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Grandma's legacy of prayer

Roxanne Henke, Inspired Living author and novelist from rural North Dakota.
Roxanne Henk

In essence, I had three grandmothers – two by “blood,” and one grandma of the heart.

I never had much of a chance to know my Grandma Sayler (my dad’s mother). She died when I was in fourth grade. My grandma of the heart was my babysitter as I grew up. Her “real name” was Marie Herr, but she was Grandma Herr to my sisters and me. She stood barely 5 feet tall, and, in time, I towered over her. But, she was a dynamo in the faith department! She was the first person I knew who exemplified the idea that there really was “JOY” in the Lord.

My parents would go out for an evening and Grandma Herr would sit at our piano (or put her autoharp on her lap) and pound out good old church songs. She’d have my sisters and me high-stepping around our living room, singing at the top of our lungs, “I will never march in the infantry, shoot the artillery, ride in the Calvary, but I’m in the Lord’s Army!” Kim, Ann and I would be marching, shooting our pretend guns, and riding our pretend horses, while Grandma Herr belted out the lyrics along with the chords she had memorized. I loved that woman so much.

Now, my other grandma is another story. Grandma Jensen (my mom’s mother) spoke English and her native tongue, Finnish. She sipped coffee through a sugar cube held between her teeth. And she was super strict religious-wise.

When I was little, Grandma Jensen lived in other states, but I mostly remember her from the times she came to our little North Dakota town to visit. And, honestly, my memories of those visits aren’t good.

When I was growing up, my dad owned and operated the local movie theater, so I naturally loved movies as much as my dad, and I was allowed to see nearly every movie. Unless Grandma Jensen was in town. She didn’t approve of movies. She also thought wearing nail polish was a sin. So, whenever she was heading our way, my sisters and I had to remove our nail polish.

The list of what we weren’t allowed to do when Grandma visited went on. Playing cards were “of the devil.” We didn’t even own a deck. And the thought of dancing was completely out. My mom adopted some of these “rules” and I was forbidden to attend my seventh-grade class party. But, my dad LOVED to dance. I remember standing on his wingtips and dancing with him around our living room. He finally overruled my mom and I was allowed to attend dances.

Using a scissors, or a needle and thread, on Sunday was a sin in Grandma’s eyes. So there was no cutting out paper dolls or working on the embroidery projects I loved.

I grew to dread my grandma’s visits. I don’t even remember talking to my grandma much when she came to stay. It seemed that all she liked to do was to sit on our living room couch, read her Bible and pray. And pray. And pray.

It wasn’t until many years later, when my mom moved my grandma to our local nursing home and she was in the throes of dementia that I learned more of Grandma’s story.

I’d grown up knowing that my mom had a younger sister who died when she was 6. But I didn’t know the whole story. It turns out Shirley Rae had a terrible stomachache. The local doctor made several house calls, but nothing he suggested seemed to help. This was back in the Depression years and my mother’s family was dirt poor. To even call the doctor to check on Shirley Rae was a monumental decision. And, as my mom told it, going to a hospital meant you were going to die. By the time Grandma and Grandpa realized Shirley Rae would die at home if they didn’t get more help, it was too late. They took her to the hospital, but her appendix had burst. And yes, she died.

According to my mom, Grandma was never the same. She shut down, and broke down. They moved from the small farmstead where they lived to another one, trying to shed the memories of little Shirley Rae. Of course, that didn’t help. Memories follow you that way.

Once I learned the “whole story” about Grandma Jensen, my view of her changed. By then, it was too late for me to “start over” with my grandma, as her mind was somewhere else. She often called for Shirley Rae, or her sister, Florence, who had also died young.

As I grew older and developed a deeper faith of my own, it dawned on me that while my grandma sat on our couch, reading her Bible and praying, she may have been praying for me.

These days, when I think about Grandma Jensen, the first thoughts that come to mind are not all the things she didn’t approve. What I see is her head bowed in prayer. Much of the woman I have become may be because of my grandma’s prayers. And that is why I bow my head so often for my own grandchildren. I may not live to see them into much of their adulthood, but my prayers can continue to shape them long after I’m gone. 

Thank you, Grandma. Thank you.


Roxanne (Roxy) Henke lives (and prays) from her home in rural North Dakota. She is the author of eight novels. You can contact her at