By Chris Moon
They call her “Granny Jean.”
I suppose every town has one like her—a quick-witted older lady who overcame hardship and spent her life teaching in the schools and being a fixture in the community. You really don’t need to know her name. You just call her “Granny,” and everyone knows who it is. Everyone has had an experience with “Granny Jean.”
When I came to minister with Stanton (Kentucky) Christian Church, I would see Jean Derickson working across the hall in our preschool. She’s a slender woman, probably not much more than 5 feet tall, with grandmotherly white hair. She helped with the three-year-olds.
It’s not light work when you are working with three-year-olds. They are beyond their “terrible twos,” but every parent knows the “terrible threes” can be even worse! Plus, three-year-olds are more agile than two-year-olds. They’re faster!
But there was Derickson, right in the middle of it. Those little ones knew better than to cross her. They listened to her stern but loving words. “No, you sit down. It’s time to listen,” she would say. And a chubby little person would squirm into a chair at the table where Derickson was sitting, a book propped in front of her.
At some point I wondered, How old is she? I was thinking mid-70s at the most. Her mind was sharp, and she didn’t totter down the hallway, and she would let you know what she was thinking faster than you could think of anything yourself. Then I learned her age. She was 88.
That was two years ago, and nothing has changed. The town newspaper published a picture from her 90th birthday party. Again, everyone knows Granny Jean.
“You’ve got to stay active,” Derickson says. “I never will forget, up at the funeral home one night, the funeral home director asked, ‘When are you going to go home and retire?’ And I looked at him and said, ‘Why would I go home and retire and put money in your pocket?’”
She chuckles, “Every time I see him now, he asks, ‘Did you work today?’”
But there’s something about these old-time women—the ones who are fixtures in the church and community and who never seem to slow down. It’s as if God anointed them with some sort of special blessing. They never stop. They always are working. They always are serving—an example that this earthly life doesn’t end until it’s over.
They are the ones cooing over the babies in the nursery, after the worship service doors have closed and the sermon has begun. They are the ones delivering meals to grieving family members. They are the ones who spur the leadership of a church to action about some community need that just must be addressed.
I’m reminded of the old prophetess Anna, who spent many years as a widow. She didn’t stop either—worshipping and fasting day and night. I imagine everyone knew old Anna. Sometimes, maybe, they just put up with her. But they always could count on her presence. She always was there. And she was rewarded that day in the temple when she saw the One she was waiting for (Luke 2:36-38). God used her to speak the good news.
It’s kind of an old-fashioned way of living—this idea of working hard and living the right way until you die. Derickson just says it’s Christian. God uses women in a special way in his kingdom. They are teachers and nurturers. The young learn to lean on them. The mature learn to count on them. It’s part of the design, Derickson says.
Setting an Example
She remembers one time feeling compelled to shut off a PG-rated movie in her classroom because it contained adult language. A little girl walked up to her, “Granny, why did they turn that off?”
Derickson explained the foul language, and the girl protested, “Well, my momma says that all the time at home.” Derickson would have none of it: “Well honey, that’s not how it’s supposed to be.”
“I just think women should set an example of being Christian and let others see it in you,” she says. “Women should be raising their children to be Christians, and so many kids don’t get that opportunity.”
I visited her home the other day. I parked behind her car. The front license plate said, “Granny.” Yes, she still drives. I hadn’t been in her house before; it was tidy. Two grown grandchildren were living there—because Granny’s house was a good place to land while they got back on their feet.
In Derickson’s living room were stacks of school supplies that were bound for the public school “resource rooms,” where kids who can’t afford their school supplies can make use of them. On Wednesdays, Derickson goes down to the local food bank, where she hangs out with inmates from the county jail as they unload and sort items for the pantry. She sometimes bakes sugar cookies for them. They also know her as “Granny.”
Derickson hasn’t lived an easy life. She grew up on a tobacco farm in the town of Stamping Ground, Kentucky. She milked cows and pulled tobacco plants while growing up. Her mother was “the best cook there ever was,” Derickson says, and made all her clothes. When her father’s white shirts wore out, they were turned into blouses.
Her father was an alcoholic. Derickson says it’s a wonder they were able to send her and her sister through college. Yes, college. Today, Derickson lives in a county on the edge of the Appalachian Mountains where fewer than 14 percent of people have a bachelor’s degree or higher. This 90-year-old is in that minority group.
She graduated from Kentucky Wesleyan College in 1949 and settled with her husband in Powell County, Kentucky. Derickson took a teaching job in a two-room schoolhouse—a likely career for an educated woman in those days. In all, she put in more than 50 years of work in the public schools.
Life wasn’t easy. Like her father, her husband fell into alcohol addiction. He died in 1980, and she’s been a widow ever since. Derickson also ended up raising two of her grandchildren as if they were her own children. She often worked night jobs, in addition to her teaching, to make ends meet. Even today, there’s a rack in her living room with dozens of men’s dress shirts hanging on it. She does ironing on the side.
And this is in one of the most economically depressed regions of the nation, in a county where only 45 percent of adults have jobs. Many choose not to work, opting instead to draw a check from the government.
“That didn’t enter my mind,” Derickson says. “I knew I could work. The Lord has blessed me with good health, and I can work.”
Her favorite Scripture is Philippians 4:13: “I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (English Standard Version).
“Because he’s always strengthened me,” Derickson says.
Chris Moon serves as pastor of Stanton (Kentucky) Christian Church.