Friday, November 5, 2010

REMEMBERING MY GRANDPARENTS

I’m encouraging readers to remember special people who have made life lovely, who made us feel loved, who taught us to love and give us good reason to love God. My mind gravitates to my grandparents, Mama and Papa Howell. I can announce with total objectivity that they were the finest, most loving and wonderful grandparents any child has ever had. If you want to contend with me on behalf of your own, I should warn you that I will never concede – and simultaneously suggest that instead of arguing with me you should simply fall on your knees and give thanks to God.

There is a profound theological meaning in people like grandparents or your parent’s home town, if you are blessed to know such loveliness. I spent most summers (all summer! – what could they have been thinking when they took me and my sister in?) and Christmases in Oakboro, a little town with one traffic light (with the colors upside down) you reach by driving through Locust, hang a right at Frog Pond, bear left at Big Lick, and you are there. My grandparents were poor, uneducated people, yet dignified, devout in the best possible way, solid, admired citizens – but none of that really matters. They loved me.

When I would be deposited on their step, they would rejoice, and sweep me up in loving arms. When I would leave, they appeared to be sad. My grandfather had this little liturgy of departure: we would be stashed in the car, my dad would back out of the driveway, and begin to accelerate toward that lone traffic light down the road. As if suddenly remembering what he’d forgotten, Papa Howell would hurry toward the car, imploring us to stop. I would roll down the window, he would reach in his pocket, and press into my palm a 50¢ piece. In those days, my monthly allowance was 50¢, so I needed a little money – but I never ever spent a single one of those precious gems. To this day, when I stand in a line and a priest presses a piece of bread into my hand, I recall the gift of Papa Howell. He was giving me money, in a way – but really he was giving himself, he wanted me to be able to clutch a piece of him with me when I was far from him. Jesus must have had the same idea in mind when he thought up little pieces of bread that are really just bread, and yet they become for us the Body of Christ, and we are healed, and renewed.

I learned the meaning of theological vocation from him, although no one used hifalutin terms like “theological” or “vocation.” He was a rural mail carrier, and he let me ride with him from time to time. He was put on earth to deliver the mail, as if on a mission from God, dispensing kindness with the mail, handing out chewing gum and crackers to children, delivering medicine and groceries along with postal packages, stopping at times to pray with persons along the way. He could perhaps have landed a better job somewhere else; but he had a keen sense of his crucial place in the functioning of his small hometown.

Now I have his desk, his mail pouch, a few 50¢ pieces, and his Bible – just things, but they carry him with me through life decades after his passing. How did he pass, you ask? The night is still clear in my mind: the telephone rang – one of those “burglar alarms of the heart,” as John Irving aptly described such calls. My dad, or perhaps my mother, shook us out of bed. Hurry! Now! – he’s very ill. We piled into the car and drove hard for hours, silently, along the road we had traversed so many times filled with joyful anticipation. Not long after dawn, we finally pulled up in front of the house. We just sat, as if paralyzed, as my father turned off the car, opened the door, and somberly walked up to his brothers and sisters, who were standing under the giant oak tree where we had all played and churned ice cream a hundred times. My sister and I could not hear what was said, but we saw my dad and his siblings fall on each other’s shoulders, and they cried out loud.

In that moment we children learned that life is precious, that love is intense, that a life could matter so much. There is a beauty hidden in grief. Love unfailingly plunges you into excruciating agony, but we would not think for a moment of loving any less. By analogy we could say “God’s love is like that,” and so it is. God’s love costs God and costs us everything, and tears are shed. But the Gospel is not merely illustrated by this moment of my grandfather’s death. God was under those trees and in my gut, as God is always palpable when God’s children suffer but manage to stand and take another breath. In a grown man’s sobbing we overhear God’s own lament. In a child’s stricken agony we are enveloped by the heart of God.

Mama Howell lived a few sad years past his death, through days of illness, pain, and I think much loneliness despite the tender care of family. Papa and Mama Howell live in me; they are the grace of God rippling through my vascular system, populating my head with happy thoughts, girding me to believe in myself. Recollection of grace can do that to you. Under that same old oak tree where my father and his brothers wept, we used to churn ice cream in the gathering afternoon shade. Mama Howell would prepare her milk, peach, chocolate, sugar concoction, my sister would carefully shimmy chunks of ice down into the perimeter of the churn, lacing the ice with salt, and Papa Howell would sit on a little wooden chair and turn the crank. Filled with expectation, I was surprised, eager, a little hesitant, when Papa Howell summoned me to the task: “Whew, I’m getting’ a little tired… James, come over here and help me.” He hoisted me over his knee and into his lap, and I cockily grasped the handle, and pushed with all my might. His hand rested on mine, strongly, helping in that gentle way that you don’t notice until you’re grown, turning, turning, turning again, the voice of praise right in my ear, “Good job, good job.”

Seminary taught me formal prayers to unfurl in a hospital room, but my grandfather taught me how to be a faith healer. When I would get the hiccups, my aunts, uncles, and cousins would ply me with foolish remedies until he arrived home. “Hiccups? I know just the thing.” He would lift me up, and situate me on his lap, facing forward, straddling his legs – and then he commenced with a voodoo of taps and bumps from his fingers and fists up and down my back, a pattern of here, there, harder, softer… and the cure worked every time. His cure worked, I now know, because I had faith in the healer. Somewhat hilariously, I found myself years later, knowing precisely what to do when my own children complained of their inevitable hiccups. A spoonful of sugar? Holding your breath? Sipping water upside down from a glass? I waved off such ineffectual antidotes, and confidently placed my children on my lap, back toward me, and began the patterned thumps. Hiccups cured! – and I would tell them I learned this medicine from Papa Howell. If my children have their own children one day, I trust they will know what to do.

Laughter regularly rang through the house – and out of doors. Papa Howell took his young son-in-law Johnny hunting. Some doves flew overhead, Papa Howell aimed, and shot – and the doves kept flying, prompting him to announce to Johnny, “Did you see that miracle? Those dead doves I killed just flew away!” We missed some of his funniest material, since in attempting to tell something humorous he would laugh so hard we couldn't understand him.

Mama Howell was holy in her own different way. She hummed and occasionally whistled old hymns as she cooked, swept, knitted or rocked. Although they were poor, she dressed every day, and took great pride in her jewelry, hats, and shoes. And yet when my sister and I would get into her closet and dress up, she never seemed to mind. Her room was adorned with Degas prints: those pretty, elegant ballet dancers. She knew and appreciated beauty, although she could not afford many beautiful things. Her real treasures, we at least believed, were her grandchildren.

One day my sister and I had a little contest in that room with the Degas prints. We climbed onto her old sewing machine, the kind with a flat pedal that operated the needle, to see who could make it go up and down the fastest. Jann went first, and pedaled rapidly, the needle whirring away. My turn came, and I pressed even harder, the needle a mere blur. Not to be outdone, she shoved me off the bench and began bicycling the thing herself even more recklessly – and then we heard the piercing of an unanticipated voice behind us: “Children?” We turned, mortified. If your parents catch you doing such things, you ar e scolded and punished. But it was Mama Howell, and she knew precisely what to do with such hoodlums: “Children? I just pulled some peach cobbler out of the oven; don’t you want to come get some?” And there was always room at her small table for one more – a passerby who happened to be in the yard around mealtime, a cousin at loose ends, a laborer with time on his hands.

And there were others in Oakboro: my great grandmother who was spry and funny into her late 90’s, my Down syndrome cousin Sharon who was always seemed to be the happiest of us all in that she was content with a few shiny coins in a cheap purse, my Uncle Famon who raised cows, pigs and chickens, and my Aunt Zonia. I suppose my grandparents wearied of me at times, so I would get farmed out to others in town, and I loved staying with my great Aunt Zonia. I’m unsure how an orthopedist would diagnose my aunt, but her hands were gnarled, underdeveloped somehow, fairly useless, awkward. You would think, “Oh, those are not good hands, they must be a problem.” One night, a stiff fever and awful nausea laid me low. In my misery, Aunt Zonia stayed with me all night long, and with her twisted fingers she took a cold cloth and wiped my brow. She could have held back, thinking “Oh, my hands are bad hands, I wish I had soft, supple fingers instead of these cramped digits.” But she took my small hands in her hands as best she could, and she didn’t let go.

As a little boy, I discovered another hidden beauty in her hands. Returning home from the grocery store, she couldn’t carry the bags into the house. She really needed me. No pretending: I was important at Aunt Zonia’s house. I had a skill that made a difference. An odd quartet of hands the two of us shared: I could serve this woman who had served me. Years passed, and she phoned me from the hospital. I found her in intensive care, where she lay with a brain tumor, not expected to live long at all. Proud that I had grown up to be a man of the cloth, she asked “Will you preach my funeral? and will you pray for me?” I took her hands, or perhaps it was she who took mine, and we prayed. We offered her up to God.

When I think back on the meaning of my life with my grandparents, and in that unbeatably glorious town of Oakboro (which might not strike you as much at all), I am grateful to God beyond all measure for Papa Howell, and for Mama Howell. Have I idealized them? Probably – but what’s wrong with that? And how many lovely moments have I forgotten? And I do believe this, which I have written in a book coming out soon: “If you are lucky like me, you have fond memories of summertime junkets to the home of your grandparents. For me, it was a house that is factually small now when I drive by as a grownup – but as a child it was large, large in love, large in special treats, large in cousins and fun, another home, one without problems or homework or chores, a special place of a more unconditional kind of love. Does God give us such places in our memory so that we will learn to desire the home for which God destines us when this life is over?”

And if the God I believe in, the same one Mama and Papa Howell believed in, is to be trusted, then we will all be together again, in that home that will be better than any idealized dream we might fathom.

2 comments:

  1. "Mama and Papa Howell live in me": seems a foretelling of eternal life. Yes we look at and read James' memories and do see those who live in us. All Saints Thanksgiving.

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  2. LOVE the photos! Your Papa Howell is my "Uncle Artis," my father's oldest brother. I grew up living in a small house on a farm your Papa sold my father - a farm tract taken from the old family farm. In the summers I would watch for the rising dust behind the hill at their old home place. Uncle Artis delivered the mail and sometimes he would stop at the mailbox at the home place house that was rented. Other days the car would appear to be moving too fast as it came straight on with the dust swirling up behind it, climbing the little hill to our house. He was sitting in the middle of the front seat, driving with his left hand on the steering wheel, all of the windows down. I waited at the mailbox hoping for the weekly newspaper or some tidbit of mail. Even if there was no mail Uncle Artis would stop to talk about some little something with his niece. His nose was just like my father's and I loved his smile. The old house was built by their father, a carpenter. At different times there were shutters, a picket fence, but it was always painted and well-kept. It seemed strange to me that the road was at the side of the house and the front faced our house across the fields. With its two story, four windows with green wooden shades hanging over them, it seemed to peer at me daily as I played in the yard. It was a constant in my life and I came to be as comforted by it as my father was. Last year the house burned. I cried. My son said, "Mom, look at it this way. There's a young couple building a new house on that land and they will raise their family there - a family probably as caring and loving as yours." It occurred to me that the union between Jim Howell and Cora Kennedy produced a generation of six children and as a result, all of us have inherited from them a faith that was Saint-taught.
    I quit crying.

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