Andersons often enough that I (and everyone who knew her) vividly remember Lulu's cookies and pound cake, and Mr. Anderson is kind of like a great uncle to me, even today, years after both Grandma and Grandpa are gone.
I'm the daughter of their youngest son, so my brother and I were always much younger than the rest of our 6 cousins. However I can tell you that I always felt like an equal among my family, even though I was far smaller and younger than they. We sat around the dinner table late into the night playing Cribbage: I on someone's lap, everyone else cracking jokes about terrible hands, amid shouts of "fifteen two, pair for four, ain't no more," and jovial threats of getting skunked. As an adult, I've found a few friends who know this game, but none seem to have experienced the great joy we had playing as a family. It's easy to turn Cribbage into a gambling, cutthroat game, but even Michelle, our star player, is the sweetest winner you'll ever meet; it's actually a joy to lose to her.
I could write pages on the memories I have of that house, this family, the experiences we had there: wallpapering the kitchen, playing in sun-catcher rainbows, building the backyard fence, playing tag, raking leaves to jump into them, eating muscadines out of the pool after throwing them at one another, collecting sweetgum balls for Grandma (and watching her actually put them into a vase and set them on the table), or hiding my stuffed animals for fear that Grandpa's threat of rabbit stew would come to fruition...but the undercurrent of all these is a fierce love for one another, a forever love for family born and family chosen.
Grandma and Grandpa weren't rich or powerful in the traditional senses, but you run into anyone in Quincy, even today, 18 years after he's gone, and they'll tell you how Grandpa always whistled when he delivered their mail, from where they knew him or Grandma, how he always helped the high school with homecoming floats, or what his nickname for them was. Grandpa was famous for his nicknames...the good, the funny, and the loving.
(Mine was Sweetpea, and to this day no one else calls me that. If they did, there's a good chance I'd melt into a nostalgic puddle right in front of them.)
I won't pretend that they were perfect: I've heard stories about the younger years. But I can tell you that my and my cousins' memories of our grandparents were overwhelmingly beautiful. I can tell you that if you ask anyone about them today, they are remembered as wonderful, giving, people.
They were both famous for their practical, kind, steady, servant-heart kind of love.
And I am so, SO grateful that this kind of love was not lost when we lost them. It lives on in their children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren. It lives on in our hearts and actions because they taught us how, and because we can honor them through serving and loving others. It's an Ashley trait now, to welcome all and love people. Yep, I have pride in my family. But more than my feelings of pride are my feelings of gratefulness for being born into this, and humility to be called an Ashley next to these beautiful people who also share the name. It's a blessing to be born into an family who's understanding of family is so broad it covers anyone we meet. It's an honor, a privilege, and a gift to be part of a family who's collective mission is to love on one another and love on you with those fabulous hugs.
But (my favorite word), it's not just because of the grandparents that we are this way. It's because of what the grandparents, and we, believe. Today, of all days, this resonates with me. Today, we remember the Last Supper, but more importantly--for me, anyway--we acknowledge that Jesus was indeed a servant King. He first gave us the example of what it means to humbly love others.
He first. We later, and poorly.
It is astonishing to think that even my grandparents couldn't touch the servant love of Jesus, for even 18 years after the death of Grandpa, I still cry to think how much we loved him, and how much he loved...everyone. What an honor that I have his likeness in my own father! And what an honor that my own father has the likeness of Christ in him!
Oh how wonderful to know that this gift is not reserved for the Ashleys, but for all who would see, and likewise humble themselves!
I am overcome.
"So, if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
Do all things without grumbling or disputing, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast to the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I may be proud that I did not run in vain or labor in vain. Even if I am to be poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all. Likewise you should also be glad and rejoice with me." - Philippians 2:1-18.