Swannie Missouri McKinley-Ma (1898-1990)
Ma was my maternal grandmother. At the time of her death she was 92-years-old and had lived through the conclusion of America’s involvement in five major wars: the Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War.
She and my grandfather-Daniel McKinley- married in North Carolina and migrated to Pennsylvania where Ma remained after my grandfather’s untimely death in a railroad accident. My grandparents had six children: Buddy, Geneva, Cora Elizabeth, Willie, Donnie, and Ozzie (my mother). Neither Buddy nor Geneva lived to adulthood. During my early childhood my grandmother often expressed grief to me over the fact that Geneva had not been baptized in a church prior to her death. However, sometime during one of our conversations when I was older, I recall Ma saying that she had found comfort in the belief that Geneva’s profuse sweating during her illness was God’s way of baptizing her; therefore Geneva could have entered heaven without having been baptized in a church. In addition to her birth children, Ma raised two of her grandchildren, my sister Mary and my older cousin Robert (Bucky) Daniel McKinley.
My grandmother was a very complex person. She was a devout Christian; but she was also extremely superstitious. She read the King James Version of the Bible from cover to cover and understood it as well as anybody I know; yet she had very little formal education. She was intensely private and family oriented. She loved her siblings and tried to maintain relationships with them even though they lived in North Carolina. During my early childhood Ma made several trips to North Carolina to visit her sister Babe. She often spoke fondly of her siblings and their shared childhood experiences. The Bible, her children, watching wrestling (Don Eagle was her favorite wrestler) and westerns on television were the things that gave Ma the most joy. She dipped Snuff, used a spittoon, and on occasion she enjoyed sipping a cold glass or bottle of Iron City Beer.
Ma, the Bible, and Me
Ma was an avid Bible reader and the New Testament Book of Revelations was one of her favorite texts. She often cited from it. Her Revelations recitations terrified me because they seemed to focus on hell, damnation, punishment, and things that were strange to me. Not only did she quote Revelations; when I was at her house she often required me to sit silently and read parts of Revelations. Some might question why if I was afraid of Revelations I didn’t just pretend to read. The answer is very simple even though it may sound illogical, I was afraid to disobey my grandmother and afraid to lie about reading Scripture-although I easily lied about other things. (In my youth I had a great and vivid imagination. Praise God for salvation and deliverance.) The other reason I read what Ma told me to read was, me simply stating that I had read something did not satisfy either my mother or grandmother. I had to prove that I understood and had thought about the assigned reading.
After reading an assignment I was expected to recite and explain what I had read. If I failed to accurately recite the text (Ma knew the Bible inside and out) or did not give a reasonable, by her standards, interpretation I had to reread and recite…. So, I tried to get it right the first time. Reading through a passage of Revelations one time a day was terrifying. (What I read became a mind-movie. Imagine the vivid imagination of a teen reading about flying wild creatures, locust plagues, and seven-headed beasts and all of those things being connected to the reader’s life and relationship with the only one, true, and wise living God!) The thought of having to read the same passage more than once in a day was more than I wanted to chew off. So, I learned early to read closely and thoughtfully.
Three Life lessons from Ma
- It is better to be an old man’s lover than a young man’s slave.
- Be careful how you treat people going up the ladder; you may meet and need those same people on the way down.
- Never say what you won’t do. Always say what you hope you don’t do.
Ma led a long and ordinary life. Her faith in God was not based largely upon Sunday-go-to-meeting religion. She was deeply committed to knowing God through the Bible and to living a life that pleased God. If I were to write her epithet it would read:
“…Well done,[Swannie Missouri McKinley-] thou good and faithful servant: thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord.” Matthew 25:21