Sunday, March 19, 2023

A Tribute to My Grandma Bontrager

(one of my favorite pictures of Grandma-her and Madeline, March 2022)

This post is probably the hardest one I've ever written. I still can't believe my grandma is gone. It all happened so fast and it was so unexpected and such a shock to lose her. 

And yet, it is such a privilege to be able to write these words about my incredible Grandma. The fact that I have a lifetime of sweet memories with her is a tribute in itself to the kind of person that she was. For that I will always be grateful. Still, I can't believe she is gone, and I miss her more than words can say.         (the last visit I had with Grandma, February 2nd, just over a month ago)

I saw her well and healthy for the last time, just the beginning of February. I had been back in Iowa to be a bridesmaid in a friends' wedding, and last minute I ended up being able to spend a few hours with Grandma and my brother and his wife. We had a lovely dinner and just a wonderful evening together. Grandma, as always, was asking about my kids and my health and our life, and getting me up to date on all the local and family happenings. Specifically I remembered her being so excited for the upcoming Bontrager family reunion that was being planned for June 2023. She loved family get-togethers and spending time with friends and family. 

Just two weeks later on a Sunday morning I got a phone call that rocked my world. Grandma had a blockage in her colon that had gone undetected (in spite of recent ER visits and multiple tests) and by the time it was finally discovered late that Saturday night, it had ruptured and infection was spreading. In the early morning hours of Sunday, February 19th, the doctors said she likely only had 7-10 days to live, and she passed away on Tuesday evening the 21st, just three days later. 

I left for Iowa on Monday morning the 20th and was able to spend time with Grandma in the hospital on Monday and Tuesday. Those last moments with her I will treasure always.

As I did when my grandpa Stoltzfus passed away, I wanted to write a post about Grandma Bontrager and share about the special woman she was to me. Here are a few of my memories of my grandma Bontrager....

(Grandma and Madeline, winter 2021)

Grandma was one of the friendliest people I’ve ever known. She loved meeting people and spending time with people. I think quality time was her love language, although words of affirmation were probably a close second. She had an extremely difficult childhood and life, one that was one of the hardest I've heard of, and yet I really saw her life as being one that had become "better, not bitter". 

(summer 2019. my family was on tour but we had come to Iowa for another event so we stayed with Grandma and then went to church with her on Sunday. This visit is a very special memory for me!)

Grandma was a prayer warrior. If you've ever been to one of my family's concerts, then you've probably heard my dad share about his praying mother. She spent so much time in prayer. Not only did she pray her children through some very very rough years (not to mention basically raising them on her own after losing her own husband at a young age) but she prayed for all of her 42 grandchildren, by name, every single day. Yes, I know--we were so blessed!! 

(visit from Grandma and my cousins, spring 2019)

A phone call with grandma helped me catch up on all the Iowa happenings, especially after I got married and moved away. She could tell me all the news, because she loved to find out about things and be in the know. I remember thinking she always knew about everything. She got the local paper and the Budget and in the last ten years she had her home phone and a cell phone. It wasn't unusual for her to answer one of those phones and ask you to hold a minute because she was wrapping up a call on the other line. =) Like I said, she was always in the know on things!

(grandma and Axton, 2019)

My kids adored great grandma. We would make a point of stopping in to visit her every time we named back to Iowa (and she would usually come down to the farm for a meal or two as well while we were there) Elliot called her GREAT grandma, with emphasis on GREAT. It was super adorable and Grandma always got the biggest kick out of it. She loved how he said her name and she also thought it was pretty cute that he remembered her every time even though he was only one when he started saying her name!
(grandma and me cooking in my kitchen)

I love this picture so much, because it captures a memory that is reminiscent of many more that were not photographed. It was taken Thanksgiving of 2019 when my parents and single siblings and grandma came for the holiday. I asked Grandma to make the gravy and so here we were around my stove, working and talking. We had had countless such moments around her stove, in her kitchen, but this was the first time that it was around my stove, in my kitchen. 

(grandma meeting Elliot, August 2020)

I’ll never forget that familiar habit of walking in to my grandmas house. She was nearly always either standing at the stove cooking, sitting at her peninsula looking at the mail, bending over her quilt frame quilting, or rocking and reading in the living room. It wasn't uncommon for her to also be on the phone in any of those given situations! =) I always remember her being thrilled to see me. She loved people stopping by. 

(Grandma and Axton, Thanksgiving 2019)

(spring 2022)

A few years before I got married grandma finally told me, “I just wonder, Chelsy, do you think you might be too picky?” I'll never forget that conversation and it still makes me laugh because I could tell she had been wanting to ask me for a while and finally just couldn't resist. I assured her I wasn't too picky and that I just hadn't found anyone I really liked yet. =) I think my exact words were something like, "All the guys I know are great but there are none that really stand out to me, and you don't think I should marry one just for the sake of getting married, do you?" Grandma: "well noooo....but just make sure you aren't too picky!" =)  I knew she always was hopeful for a good guy for me. When John visited the first time, I asked her if I could bring him up to meet her. She was VERY excited: "Of course, you bring him right up! I'm home!!" =)  We sat at her kitchen table and ate pie and he told her her pumpkin pie was the best he’d ever had. As we left I remember thinking, “well if this doesn’t work out I think the person with the main broken heart is going to be grandma.” She was a big fan of him from day one. :) 

(Grandma reading to the boys at our house, spring 2022)

Grandma visited us twice here in Kansas, after I was married. Those visits were huge honors to me, as I knew she specifically wanted to come to my house. I felt so special to be included in her travels! I remember her making a comment about me keeping a nice house, and that was one of the highest compliments I could've gotten from her, as housekeeping is a BIG DEAL to Amish/Mennonites, and I knew she did not give out that compliment to just anyone. I may not be Mennonite anymore but I sure do love those homemaking traits I've learned from my heritage! 

During her last visit, we had talked a lot about the hospital where Grandma worked the year after her and grandpa were married. That same hospital happened to be the same one where Axton and Madeline were born, and where we lived the summer that Madeline was in the NICU. We were all curious as to how much had changed since Grandma's days of working there. Grandma didn't have time to go during that visit, but John and I told her that next time she came, we wanted to take her down there to drive around and see what all was the same or different from almost 70 years ago. We didn't know then that there wouldn't be a next time.

(This picture was taken the year Axton was born. 

I don't remember the exact occasion but a number of us gals were having a meal at Grandmas)

I ate more food in Grandma's house than I could ever recount, and every single bite was ALWAYS delicious. When I was single, there were many times that I would swing by Grandmas house to pick something up, or drop something off, or do a project for her. I would often ask for a piece of bread. There literally was never a time I ever went to Grandmas that she did not have bread available! She was the QUEEN of homemade bread. It was a bit of a staple in her house! I remember standing by the counter slathering my bread with either butter or amish peanut butter while we chatted about anything and everything.

I got my love of cooking and food from my grandma. Up until last summer, when she decided to stop, she worked as a cook/host for the Kalona Historical Society making and serving "Amish dinners" to the tour groups that came through my family's home town. She served over 75,000 people in the years that she was a cook for the society. From the time I was an early teenager, until I got married, I worked for her serving and helping with many of those dinners. And for several years before that, I would babysit my aunt's kids while they helped serve. So I literally grew up around those tour groups and all that delicious food. I LOVED working for grandma. Being in her kitchen, involved in the hustle and bustle of big roasters and pots and pans full of steaming delicious food, is one of my fondest memories. And even though I'm actually an introvert, still, I'm a Bontrager, which means I do love people in a big way! I loved meeting thousands of people from all over the country (and the world!) and being a tiny part in their experience of a good home cooked meal. It was also a great opportunity to spend lots of time with grandma, and my aunts and cousins who worked for her as well.

(we had pie buffets like this at every big family holiday dinner) 

I'll never forget the first time I cut the bread for a tour group dinner. Slicing the bread was a bit of a rite of passage and one that Grandma never handed off to someone too young. But my aunts said I was old enough so slice the bread and Grandma was busy with something else so I got the green light to try my hand at it. I remember Grandma inspecting it after I was done: "Pretty good. Maybe a bit on the thin side, but pretty good." =) There was a PERFECT size for bread slicing. =) I felt proud that I got "close" on my first try!!

I am not half the cook that grandma was and my pie still leaves MUCH to be desired, but if anything I cook is good, than I guess I can say I came by the skill honestly and that I had a very good teacher!

(July 2022)

This is the last picture I have with my kids and Grandma. (we saw her multiple times last fall but for some reason I didn't get any pictures with her those times) I had taken the kids back to Iowa for a fast visit to surprise my brother for his 30th birthday, last summer, and we stopped in to spend a little time with Grandma while we were there. I wasn't the best at getting pictures with her but I will always cherish the ones I have! You can see by the boys grins just how much they loved her!

(grandma and Axton, summer 2019)

I'll end this post with a few of my favorite things that Grandma told me at different times, over the years:

The first was that she told me often how much she appreciated that I took time to spend with her. I learned a lot from grandma about the value of building relationships through quality time. She told me over and over again how much she loved that I spent time with her. I always told her, "Grandma, of course I want to spend time with you!!" It really meant the world to her when her children and grandchildren included her in things. My parents did an excellent job of involving her in so much of our family's lives, that it felt second nature to me to do the same thing even after I was married and had moved away. I loved being with her! 

The second thing she told me more than once was, “Chelsy, you really got blessed with a very nice husband." =)  (I agreed!) John loved her too and always made sure we had time in our Iowa visits to be with grandma. I know part of the reason my kids loved her so much was because they got to know her through visits and had relationships with her as well! 

Third, and most importantly, Grandmas parting words to me on the phone, that last Sunday morning, were these: “Living for Jesus is the only thing that matters in this life. I love you." I'll never forget sitting on the floor around grandma at her 80th birthday and hearing her share her personal salvation testimony with all her grandchildren. Jesus was the most important thing to her. Witnessing her love and commitment to Him during her life, and her joy and peace on her deathbed, was truly incredible. 

Grandma's obituary

(summer 2018)

What a legacy. What a testimony. Her influence on my life is so great and manifests itself in so many ways. Hardly a day goes by that I do not think of her or see something that reminds me of the hole she leaves. She was such a godly lady. Such a strong woman of faith in Jesus. Such a prayer warrior. Yes, she was human and flawed, like all of us. But she loved us and we loved her. 
And there will never be another person quite like her, to me. 

I have a lifetime of memories made with Grandma. Holidays, reunions, road trips, meals, events, work, games, talk, and more food....this post doesn't even scratch the surface of all the sweet stories I could tell and the memories I could recount. The longer I write, the more I think of to tell, and the more I am grateful to have such a treasure trove of memories! They are truly the greatest gift she could've had given me, and she did!
"What will it be like when my pain is gone
And all the worries of this world just fade away?
What will it be like when You call my name
And that moment when I see You face to face?

I'm waiting my whole life to hear You say

Well done, well done My good and faithful one
Welcome to the place where you belong
Well done, well done My beloved child
You have run the race and now you're home
Welcome to the place where you belong
 What will it be like when tears are washed away
And every broken thing will finally be made whole?
What will it be like when I come into Your glory
Standing in the presence of a love so beautiful?"

-the Afters

*This song was sung by an accapella group at my grandmas funeral. It was so beautiful.

I love you, Grandma. So so much. I'll see you again!



  1. I'm sorry, Chelsy. She sounds so much like our Grandma, who passed away just before Christmas. She was living with us for a few years as her health started to go down. The night before she passed was horrible, but I know now without any doubt that she is at absolute peace. She was ready to go home. When I think of all the family members she talked about who had gone on before her, to think now that she can see them again, makes me happy for her.

    She lived a simple life: Believe in Jesus, love your family, and do what needs to be done. She was Grandma to so many people even those who were not related. She was such a giving person, and loved taking care of people. And she NEVER failed to talk to ANYONE about how good God is! Every time I asked her to pray about something, or I complained about something, or vented my worries to her, she simply, calmly, confidently always said, "God's got it. He'll take care of it."

    She lived a simple life, but that one life left a huge impact. People loved her so much, so very much. It was an honor to hear them share so many memories of her. It was an honor for us to take care of her. But I know she always couldn't for the day she would walk to the feet of Jesus and sing praises to Him, in His presence. Now she can!

    Sorry for getting long-winded. I'm sorry for your loss. Still praying for you. And thank you for sharing this, it was a beautiful tribute to your grandmother. She more than deserved it!

    Love, Rebecca

  2. What a beautiful tribute to my precious Mom. I miss her so much!!💔 What a legacy!

  3. Oh Chelsy!! I hadn't been on your blog for several months, and was shocked to see this. I am so sorry for your loss! Losing a loved one is SO hard!! But for the Christian believers, they have hope!! Hope that is only found in Jesus Christ and Jesus Christ alone. You have so many precious memories with your Grandma in this current home we live in, but you'll get SO many more memories when you get to Heaven with your Grandma and every other believer that has already crossed that shore. Your Grandma is now experiencing complete joy and peace that she's never had before. And when she saw her Savior face to face, what a joy and reward her Savior greeted her with, "Well done, thou good and faithful servant." May you never forget and cherish all of the previous memories you gained with your Grandma. May you never forget that this separation is only temporary, and that one day, she will welcome you through Heaven's gates!!!

    "And then one day, I'll cross the river.
    And I'll fight life's final war with pain.
    And then as death gives way to victory,
    I'll see the lights of glory and I'll know HE LIVES!!!!

    Because He lives, I can face tomorrow.
    Because He lives, all fear is gone!
    Because I know He holds the future.
    And life is worth the living just because He lives!
    He lives!!!
    HE LIVES!!!!!"

    2 Timothy 4:7

  4. Sorry for your loss. Your sweet grandmother is in glory now.

  5. What a beautiful tribute, Chelsy! I'm so sorry for your loss but also happy for you that you and your family got to spend so many wonderful years with your grandma. Like you said, you will always cherish the memories with her. Love, Anna.

  6. Hello Chelsy,
    I've read your blog for a few years, but at first I couldn't comment because our family's computer had been hacked. That was several years ago, and I'm starting to comment on blogs I subscribe to.
    I am so sorry for the loss of your precious grandmother. What a beautiful post! She sounds like a wonderful, godly woman. My grandmothers were not godly, so it makes me happy to know of the dear relationship you had with your grandma. What a legacy she left you in sharing her gifts.
    I pray that God will comfort you and your family and may He bless you,

  7. This post is so touching and beautiful. What strong family bonds. Thank you for sharing the life of this beautiful woman and her legacy. Leaves much to think about in our own lives as we too will leave a legacy of some kind. May these kinds of wonderful words be said about us…. She is safe with Jesus now and yes, you will see her again! So sorry for your loss and that of your family. Though you grieve, it isn’t without hope! Your Grandma will be missed but you all have peace knowing she’s in glory and completely whole! Bless you and yours…

  8. What a beautiful tribute to a lovely woman

  9. Chelsy, it's Susan Hochstedler here. I was so sad to hear of Salina's passing and kept checking the blogs to hopefully get more details, so I was very happy to read every word of your sweet post, a fitting tribute to a wonderful lady, your grandma! Thanks for writing all you did! Being a widow and a Bontrager, she was a very close friend to my mom, Lovina, and I know they were an encouragement to each other through the hard times. I'm glad you mentioned pumpkin pie. I always thought my mom's was THE BEST and never had one to compare to it, until I was at a Bontrager gathering once and saw a pumpkin pie that looked just like Mom's. I tasted it and it WAS as good as Mom's! I went looking for the maker and found a group of older women sitting around a table. I asked, "Who made the pumpkin pie?" She tentatively said, "I did," maybe thinking I had a complaint? But when I told her it was the closest to my mom's that I had ever tasted it made her smile. I am sorry for your loss, but also so thankful you have a treasure trove of wonderful memories to cherish forever. God be with you as you continue to grieve, remember, & process. Much love!

  10. This is a beautiful tribute and it conveys so well what a special person your grandma was, and the many close and important ties you had with her. Wishing you peace as with the passage of time, your grief gives way to the joy of the memories you have of her.


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