Place…

“…I knew I had not escaped Kentucky and had never really wanted to. I was still writing about it and had recognized that I would probably need to write about it for the rest of my life. Kentucky was my fate- not an altogether pleasant fate, though it had much that was pleasing in it, but one that I could not leave behind simply by going to another place, and that I therefore felt more and more obligated to meet directly and to understand. Perhaps even more important, I still had a deep love for the place I had been born in and liked the idea of going back to be part of it again. And that, too, I felt obligated to try to understand. Why should I love one place so much more than any other? What could be the meaning or use of such love?”

 

“I knew as well as Wolfe that there is a certain metaphorical sense in which you can’t go home again- that is, the past is lost to the extent that it cannot be lived in again. I knew perfectly well that I could not return home and be a child, or recover the secure pleasures of childhood. But I knew also that as the sentence was spoken to me it bore a self-dramatizing sentimentality that was absurd. Home- the place, the countryside- was still there, still pretty much as I left it, and there was no reason I could not go back to it if I wanted to.”

 

“But what I had in my mind that made the greatest difference was the knowledge of the few square miles in Kentucky that were mine by inheritance and by birth and by the intimacy the mind makes with the place it awakens in.”

 

“I came to see myself as growing out of the earth like the other native animals and plants. I saw my body and my daily motions as brief coherences and articulations of the energy of the place, which would fall back into it like leaves in the autumn.”

 

Wendell Berry[i]

 

 

My mother loves trees… and strawberry shakes.

I know this, because she tells me every Saturday. I pick her up at the ALF she lives in, and we go to Culver’s to get a small strawberry shake, a medium caramel shake for me (after all, I am bigger than she is…and growing bigger with each shake!). I used to also get onion rings, originally at her request, but the onion rings have stopped because she now refuses, or forgets, to put in her dentures, so they would be left for me to eat and I do not need them. Her absent dentures are a result of the fog of dementia which has deepened over the past 6 years through which I have lived near her. One reason I moved near her on the Central Gulf coast of Florida, was to help my sister and brother-in-law care for her. She is 94, and they have born the brunt of keeping watch over her slow deterioration. Dementia would be enough of a battle, but what makes the struggle worse, is my family’s life-long battle with her bi-polar disorder.

My brother, sister, and their spouses tell me I interact with mom the best of our family, which has been surprising to me considering how difficult our relationship was throughout my life. They also tell me that she says I am her favorite child. In the past, when they would say this, I would roll my eyes, and ask if they would like to trade me positions in the family hierarchy. They then assure me that neither of them will compete with me for the distinction. It is also surprising because with each visit, I never know who she will understand me to be.

Sometimes, I am her brother.

Sometimes, I am her father.

Sometimes, I am my father.

Sometimes, I am her boyfriend.

Sometimes, I am her son.

Sometimes, I am not sure she knows who I am, but there is a feeling of familiarity of someone she trusts. I like that. The trusting part, because it is so different and new.

After we receive our shakes through the drive-through, we go to a large park nearby. I drive slowly through the park, and she says…every time…that she loves the beautiful trees, which are a tangle of short palms, young oaks, and the occasional coastal pine. I usually point out the various shelters which protect picnic tables, and the gatherings of people underneath. Sometimes there are balloons and banners on the shelters which identify birthday parties or other gatherings. I mention them, because the gatherings warm my heart, and I hope the sight will warm her heart, too. Sometimes she will look at the gathering. Other times she can’t seem to tear her gaze away from the trees.

As we are approaching Culver’s, or the park, she will say, “This is where Larry brings me.”

I say, “Yep. That’s me.”

She will often respond, “Oh, yeah.” In her voice, I detect both embarrassment and humor, as if her mind still remembers how to be self-deprecating. I share in the humor with her. No reproach. “It is just how your brain works right now,” I tell her. She seems comforted by that sometimes.

One of the things she has recently repeated several times is, “You are my son, but also my brother.”

I like that…

It is profound…

…and it reminds me of how I feel about my own children. The thought describes both a genetic connection, but also a relationship on even ground, with none of the struggles for power that often characterize parent-child relationships. Unconditional, mutual love and respect, without attempts to manipulate the actions of each other.

So…

…a relationship completely different than the one she and I had throughout many of my 57 years with and away from her.

Now, her mental state often leaves her in a place before I was born. Before my brother and sister were born. Before she married my father, and all the years driving across the country from church service to church service. Back to when she was young. Either when she was a college student, or when she was a child. To be honest, her behavior is often that of a two-year-old. She can become so confused that her childhood memories invade the present. Not the memories themselves, but her view of the world then. The trees and plants around her ALF were planted by her father, she says. There is no reason to argue the point with her. No reason to try and pull her 85 years into the present. In those times, it is all she is capable of understanding. I think it is a way for her to survive the confusion. To make sense of not knowing or liking where she is. It may be comforting to be Home, if only in the deep recesses of her mind.

That is why she loves trees, I think.

The place she is remembering, is School House Holler. I have been there once. It is in the hills of Southeastern Ohio, up-river from Huntington, WV, where she was born, and where her family moved when she was older. It is the place where her earliest memories lie. Her fondest childhood memories. Where her mother fed her cornbread and milk and flap-jacks and green beans with ham hocks and biscuits with milk-gravy. Where she worked with her brother pulling caterpillars off the tobacco plants and plopping them into a tin Hillsbrother’s coffee can with kerosene in it to kill them. Where she and her brother got sick when they rolled a tobacco leaf into a homemade stogie, hid and smoked it, then got a spanking when her mother found out. Where her daddy worked all week in an industrial job along the river, then came home to work all weekend in their large garden with multiple fruit trees and then hauled the garden harvest to the farmer’s market in town on Sunday to sell to city folks for extra money during the depression. Where her daddy had to park his pickup miles away when it rained and then walked home because the roads were too muddy. Where their single milk cow and mule and pigs were. Where her crazy grandfather lived with them and would frequently disappear and have to be searched for in the woods. Where all her sisters and brother walked down the same path, being joined by neighboring kids intermittently along the path to the one-room school in the valley. Where the house was small, but the country was big and beautiful and full of adventure.

THAT place!

Once, when I first moved here, she drew maps of the farm, and the layout of the kitchen, and showed them to me. I didn’t realize at the time the significance of the maps. I was still living with my own memories of her, I guess, so I was less receptive to her remembrances. I was amazed by her memory, then. Now I understand it was her attempt to go Home again. Just like her love of the trees in the park every Saturday.

She was born fourth among six children, three years younger than her brother, Harold, and three years older than her sister, Betty. She seems to have been closest to Harold, although it may just seem that way, because the stories she told me about School House Holler usually include him. The two of them either busy working or getting into minor mischief together. There were always chores to do. The house had neither running water, nor an indoor bathroom, so there was always water to fetch, a cow to milk, or eggs to gather from the chicken coop. It was at School House Holler that her work ethic was born and honed.

I think her bi-polar disorder also contributed to her need to be up and moving. Even now, when she falls into a nap in some chair, unexpectedly she will awaken and begin to immediately get up, which is not as easy a task as it was even one year ago. When I am with her and she does this, I ask, “Where are you going?” Her response to me is a blank stare, then maybe, “Connie is coming…” or some imagined task. I will say, “No…it’s ok. There is no reason for you to have to get up.” It seems to be the way her brain works. It does not stop, as if there is a perpetual thumb in her back pushing her to go and do. She obsesses about things. When she was younger it was religion and reading the bible, to herself, or to whomever was nearby. At the ALF, she added working in the yard, planting and trans-planting plants, pulling weeds, or wanted plants masquerading as weeds in her mind.

These two activities often got her into trouble in her ALF.

 

 

Meal time bible reading…

 

Often, at meal time, when everyone in the facility was in the dining room, she would take her bible (one of five she has) and begin to read aloud…really loud. She either could not understand that everyone didn’t want to hear Leviticus at meal time, or she did not care if they wanted to hear it. “They need to know Jesus!” she would exclaim, and it did not matter that they either already knew Jesus, knew about Jesus, or that there was nothing in Leviticus ABOUT Jesus. THEY NEED TO KNOW! Eventually, I began to think the bible readings were less about Jesus and either more about her need to be seen and heard or that she perceived God to demand it.

In years past, I would have said that Mom loved God above trees or strawberry milk shakes. Now…I’m not so sure…

When I consider my mother’s relationship to God currently, I must be honest that I do NOT know what disjointed thoughts go through my mother’s mind, nor can I trace the lines of difference between who she was and who she now is. First, because we didn’t know about bi-polar disorder when we were growing up, so all we knew of Mom was how she acted, and what she said. Second, because I must overcome my own inner issues with who I knew her to be, and the way I interpreted her thoughts and feelings towards me as a child, adolescent, and man. Third, because my expectations of her have not been met.

Now, her actions regarding God seem to go between two spiritual poles:

Jesus, lover of her soul…

Or

God, demander of perfection…

Both these perceptions seem to be held within a brain that is rapidly deteriorating, so there is no logic holding them together. Instead, she flips between the two when she relates to other people. She is sweet as French Silk pie until she gets angry, then she is mean as a rattle snake. She does not like to be bossed, especially by women, and she can be quick to strike out with her fists when someone is directly confronting her in an action she is taking, no matter how dangerous or non-sensical the action. The part of her brain within which civility was constructed is broken and has given way to the part of her brain that runs the survival program.

I often wonder if Mom retreats to School House Holler because it was a time before there was a dissonance in her perception of God. While I have learned that the memories of childhood are clearer for a person disappearing into the fog of dementia than more recent ones, possibly due to where they are stored within the brain; I also wonder if the complexity of theological messages she received through the years are harder for her to integrate. It is also possible that she never did integrate them. I have come to understand that throughout her life, Mom did not think critically about differing interpretations in the theology with which she came in contact. Once she heard something she understood as true, she held on. I think she believed theological doctrines for reasons even she wasn’t aware. This is a facet of her personality directly attributed to bi-polar disorder. When she latches on to a thought, she is like a pit bull holding on to a log. Even though pit bulls to not eat logs, and it makes no sense to hold on, it seems to be the principle of the thing: “You WILL NOT take this log from me! It is mine, and I want it!”

She can be stubborn like that.

Although I am not completely clear on this, I don’t believe she encountered church and an orderly, theological belief system until after her family moved from School House Holler. I believe they moved to a house along the river when she was in junior high. She came to faith at a revival meeting in a small, very conservative church when she was 15 or 16. She must have been quite popular with the elders of the church, because they offered to pay for her tuition in God’s Bible School, a religious boarding school in Cincinnati, Ohio, approximately 150 miles from home. Mom accepted the offer, leaving home to attend GBS 150 miles away at 16.

From what I have learned, God’s Bible School was known for two things: a legalistic, conservative theology and evangelistic fervor. If it was like what I saw in the tradition when I was a child, there was a strict dress code. Especially for women. They always had to wear dresses with hemlines below the knees, and sleeves stretching below the elbow. (I guess I never realized how sexy elbows and knees are…) There was to be no make-up worn or jewelry of any kind, including wedding rings. The women also could not cut their hair, nor wear it down. It had to be piled up on top of their head or wound into a tight bun which seems to have been preferred. Interaction between men and women would have been limited to classes, church, and evangelistic activities. Evangelism was a strong priority, defined as telling other people about Jesus, and warning them that they were headed to hell after they died if they didn’t believe certain things and then adhere to a strict life-style which emphasized self-denial and obedience to the church hierarchy. The organized evangelistic activities included teams of people that would stand on street corners, sing, and proclaim the gospel of Jesus through bible reading, preaching, giving out tracts, and talking with people. Mom was an enthusiastic participant in street corner evangelism, even to the point of going by herself when necessary. It is from these experiences that her ALF, meal-time bible reading comes. It’s how she was raised to be and do in her earliest experiences with God, minus the dress code….

 

 

Yard work…

 

I moved to Florida in January of 2012. My son helped me, and we took our time on the trip, spending the night in Memphis. We listened to the blues on Beal Street, toured Sun Studio, and visited the Lorraine Motel, site of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and now remade into a civil rights museum. Our arrival in St. Petersburg was sometime in the early morning hours. Later that morning, after a late breakfast of biscuits and gravy…my favorite… made by my sister, Connie, the three of us went to see Mom at her ALF. Connie asked Mom to take us on a tour of the grounds. While we walked, Connie explained to us how many of the plants we saw had been planted by Mom. Baird and I were amazed by the number of them, and how much work it must have taken by my then 88-year-old mother. During the tour, I don’t remember my mother saying very much, unless it was to explain the plans she had yet to complete. Although I might have described my mother at the time as being active, I didn’t realize just how physically strong she has been and still is. Within the past year, that strength has considerably lessened, and she needs a walker to help her keep from falling, but that strength is still there, especially when she gets mad.

Eventually, gardening became an issue. Mom would constantly be outside working in the yard, even in the heat of the Florida summer. She would be so focused on what she was doing, she would forget to drink or eat. Sometimes, she would pull up plants that were part of the landscape plan, and either try to transplant them, or throw them away. While pulling at a small tree root, she would lose her grip and fall, sometimes hitting her head, and nobody would know about it until she came inside with a black eye or bruise. Her clothes were often dirty. She always had cuts on her legs. But she would not stop! It became a problem…

Despite many warnings, she persisted. Even when the owner locked away her tools and put a lock on the water faucet. She would make do with other objects as tools and put a container under the AC condensation spout for water. Once, before they locked the water faucet, she attached the hose, and walked in front of the smokers on the porch with the water on full to water the plants. One of the smokers…a woman…confronted her, kindly reminding her she wasn’t supposed to use the hose and telling her she was spattering water all over the smokers. Mom turned the hose on her. In the resulting struggle for the hose, the faucet was damaged so that water was spraying from it. The water had to be shut off, and the faucet fixed. Everyone said it was Mom’s fault. She wasn’t popular for awhile after that incident. (When I heard the story, I was extremely doubtful that she had the strength to break that faucet. That was four years ago. Now, I think it at least possible…)

One good thing about her yard work was that she would at least sleep through the night. Or, at least until 4:30-5 in the morning. She would then get up and begin the day by reading her bible, which could often be a problem if she had a roommate. It is a behavior of which I am both profoundly aware and to which I shake my head with feelings of embarrassment and dark humor. She COULD have gone into the dining room with her bible, and allowed her roomie to sleep, but…no. It is an action that can be defined as one of devotion to God, but also as passively aggressive. Everyone SHOULD be up reading their bible at 5 in the morning, right?

As my mother’s physical ability has diminished, the issues with her working in the yard have ended. Instead, her brain continues to push her to do…something…she just doesn’t know what that something is. Two Christmases ago, I gave her a large pack of colored pencils and several adult coloring books. I chose books that had floral arrangements bordering scripture passages or historic prayers. My hope was that she would become obsessed with them instead of working in the yard. I also thought they would allow her to still express her creativity, and then she would have art she could hang on her walls or give away to family and friends. It worked. For about a year and a half. She would sit for extended periods of time meticulously coloring those pages. She especially loved the book filled with prayers.

I am not surprised she loves the prayer book. Prayer has always been important to her. She has spent countless hours through the years praying for her kids. She will then tell us about it, too. In years past, she would sometimes call and eventually ask, “Is everything ok with you? I woke up last night and the Lord brought you to my mind, so I prayed for you.” Nice story, right? God and my mother have my back, right? Well, sometimes it was. Other times…

My mother was seriously aggressive and judgmental and controlling and discouraging…passively. She would often send letters which explained “what she was learning in scripture…” It soon became apparent that what she was “learning” was what she thought I should know or do. If she were to be asked why she would write such letters, I am sure her eventual answer would be that God wanted her to. They were “The Epistles of Helen.” I didn’t realize it at the time, but what I took from these letters, what they communicated to me, was that there was always something wrong with me. I wasn’t good enough. It did not matter that I had a strong spiritual life and was struggling to unearth much needed grace from a theological belief system that I was increasingly finding inadequate to explain a loving God. It did not matter that I was trying to live in and by that unearthed grace, all the while being distracted by money issues, raising children and living in a difficult marriage. It also did not matter that I was an intelligent adult.

She still had to write…

Or send me books…

Or send cassette tapes…

Or call me…

I found out later, that my former wife eventually would open the letter before I got home, and when she found the letter to be unhelpful, she would throw it away. I appreciate that. After our divorce, I would do the same. I would read the first lines, and when I saw the tone headed in a particular direction, it would go into the trash. To some, this practice might sound harsh, or even rebellious. And it was rebellious. But it was a rebellion that was necessary. It was born out of a need for self-protection and a process of redefining myself, and God. It is never a good idea to try to form your understanding of Self and God from the template built by a mentally ill mind.

What I find interesting, though, is that Mom doesn’t seem to carry that destructive, ungracious morality when she is centered in the world of her memories of School House Holler. When she is Home, all is orderly, and in balance.

For her sake, I wish she could have lived in that place longer…

For my sake, I wish I had a similar place…

 

 

 

[i]The World-Ending Fire: The Essential Wendell Berry; Paul Kingsnorth; Counterpoint; Berkley, CA; 2017; Pg. 6,7,8.

 

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Pete…

We lost a friend a little over one week ago…

Pete Chenhall was walking on Blind Pass Road on Friday night to see a friend, and was struck and killed by a drunk driver that drove her car onto the side walk. We all lost a great guy.
Pete was only 40-years-old, but he was kind of old-school. He was in a bowling league and loved to play pool. He loved sports, but was particularly passionate about the Indiana Hoosiers. Actually, Pete was a pretty good athlete, too. He played basketball in high school…obviously…because he was raised in Indiana, and made the Indiana University golf team while in college. Pete and I shared frequent conversations about sports, but also about life. He loved life, and people. People loved him back, too! What I especially loved and respected about Pete though, was his relationship with his father. “Pops”, as he is affectionately known along the beach, would hang out with Pete all the time. Pops was Pete’s best friend, too. Pete was the first to tell you so! What I especially loved, though, was how much Pete enjoyed Pops finding love later in life. When the love first began to blossom, I remember telling Pete how much fun I had watching the new love affair. Pete responded in an explosion of joy! Immediately, he began to describe how much he liked her, and how happy she made Pops, and…on…and…on…and…on…..
His response brought tears to my eyes.
I have always loved watching fathers spending quality time with their children, no matter where I see them together. I think it says something about the dad. He seems to understand his responsibility, but is also learning the joy that can be shared between child and parent. A man that is a Dad…or Pops…is invaluable in the life of a child. Obviously, being a dad isn’t just about trips to the amusement park, or buying the newest “toy”. Sometimes being a dad means confrontation. However, these difficult times can be more effective in helping a child learn to make decisions when they have been prefaced by time spent doing mundane, normal things together. When the child comes to know their father’s love for them by watching him choose to include the child in the activities he must do, the child learns they are valuable. Many times, it is easier for a man to do the errands or tasks he needs to do by himself, but inviting your child with you is both a teaching opportunity and a show of respect towards the child. I think its a good idea to ask your child questions, that spur individual thought and problem analysis. Especially when they are young.
This isn’t only affirming when the children are young, however. One of the most important moments in my life, was when I was older and my father asked me a question about a book we both read. To me, the question wasn’t as important as the fact that he asked me my opinion. It felt like I was invited into the adult world of ideas. I could tell he wasn’t just asking me the question in order to prove a point, or begin an oratory about his own viewpoint. He was really interested on my take on the issue. He was being vulnerable, and showing respect to me. It was especially interesting to me that he was asking about a point of theology. He was a preacher, and he was asking me about how I viewed God, and my perspective of God’s interaction with people that held differing theological viewpoints and lived in different theological traditions than the one we both were raised in. What was especially surprising to me was that, after I shared my perspective, which was different than our common faith tradition’s doctrinal perspective, he agreed with me! I wasn’t expecting that.
Unfortunately, that conversation was both a beginning and an ending, because it wasn’t long afterwards that he was killed in an accident. In the years since his passing, during my adulthood, I have looked back at the conversation with a wistful disappointment. His acknowledgement of respect for me by simply asking the question whetted my appetite for an adult relationship with my dad, which could never be. I have always wondered if his presence in my life would have changed some of the decisions I made through the years. When I was younger, Dad was never one to butt in, and I was never one to ask. But as I grew older, I became less cocky and more cognizant of my need for a mentor. Life has a way of washing away your sand castles leaving a man feeling both vulnerable and defensive. It is in that gap, between vulnerability and defensiveness, that a trusted mentor can fit. I never was able to find one, or courageous enough to seek one out. However, I learned about life! It was the crucible in which was shaped my own style of fathering. While that style hasn’t been perfect, my children seem to love and respect me.
I have come to believe that the love of a child back to the father, not only shows respect for the father, but also the strength of character of the child. Every father that takes being a dad seriously knows when he has blown it. Quite honestly, many fathers carry these moments with them like a load of bricks. I have and do. It is this load that fuels the anger of many men, I think. We often feel like we have to be perfect. So many messages in the culture, at least men’s culture, tell us that. Too often, since we don’t know what to do with that anger, we either pour it outward, or turn it inward, becoming silent and distant. Handling anger with either method is quite destructive both to our self, and our relationships. If a man is to grow, he must acknowledge this anger, and try to make amends in some way to those he loves. That is what I tried to do. 
Not long after our divorce, I went to both my children separately and apologized for my own mistakes as a father. Especially for the times my anger came out in emotionally disruptive ways. The times when my discipline was too strong. I told them that I was wrong, and that I regretted my actions. What surprised me was that each of them responded almost identically:
“What are you talking about? I don’t remember that!”
They both then shared positive things about me as a father, and I was blown away by their grace and love.
As I watch them being adults, I am proud of their character and tenacity to love and care for their friends. They have great relationships with people. To me, this is most important! They are good people worthy of respect, and I do respect them.
The relationship a father has with their children changes through the years, and a wise father adapts. A strong father allows their adult child to see their own vulnerability. He remembers his child is a person, capable of making their own choices, and yet is willing to come alongside during times of struggle or confusion, to help the adult child with the pain, or process of making tough decisions. Much as he would a friend. And that is what I saw in Pete’s relationship with Pops…friendship. 
It is what I experience with Baird, Ryann, and Hannah. I am sure Pops is both distraught over the tragic death of Pete, yet thankful for the man he was…
…the son he is…
And so am I.

Christmas, 2016…

The idea occurred to me on a hot Florida day in July as I sweated my way through a long line of appointments doing pest control. Finally, after wiping my face for what seemed like the thousandth time, I said to no one in particular:

“I want to be somewhere cold…not cool…COLD!”

That thought began to stir within me a longing to return home, at least for a little while.

For me, Home is in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. My family moved there when I was 16, between my sophomore and junior years of high school. I have come to believe, that there is perfection in this life. Perfect in terms of time and place and how they combine in life to provide experiences filled with joy, fun, challenge, and growth. Longmont, Colorado was just that for a span of two years. The opportunities I had in Longmont High School through music and football were foundations upon which I built a life filled with love for both. Although I had previous experiences in music and football, my two years at LHS were filled with positive relationships that welcomed me as a new student as if I had been with them our whole lives. The students, choral director, teachers, and coaches recognized talents of which I was somewhat insecure, and then nourished and challenged me to develop them. The school introduced me to a level of community that was open, positive, and affirming with each other. I have yet to find another community like it.

Similarly, the mountains were always a haven for me. I would often take our Irish Setter, Sammy, into the mountains when I went fishing. Rather than fishing in one of the mountain lakes close by, I preferred to fish in the streams that cut their way from the high country through the rocky foothills that then spread out across the flat landscape at the base of the mountains. Longmont is about 10 miles from the beginning of the foothills, and is surrounded by farms and ranches which take advantage of the rich soil deposited by these same streams, and also by ancient glaciers as they eventually melted. At some point following WWII, Japanese farmers came to the St. Vrain valley (named for the river in which I fished), and began to raise vegetables which they trucked to farmers’ markets either in Longmont, or just outside of town. These farms were incrementally sold through the years prior to my family moving there, and yet there remained a couple farms still raising and trucking vegetables when I lived there.

The presence of these farms also felt like home to me when I first moved there. We previously lived in the Hi Plains region of Southwestern Kansas, and I had worked on a ranch. I especially enjoyed working with horses and cattle on the ranch, so the ranches and farms surrounding Longmont were pleasantly familiar to me.

I left Longmont, Colorado and my beloved Rocky Mountains immediately following high school graduation ceremonies and moved to Indiana, where my parents had moved early in my senior year, allowing me to live with family friends and finish high school at LHS. Sadly, I seldom returned after leaving. But I never lost the feeling that, in some way, my identity had been both shaped and discovered in this place. However, I don’t think I was able to articulate that feeling until later in life, after I had lived in other communities and geographical regions.

I now realize that this place will always be Home for me!

It is with this historical context that I decided in the heat of July, that I would rent a place in Estes Park, Colorado and invite my adult children to join me in celebration and pilgrimage to the Rockies at Christmas.

The cabin I settled on is cozy and part of a cluster of similar cabins a few miles outside of Estes Park on the edge of Rocky Mountain National Park. Estes Park is an old-school tourist community surrounded by peaks of the Continental Divide. Since it is further north of the myriad of skiing resorts that are busy during winter, Estes Park is less crowded and less expensive during Christmas time. That makes it perfect for an intimate retreat for my kids and I. I have always wanted to do this, but never realized it: un-rushed time together.

Time to just Be Family…

Fully in the present…

Open to serendipity…

Surrounded by the beauty of the Natural World…

Our reservation began on Saturday, Christmas Eve, and we couldn’t check in until 4 P.M. Baird and Ryann drove in from Kansas City a couple days early to spend a day skiing and stay one night in Boulder, Colorado. I flew in from Florida late Friday night and spent the night at the airport before getting my rental car early Saturday morning. Hannah flew in from Huntington Beach, California on Saturday morning, and I picked her up. Hannah and I met Baird and Ryann in downtown Denver for lunch and to wander around talking and taking pictures…OK…it was mainly me taking pictures.

Since we had decided earlier on to exchange gifts with each other, we decided…OK…they asked me to decide…when we would open our gifts. When I was older, my family traditionally opened gifts on Christmas Eve. I always liked that, because…well… we didn’t have to wait until Christmas Day! Decision made…

We left Denver and began the drive to Estes Park via a drive through downtown Longmont and a stop at Longmont High School. Once again, I took pictures at LHS, and we walked partly around the school, while I told them stories about my time there. We then took a quick detour past the house in which I lived at that time, and the church of which my father was pastor.

Finally…

The drive through the farmland and into the mountains!

After a quick stop at the grocery store (where they didn’t have Egg Nog!), we drove through town to our cabin. Upon arriving and unloading our luggage, I started a fire while Ryann put up the small Christmas tree, and Hannah began cutting cheese and Summer sausage to go on Ritz crackers, which is one of the family traditions we do. The gifts came next, and then…

White Christmas… a movie we all love, and traditionally watch together…

…and a beautiful epiphany for  me in the midst of the movie…

…in a cozy cabin in the middle of the mountains…

…with my daughter’s head resting on my leg…

…my son and daughter-in-law lying on the floor…

…a fire burning, lights off, candles lit, and lights on the tree twinkling…

…as Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney sing the following words:

“When I’m worried, and I can’t sleep

I count my blessings instead of sheep

And I fall asleep, counting my blessings

When my bank roll is gettin’ small

I think of when I had none at all

And I fall asleep, counting my blessings!”

Blessings…

A lump grew in my throat, and my eyes became moist.

I am Home…

…and it’s Christmas…

Later, I went outside into the quietness of the night where millions of stars met me with a symphony of silent light…

Somewhere in the distance, an owl called into the night…

I realized just how connected I am to this place and these people…

It seems to me, that the point of Christmas is just that! A child is born into the world surrounded by people, and animals, and stars, and shepherds, and searchers…

The birth is an affirmation of humanity’s connection to time and place and each other and the larger world and universe. A celebration, really, and in that moment, my heart was full of joy. It felt…

Perfect.

…………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….

 

It is now February 17, 2018. I wrote most of the above in the days following my Perfect Christmas. The world feels very different than it did in that cabin in the mountains, whipped by a cold wind bearing show, surrounded by my children. I don’t really need to explain the state of the world currently to you, Reader. You know.

My memory returns there every so often. I am reminded of the joy we shared that Christmas. Honestly, the world was pretty chaotic then, too. We were just able to pull in tight, together, and keep warm in the cold mountain winter nights. We were present fully with and to each other in that place. We were able to take in the beauty surrounding us, because we were open to it. It’s called “being present in the present.”

I have to admit, I spent most of my life preoccupied with what MIGHT happen in the future, or what DID happen in the past. Both practices robbed me of the beauty I could have experienced in the present, and were mostly tied in some way to fear and self-criticism. Pretty self absorbed, actually. To be fair to myself, I need to explain what I’m NOT talking about:

I’m not talking about planning for the future…

I’m not talking about learning from the past…

Both of those activities take place in the present…

And they mean I am in the process of living fully, and honestly in the present…

I guess what I DO mean is living daily with a mindset to choose gratitude rather than fear, anger, and suspicion. I am still learning how to do that. I believe it is important to feel what I feel, and examine the feelings, yet remain optimistic that “the arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice,” as Martin Luther King Jr. put it so eloquently. Mourning is part of gratitude. Activism towards change through confronting injustice, is also part of gratitude. Living with gratitude does not mean living in denial, nor does it mean being unaware of the needs of other people. In fact living with an attitude of gratitude in the present means that I am more aware of both my own pain, and that of those I come across daily.

The birth and life of Jesus, the Christmas Child, calls me to live that way. He gives me hope that I can be that person with each new day.

 

 

See You in the Morning…

I stopped the story of my experience of Dad’s death in the middle. I felt it important to publish it on Good Friday, to coincide with the celebrated remembrance of the death of Jesus. For me to receive the assurance of God’s faithfulness in the midst of my grief during Dad’s death, there had to be a precursor story, or previous case history, that opened the way for me to understand that death isn’t the end of the story. The story of Easter is just that story.

While I wasn’t there in the early morning hours to watch my dad die, as were Jesus’ followers and his mother while he was crucified, I later heard the stories surrounding the event of Dad’s accident. A little background will probably be helpful…

Dad and Mom were living in Ukiah, California at the time of his death. He was driving a tractor-trailer rig hauling products from a Masonite plant in Ukiah, to the docks in San Francisco and Oakland. He would often haul two loads per day, and liked to drive when there was less traffic, which usually meant at night. On this particular evening, Mom remembered that he was “so tired”. He was 62 years-of-age, and was working hard, but the pay was really good. They were doing the best financially that they ever had. I used to joke that Dad was “semi-retired” from the ministry…get it…semi…driving a semi….OK…pretty lame… He stayed at it, though because they needed money to pay off bills. His employer was Gene Armstrong, and Gene owned property on the side of a hill with a mobile home on it in which Mom and Dad were living. The property was beautiful! They had a little dachshund…Toby…that I played with when I visited from college. In the morning and evening, they often had deer grazing on the side of the hill next to their house. The deer would look up smugly as Toby barked wildly. Gene, and his wife Ruth, previously lived in Elkhart and attended the church in which Dad was pastor, so we knew them well. Also Ruth’s family and my dad’s family lived in the same community during the depression, so there was a lengthy history there.

Earlier in the evening of Dad’s accident, Dad and Gene met at a diner for a cup of coffee together. They ate…pie, or something…and as they were leaving, heading in opposite directions, Gene said Dad’s words of departure to him were, “Good night, Gene, I’ll see you in the morning…” Those were my father’s final words to anybody of which I am aware. After that farewell, Dad climbed into the cab of the truck, and began his final trip. The accident occurred outside of Santa Rosa, California. There was a cattle auction yard on the outskirts of town, and a trucker had pulled in to unload his cargo of Black Angus cattle. The report I heard was that there was nobody at the yard to help him unload, so he tried to do it himself. As the cattle were unloading, some of them got excited, broke through a gate to the holding pens, and scattered along the highway. The trucker then had to call to find help in rounding up the cattle and putting them back in the pens.

Black Angus cattle wandering along a major state highway in a dark night…

Before the cattle could be put back, or a policeman was on the scene to warn traffic, Dad arrived. The auction yard, and the scattered cattle were just over the rise of a hill. I saw the police report of the accident, and it states that the driver behind Dad never noticed his brake lights come on before the crash. So…Dad was driving up a hill, and just as he topped the hill he ran into at least two black cows, killing both of them, which caused the rig to go over the side of the hill, throwing Dad out of the cab, and the truck landed on top of him. Dad never knew what hit him…..

I was able to get copies of the official accident report as well as the autopsy that was done on my father afterwards. I wanted to try and piece together his final moments on this earth, and know the scope of his injuries. The autopsy stated that he sustained several broken vertebrae in his neck, and massive internal injuries. His death was basically immediate. I was glad to know that… What also is interesting is that, while I no longer have those documents, I still remember some of the contents. Knowing he didn’t suffer has been helpful.

Also helpful is the memory of a conversation and prayer he and I had before they moved to California, when he was driving a truck over-the-road, travelling across the nation often by himself, while my mother was living near Elkhart and having emotional issues related to her Bi-Polar disorder. Those were particularly hard days for Dad, and he had stopped in Olathe, Kansas, where I attended college, to see me between stops. We attended church together, and as he was getting ready to leave, we talked a little bit about his next stop. Then I asked if I could pray for him. I remember asking Jesus to sit in the seat next to him and help Dad imagine His presence there through the lonely miles. After his death, Mom told me that he really appreciated that image, and lived with that reality close to his heart and mind. I now imagine Dad coming over the crest of the hill with Jesus in the seat next to him, and  Jesus saying, “Ok Ivan….this is our stop!”

The resurrected Christ…lovingly present…guiding Dad into his  own resurrection.

“See you in the morning…” indeed!

Morning

By Billy Collins

Why do we bother with the rest of the day,
the swale of the afternoon,
the sudden dip into evening,
then night with his notorious perfumes,
his many-pointed stars?
This is the best—
throwing off the light covers,
feet on the cold floor,
and buzzing around the house on espresso—
maybe a splash of water on the face,
a palmful of vitamins—
but mostly buzzing around the house on espresso,
dictionary and atlas open on the rug,
the typewriter waiting for the key of the head,
a cello on the radio,
and, if necessary, the windows—
trees fifty, a hundred years old
out there,
heavy clouds on the way
and the lawn steaming like a horse
in the early morning.

http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poem/28812

August, 1985: Great is Thy Faithfulness….

It’s been 30 years since August, 1985. A lifetime ago, it seems, yet my memory of it is fixed in my mind, heart, and soul. But I have never told the story publicly. It was a life changing experience, yet I haven’t recorded it as part of my story.

It was Sunday evening, and I was in choir practice in St. Paul’s Church of the Nazarene, which was a small church about a 30 minute drive from the college I was attending: Mid America Nazarene College (now a university). I had been attending St. Paul’s mainly because it was the home church of my girlfriend, and future wife, Greta. Dick Wasson was the director, and as he passed out a new piece of music for the choir to rehearse, he said to me, “There is a tenor solo in this piece, would you take it?” I responded that I would. The song was a traditional hymn I had sung my entire life, but I was unaware of just how prescient the lyrics would be in just a matter of three short days. The piece began with my lone voice, accompanied by piano and organ, singing the first verse and chorus:

Great is Thy faithfulness, O God my Father;

There is no shadow of turning with Thee.

Thou changest not; Thy compassions, they fail not.

As Thou has been Thou forever wilt be.

Chorus:

Great is Thy faithfulness!

Great is Thy faithfulness!

Morning by morning new mercies I see.

All I have needed Thy hand hath provided.

Great is Thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me!

I was at football practice. It was Wednesday, which is a full-pad work day, and practice wasn’t going well. My playing eligibility was through, so I was a graduate-assistant coach in charge of receivers, and I was frustrated. I remember having offensive play sheets inside plastic covers in my hand, my whistle on a cord around my neck clenched in my teeth, and my Pioneer baseball hat tilted back on my head. One of the managers, I think, called my name, “Coach Williams…you have a visitor.” Turning my head, I looked towards the field house with a semi-scowl on my face. It was Greta, slowly walking towards me, and I also noticed her father, Loy, hanging back next to the field house. Although I had recently asked Greta to marry me, and we had become engaged, I was still a little irritated at the interruption of practice. This irritation was the young me so engrossed with football, which felt as important as life and death, that anything which got in the way brought at least irritability. However, something I noticed in her body language…and a subtle, inner argument which reasoned that she would not break into practice without an important purpose…focused my attention upon her. As I came to a standstill before her, she went straight to the message:

“Larry….your dad was killed in an accident early this morning…”

She might have said “I’m so, so sorry…” but if she did, I couldn’t hear it, because for a moment, I was shocked into deafness… I remember quickly saying, “No!” I then turned threw my play sheets up in the air, my body saying for me, “football doesn’t mean anything right now.” I stood motionless for a moment, my mind trying to find some semblance of purpose for her statement, thinking, “this can’t be” yet knowing Greta wouldn’t tell me this unless she knew it to be true.

Trying to emotionally hold myself together, I bent over, picked up the play sheets, then quickly walked over to the head coach, in order to let him know about my dad and that I was leaving practice. As I told Coach Degraffenreid about my dad, my voice began to break when I mouthed the word “killed”. I then quickly turned and began to walk very quickly away, placing a sensory shield between me and anyone else. I was numb, yet beginning to sob deeply as I walked up to the football field and then aimlessly around the track. I looked up into the sky and choked out, “Why God?” All the while knowing that death is part of life from which my dad was not exempt. I walked fast, and a part of me observed my actions, and suggested that I was trying to walk away from the truth of Dad’s death. It was true…but I didn’t want it to be true, and if I could walk fast enough, the truth would change, it would turn out to be a dream from which I would awaken.

Summer and winter, and springtime and harvest,

Sun, moon, and stars in their courses above,

Join with all nature in manifold witness

To Thy great faithfulness, mercy, and love.

On one of my laps around the track, headed back to the bleachers, I found Coach D there to meet me. His face was ashen, and he asked me how it had happened. Greta must have told me more of the story while I was blanked out from shock, because I was able to brokenly say that he had been driving truck at night, hit some cattle on the highway, and was thrown clear of the truck cabin. Killed instantly. Coach Degraffenreid is a short, stout former offensive lineman, and he wrapped his arms around me in a fatherly hug. I heard his voice catch with emotion as I continued to cry in deep, wracking sobs.

I’m not sure how the timing went, but it seemed at the time that Pastor Dan Vanderpool, (the team chaplain and associate pastor at College Church of the Nazarene, which was located adjacent to the football complex) was immediately there. After a few moments of consolation, Coach D turned me over to Paster Dan, and went back to practice. Pastor Dan suggested we go to the church, pray, and contact the members of my family.

Great is Thy faithfulness!

Great is Thy faithfulness!

Morning by morning new mercies I see.

All I have needed Thy hand hath provided.

Great is Thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me!

College Church was hosting a yearly conference of all the Nazarene churches in the organizational district, which included St. Paul’s. While I don’t remember him doing so, I suspect Loy, Greta’s father, went into the meeting to get Alan Thompson, the youth pastor at St. Paul’s at the time. Dan escorted me into Garret Chapel, and we went to the altar to pray. I have no idea what was prayed, but I felt both surrounded by care, and completely alone at the same time. Kneeling together, crying at the altar, an assurance began to take hold deep in my soul. A phrase began to repeat itself in my mind: “Dad died in what he lived for.” I felt and knew, in the depths of myself, that God was, and is, real, not an impersonal force of nature; but a caring, loving, living Presence, who can and does step into time and place at God’s impetus. I understood that God was present in the horror of my father’s death, yet didn’t cause it or refuse to stop it. I also felt the reality of Jesus as the Incarnation of God in a human body. I was assured of it, not intellectually convinced. I just knew it. I knew that God was in pain about my pain, yet also IN the pain to redeem it. Although it is quite difficult for me to adequately articulate, all of this seemed to become part of my being, yet not in an intellectual way. It was an intuitive ascent to the message of God’s Spirit, written into the fabric of my humanity.

Great is Thy faithfulness!

Great is Thy faithfulness!

Morning by morning, new mercies I see.

All I have needed Thy hand hath provided.

Great is Thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me.

Sometime during the prayer, I began to be impressed to take action in a particular way. Actually, I knew exactly what I needed to do. I needed to tell the football team…my brothers in blood and sweat and blunt force trauma…about my understanding. Since Dad was a preacher, and evangelist, I suppose you could say I was just being my father’s son. There might have been some of that, but more pronounced was this feeling of being compelled to share my experience with this particular group of young men. As we rose from kneeling at the altar, I said, “I know what I am to do…I want to speak to the football team about my experience of God, in this moment.”

Pardon for sin and a peace that endureth,

Thy own dear presence to cheer and to guide,

Strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow,

Blessings all mine, with ten thousand beside!

Before going back to the field, I called my mom, brother, and sister. Bill, my brother, told me about the plans that had been made already for the funeral, which was to be held in Elkhart, Kansas in the small church in which Dad formerly was a pastor while I was younger. Dad was to be buried next to his mother and father in the cemetery there. The placement seemed appropriate. Dad’s sister and family still lived there, and Dad’s family rode out the Great depression, and Dirty Thirties in the surrounding area. (After reading about life in the Dust bowl, I find dark humor in the fact that although they are all once again covered in dust, still the incessant wind will never move them from their home in their beloved High Plains prairie.)

My little crowd of supporters and I walked across the parking lot from the church to the practice field. As we walked, I wasn’t exactly sure what I would say, except the phrase, “Dad died in what he lived for.” I approached the team, which was now huddled together in mass surrounding Coach D. As I approached, the human blob opened to allow me into the center. “I just found out that my dad was killed in a truck accident.” I began, my voice quivering slightly. “I wanted to tell you guys, that at this moment, I am more assured of the reality of Christianity than ever in my life. Dad died in what he lived for. I would like to encourage you to love your family and parents, right now. Don’t wait. Love God, right now, because God loves you.” While I don’t remember verbatim what I said, the message was what I have written above. As I spoke, I turned around, looking each player in the eyes, hoping they could hear my heart. As I turned, I saw these hulking young men with tears in their eyes, and not a few of them openly crying. As I finished, Coach D suggested each player call their parents that evening, and we pulled in close for one last shouted exclamation: “M. A. N. C. MANC, Win Manc, Win!” just as we did after every practice. Many of the guys I had played with during my playing career came by to hug me and wish me condolences. They told me then, and have in the years since, the impact my experience had on them. (The team bought a plant with what seemed like hundreds of small flowers and sent it to the funeral. When the placard was read during the service, I immediately teared up, my throat also tightening as I understood each flower to symbolize each player and coach.)

After speaking to the players, Loy suggested I get some clothes from my apartment, and he would drive me to their house, where I could rest and plan for the trip to Elkhart for the funeral. We stopped by my apartment, I got my stuff, and as I was leaving, two of my roommates, Dave Diehl and Randy Snowbarger (a football player) hung around until I was ready to leave. Randy wrapped me in a bear hug and said, “I love ya, man.” I mumbled “Thanks!”. Dave and I, while friends, were not really close. We hung out with different crowds of people, and although I was closer to his brother, Don…also a football player… Dave and I liked each other, and were friendly, but didn’t share a lot in common. However, Dave’s comments and actions to me in my grief bonded me to him immediately: “I love ya, man, and I’ll be praying for you,” he said as he hugged me…A trite phrase, is might seem. But his eyes and voice communicated a depth of caring and friendship that comforted me deeply. I am mindful, now, of how important gentleness and kindness are to someone going through grief and loss. There are really no words of “wisdom” or “explanation” to one in the depths of sorrow as to why someone close to them has died. Better to save your breath other than to confess your promise to love and pray for them; then follow up later by listening to their anger and pain, which will eventually come. At the time of loss, no explanation really explains, and no wisdom is wise. Listen…love…and pray. For me, at least, God brought thoughts that comforted. I remember thinking that  my sorrow and grief were a tribute to my father, for he was worthy of my grief. Losing him at that time in my life meant…

…he wouldn’t officiate my wedding…

…he would never meet my children…

…my children would never know my father…

…I would never have him to talk through decisions with…

…he could never tell me his story, when I was an adult and would listen more deeply…

I remember thinking that God must have deemed me capable of learning how to be a man, because he took Dad so early in my adult life. Older me understands the theological problems with that thought, but at the time, I needed the assurance that I was capable of learning how to be a father and husband. The last one…husband…didn’t end as I expected. My marriage ended in divorce, and that was totally out of my father’s realm of life experience, but I am finding my way courageously. I think he would respect that.

There is certainly more to the story, but I would like to end this portion with some comments on how the experience of Dad’s death has stayed with me…spiritually. If Dad were alive today, and still believed the same doctrines and theology I remember him to hold; the two of us would likely have some quite spirited conversations. Conversations about the interpretation of scripture would probably be at the top of the list. My life and experience in our culture, and the church culture have led me to ask questions…continually. That doesn’t mean, however, that I don’t believe in God. I just see God differently. Just HOW differently is what the questions are all about. I have experienced God’s interaction with me…personally…too many times to doubt God’s existence. I also consciously choose to trust the veracity of the Gospels in presenting the Incarnation truthfully, if not always concretely. I’m still searching to make sense…deeper sense…of the scripture of the Bible and the scripture of Creation. I am skeptical of either Sola Scriptura OR Sola Naturalism. I believe Truth is informed by both and they ultimately don’t conflict. It is our interpretations and prejudices of both that bring them into apparent conflict.

Or at least that is where I stand at the moment. My experience of God in August, 1985 still resonates…

…even after 30 years.

Great is Thy faithfulness!

Great is Thy faithfulness!

Morning by morning new mercies I see.

All I have needed Thy hand hath provided.

Great is Thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me!

January 10, 1988…

We left our little duplex a little late in the evening. I may have left work early that evening. It was a Saturday and I was working second shift, 3 pm to 1am, in a juvenile detention in Olathe, Kansas. The duplex we were renting was also in Olathe, and although it was just a five to ten minute drive from work, when you are a young couple expecting your first child close to the expected delivery date, you don’t want to take chances. The HMO we were on from my work, only would allow us to deliver in a hospital they prescribed, and that was Research Medical Center in Kansas City, Missouri, a 30 minute drive from Olathe. When she started to feel pretty uncomfortable, she called the HMO nurse-line, to see what we should do. They suggested we go ahead to the hospital.

I remember it being a clear, bitterly cold night, which isn’t surprising, because that is the rule in Kansas City in January. As we drove through the night, there was a calm coziness between the two of us. This should have been our first hint that the baby wasn’t ready to be born yet. Calm and labor do not generally hold hands as we were doing as we drove. Labor kicks calm aside and demands urgency. It shouts its intentions, and gives orders like a Marine drill sergeant, with pointed direction and not a little cursing. Upon arrival at the hospital, Greta’s pains were growing, and we approached the emergency room arrival desk not in a state of panic, but of annoyance about the usual bureaucracy. We should have known by our relative patience that we would eventually be sent back home to wait for sharper labor pains. Hospital staff must know the signs of real labor by how loudly the parents yell at them.

Even though we didn’t show the signs of real labor, she was admitted, and taken to an examining room. When the attending physician checked her cervix, he reported that although her body was getting ready, she still had a long way to go. The physician suggested that she start walking around the hospital corridors to try and encourage the process. So we began to walk…and walk…and walk… When they check her again, they suggested that she be released to go home and get some rest. “The pains will wake you up!” A nurse told us. Well…actually, the pain wouldn’t let her GO to sleep… although the fact that we had a water bed with the lack of support couldn’t have helped…let alone the effort it took a VERY pregnant woman AND her young husband to get her out of the bed exacerbated her discomfort, as well…we eventually found what should have been a comforting panic. We were persuading the nurse-line staff, too. Our repeated calls signified that our suburban politeness was cracking, and we were entering the primal evolutionary state of reproducing, social-skill Neanderthals, that all first-time parents devolve into with their first child. We were eventually “invited” back to the hospital.

The second trip was much less calm, and exponentially quicker. However, once she was examined, we learned that her cervix had only dilated to a 3. We needed to get to 10.

Crap….

It was as if her body didn’t want to expel this new person she’d been protecting for nine months into the world. Her body became schizophrenic, with one set of natural urges providing a courageous push, while another set providing a protective pull. So we waited for the push-urge to win out…and I did what any new husband and father does: whatever she says. I remember massaging her back as she turned on her side, with the regular amount of assorted cords attached to her body. My hands and arms began to ache from the kneading of her muscles. Wisely, I decided to keep this discomfort a secret… I think most fathers know to keep their mouths shut in such an occasion, while watching the physical travail of the mother of their child. The idiots who do not, deserve whatever they receive…

Several other pictures are captured within the recesses of my mind:

Her family standing in the hallway of the hospital…

The pushing…

The crowning of the baby’s head…

The late arrival of the HMO physician, who almost had to dive to catch the kid…

Her mother, who we agreed could watch the birth because she had never seen one, who had to quickly sit down because she got light-headed due to the excitement…

Holding the baby boy for the first time…

Excitedly calling my family with the news…

The sight in the hallway of Greta’s best friend and her husband with his stupid sunglasses perched on top of his head…

The naming: Baird Conrad Williams. The first name chosen in honor of my childhood friend, and best man in our wedding; and the second taken from my paternal grandfather: Eli Conrad Williams.

Eventually taking the baby home snuggled in his yellow, arctic onesie covered by layers of blankets in the HMO, borrowed car seat…

…and the melancholy reminder that my father would never know this child and this child would never know his wonderful grandfather. I would be his only tie to his heritage from my side of his family. Although I couldn’t have known it then, we would have only a hand-full of opportunities for him to be in contact with my side of the family over the next twenty-five years. At the time, I mourned a loss that he would never fully understand: the loss of his knowing the patient, gentle presence of my father. At the time, I was unsettled as to my own ability to model this important relationship to him.

As to the other concerns over raising a child, neither of us felt burdened with the expectation that we had to be perfect parents. We realized, probably for the first time, that all parents will screw up, and the next generation will have to find their way through the maze of these faults. What did concern me, was the capability to financially provide for this child. And to live out my values in such a way as to invite him into them.

While he might have missed the opportunity to experience my family, he was granted a wonderful opportunity to develop the traditions of his mother’s side of the family. Many of these traditions and values were shared by both sides:

Learning that continues throughout a lifetime…

Loving each other during hard times…

Caring about issues, and acting in ways to support the community…

Courage to take risks…

The love of music…

The adrenaline-rich joy of performance…

As I have watched him grow, I have seen these values play themselves out in his life. But I have also seen wisdom grow within him that is his own. He shares with me, and the men of my family, a propensity to be quiet about difficulty, and to just take on the responsibility himself to figure things out, then take action. As I think about it, I see the same quality in Loy, his maternal grandfather, and Scott, his step-father. Maybe this is a quality that is especially embraced by masculine culture:

The masculine demand to keep your mouth shut when it hurts, and don’t ask for help…

Oh…

wait…

that probably is the dysfunctional side of self-reliance, against which every man must guard, lest he become isolated in the toxic mix of shame and pride. The more positive side is: don’t shrink from, nor side-step necessary pain, but take responsibility for your actions, ask for help when needed, and give it to others when asked. Although these are not JUST masculine values, they are certainly ones that I have seen in the men surrounding Baird as he grew up, and notice a lack of in many men of younger generations.

My son has become a man…a good man.

A loving husband.

A gifted scholar and musician.

A trustworthy employee.

A wise steward of his finances.

An astute judge of priorities.

Not only am I proud of him, I am impressed by him.

Happy birthday, Baird Conrad Williams!

Only Love Matters…

Every other Sunday evening, I take my mother to church. Connie, my sister, and I take turns. The service we attend is called: Country Church. Most of the folks that attend are older, and the music is kind of down-home with more than a hint of Southern gospel. They have a background set that looks like an old country store. The band and worship ensemble wear western boots and an occasional western hat. The service begins with the worship leader…or maybe that should be trail boss… greeting the congregation with “HowDEEE!”
Really….
Pure kitsch…
But… I sometimes kind of like it. (When my eyes aren’t rolling…) Mainly because many of the songs they sing are ones from my childhood. It reminds me from where I came, and my heritage, or at least some of it. Mom really enjoys it, especially the preaching. That part I sometimes find hard to sit through. It is a Southern Baptist church, and the conservative slant can really grate on my moderate nerves.
Mom is 89-years-old. She has increasing, age-related dementia, exacerbated, I think, by the fact that she has bi-polar disorder. We never knew that as we were growing up, but noticed that about every 7 years, she would have a depressive break. Looking back, and talking to my brother and sister, I think that each break changed her. She is on medication now, but my sister bore the brunt of her last break, and it was really difficult for her and Butch, my brother-in-law. Moving here has been an opportunity for me to take on some of the load of dealing with Mom.

As I considered moving, that was one of the issues that worried me. How would I respond to Mom? Our relationship, or maybe it is more accurate to say my relationship with her, has been difficult. Yet I am not sure I realized that, until the last 10-15 years. It especially became apparent to me after my divorce, and I began to take some classes in seminary that led me to explore issues with my family of origin. Especially issues with my mother. I had to take an honest look at this most intimate, and fundamental female relationship.
We each begin existence encased in the body of another person. When we are born, the mother-child relationship is extremely important, because in it we find our most basic needs are met, or they aren’t. We learn a lot about the world, or rather what we expect from the world in terms of safety and comfort and provision in this one relationship. Even though a father can come alongside to care and help a mother meet the needs of an infant, the child’s attachment to its mother contributes to what it feels about life and the world… and themselves.
I won’t go into it here, but Mom’s illness affected me in those earliest days of my infancy. I have needed to look back, be honest about the lack of stability in our relationship, but also other parts of my life as a growing child. I needed to grieve it, which included anger at the way I felt I was perceived by my mother. I felt like I was expected to be a heathen, and many times as an adolescent, I fulfilled the expectation nicely. I know that she and my father loved me, but I couldn’t gloss over how some of their decisions, manner of living, and approach to life; which included Mom’s illness; affected me. I am NOT trying to figure out where to place blame. Blame is a form of denial, not truth-finding. I needed to understand why I felt the way I did for much of my life, so I could begin to heal, grow and change.

When I first moved to Florida, near my mother, and siblings; I was still angry with her. I now understand the anger was both natural… I needed to feel it… but it was tied to my own unfulfilled expectations of her, and how I wished she would have interacted with me. This was a necessary step in my healing. When she called…I didn’t answer. I seldom spent time with her. I was afraid that her tendency to live in guilt would affect my thinking and feelings about myself. It had my whole life, and I was just being freed from it due to personal growth, and God’s grace. She felt the absence, too, and kept trying to get me to draw nearer to her. By using guilt… so it was a vicious circle.
Then I became involved in a relationship with a woman that eventually didn’t work out. When we broke up, I began to explore my part in the break-up. I did a similar, much more extensive process when my marriage of 23 years ended. In both circumstances, I tried to examine what I did well, and what I didn’t do so well.
One day, as I was thinking about the most recent break-up, I believe God spoke to me, and helped me realize that in order for me to go forward into another relationship with a woman; I needed to seek reconciliation with my mother. Or, more honestly, reconciliation with my feelings about Mom. I needed to see her as she is, was, and what she was capable of being, rather than what I wished and expected her to be. She needed to be a flesh-and-blood person, with great strengths and great failings. I needed to see… her… not a caricature of my own making. I was beginning to believe I could see her as a sister-in-Christ…as the Beloved of God. Maybe, if I could see her in that light, I could love her as she is and was, and maybe even…myself. God began to show me that, as she continues to grow older, and more child-like, I would sort of father my mother. This began to give me some hope, because I enjoy many aspects of being a father. Age has softened me, too, so I am more patient, and am able to find humor instead of frustration…

Mostly…
Every quarter, Country Church has a service with only music. They call it: The Grand Old Gospel Opry…
Of course they do…
The Grand Old Gospel Opry is quite popular especially with the crowd that usually attends Country Church, which are generally senior adults. Mom, however, usually doesn’t attend because she likes to hear the pastor preach. This past Sunday evening was one of those nights and there were “Special Guests” to go along with the regular bunkhouse gang. (Actually, the worship team and band is quite talented…) On this night there was a bluegrass band and a men’s quartet, a man and wife who travel as evangelists, and other groupings of people that attend the church.
We began with congregational singing. I enjoyed the songs, because they were ones we would sing while my family was in evangelism. A noticeable theme began to evolve with each song: Heaven.
“That makes sense…” I thought. “Play to your crowd.”
The evangelists got up next and began to sing together. I was reminded of sooo many couples I have seen and known through the years. People that travelled from church to church, singing and preaching the gospel. People like my family. This was before four-dollar-gas and one-hundred-dollar-a-night motels; when singers used pre-recorded-sound-tracks that weren’t considered karaoke, and there were only three or four channels on TV, so there weren’t as many entertainment opportunities to compete with the drama of revivals. My first thoughts in response to the couple were pretty negative:

“C’mon brother… don’t you know that your time has passed? That style of doing church is dead and ineffective.”
However, it occurs to me just how much I needed to see them. They were like characters emanating from my heritage of faith. People who put aside a safe, and consumptive lifestyle in order to tell other people about the Christ of new beginnings, of new life, of resurrection… I need to embrace that heritage. It was hard and disruptive… for me, but also for my mother. Mom raised three kids on the road, from one conglomeration of church services to another, all the while having to keep the kids occupied and quiet every evening for a couple hours of church, while sitting IN FRONT of scores of people that could be VERY critical of the preacher’s wife and kids! It was keeping the kids entertained in the car through endless miles of travel. It was keeping the family fed while in poverty, and in clean clothes washed either in borrowed washers and dryers, in a laundromat, or in the sink of a travel trailer and then hung to dry on a makeshift clothesline. It was using cold starch on my father’s white shirts, so they would be… just….so……. It was being the kids’ first (and only at least for a period of time) teacher. It was singing in front of people though she felt intimidated by her self-perceived lack of musical talent.
A tough life…
A committed life…
The service wound along until a trio of women began to sing. Mom said that one of the women was…

“…the daughter of the song leader. She just finished college and is really pretty. I wish I knew somebody that knows her, so I could introduce you to her.”
“Um…. Mom….she is the same age as my daughter…”
“Oh…”
Right now, to my mother at times, I am still about 27. A young man. I think it is because I am single, and we weren’t around each other for so many years. For my first birthday after I moved here, she gave me a book entitled: “God’s Little Instruction Book for Graduates”.
Well… I have been in grad-school for the past three years…
And I confess that in my OWN mind, I still feel like I am 27… at least until I wake up in the morning… then my body says: “Helloooo 52…”
The most beautiful part of the Opry was several songs into the set of the men’s quartet. I had been enjoying the quartet, and remembered how often we would drive many miles to hear quartets when I was young. My dad loved men’s quartets. While he was in college and grad-school at small religious schools, Dad travelled with other young men in a quartet doing public relations for the school. In fact, that was how my mom and dad first met. Dad’s quartet held a concert at the church my mother attended, and they first noticed each other. Eventually, Mom enrolled in the same school.
Pretty effective public relations, I would say…
My father was the first tenor in that quartet, and as Mom and I listened to the first tenor of the Opry quartet singing lead; she leaned in to me and said with quivering voice, “That makes me think of your dad.”

I gently put my arm around my mother, and pulled her tightly against me. She began to quietly cry freely.
For just a moment, my imagination took me to a little church in West Virginia, and I saw a young woman, with striking auburn hair and expressive brown eyes, about 17 or 18-years-old sitting in a hot, crowded sanctuary listening attentively to a group of young men sing. One young man especially held her attention… the good looking first tenor with the crisply starched, white shirt beneath the trimly cut black suit. His hair was dark, and slicked back, and she noticed that as his gaze travelled across the crowd, it would linger with increasing frequency in her direction. With each repeated gaze, both their hearts would beat a little faster. After the concert was over, she would go to the table with information about the college he represented, and ask for a brochure… just to, you know, learn about the academic programs. He would shyly approach her, and their eyes would once again meet. He would hand her the brochure… their hands would touch ever-so slightly… Sparks!
As she cried, my heart cried with her.
For her loss of her Love…
For the loneliness in her life now…
For her desire to be near him again…
Somewhere inside me, I began to see my mother for the first time. The past disappointments and frustrations I felt through the years didn’t really matter. Love began to vibrate for this woman that bore me and introduced me so imperfectly to the world. I saw, instead, God’s beloved daughter. My natural fatherly instincts began to take over. As the song ended, and before we began to applaud, I kissed her on the forehead, as I would my own daughter.

Before I moved to Florida, I wrote four blogs in which I suggested the need for me to be redeemed to my heritage, and my heritage redeemed to me.
God is doing just that…