Uncle Billy

It’s been a hard year for our family.   I have mentioned my uncle Warren, my mother’s brother, who passed away around New Years, and my father’s sister, my aunt Norma, who passed away in December.  My dad also lost another brother, my uncle Billy, earlier this year.

If uncle Warren was tough and strong, uncle Billy was always sentimental.  One early memory I have of him is at a family picnic.  He plucked a leaf from a tree and held it up to the sun and admired it’s intricate design.

“How could anyone say there is no God,” he marveled, “and look at this?”

We had family reunions in May or June, and a lot of my early memories run together.  It was always at a park and everything was green.

I was in elementary school and had read something in a Sunday School paper explaining the concept of the trinity using the concept of water existing in three forms: vapor, ice, and liquid.  The analogy is not very accurate, not very profound, and probably subject to heretical interpretations–and I can’t say it made a profound impression on my own life.  It was just something I had read as a child and was able to quote without investing much thought.

At one of the family gatherings Uncle Billy was in one of his contemplative moods, wondering about the mystery of the Holy Trinity.  I said, “Oh that’s easy, it’s just like water …”  It must have made more of an impression on him than on me.

That was over forty years ago, but Uncle Billy remembered it throughout the years.  He would point out to other relatives that when I was only a child I explained to him the mystery of the Holy Trinity.

Uncle Billy served a career in the army, living many years in the Philippines.

One of my other early memories–I think I was in the sixth grade at the time–was when my uncle Raymond was killed in a truck-train accident.  It was during the Vietnam war.  He was 23 years old and had been injured in combat and returned home to recuperate.  It was in May and he had gone into town with a friend to buy strawberries for his mom.  Evidently they didn’t see the train.

Raymond was a twin, uncle Robert is still living.  They were my dad’s two youngest brother, Billy was next.  He was stationed overseas when the accident occurred.  I remember standing outside the church with the family waiting for him to arrive.  The army flew him there in a helicopter, which landed in the grass outside the church.  I still remember seeing him in uniform with tear-stained face as he emerged  beneath the whirling blades.

My dad’s family were all brought up in the church and always believed in God.  A few years ago–it’s probably been twenty, time passes so fast–uncle Billy was in town and called me.  He had become convinced of his need to receive believer’s baptism and asked me to do the service.

The last time I saw uncle Billy was at a family reunion, it will be two years this June.  He was suffering from congestive heart failure and very weak at the time.  But he was glad to be surrounded by his family, and we were all glad to see him again.  He was reminiscing about his father, whom he called “the greatest man that every lived,” and about his brother and other relatives who had gone on, and about the little boy that explained to him “the mystery of the Holy trinity.”

Uncle Warren

My uncle Warren passed away on (or near, my memory is not perfect) New Year’s day this year.  He had suffered a serious heart attack a few days earlier and declined to have bypass surgery.  He died at home with his family near.  His grandson Jeffery kept a vigil at his side during his final days.

Our family always pronounced his name as one syllable–“Warn”–that is the Ozark dialect, I suppose.  I was pretty old when I realized he had the same name as president Warren G. Harding or the actor Warren Beatty.

Uncle Warren reminds me of the cowboy philosopher in Tom T. Hall’s song, “Faster Horses”–except that he didn’t care much for cows.  Or maybe Clint Eastwood’s character in “Gran Torino”–except that he didn’t use such offensive language, at least in polite company.  He was a tough man; you wouldn’t want to pull a knife on him in a dark alley.

He had faced several hardships in life.  He and my aunt Betty lost twin girls at birth and then later a son, my cousin Jeffery, who was I believe about six or seven when he died from an illness.  Jeffery’s was the first funeral I remember attending.

In more recent years Aunt Betty was disabled with Alzheimer’s disease.  She died a year or two ago in a nursing home.

I visited my cousins at the family home a day or two after Uncle Warren’s death.  He wasn’t really a farmer (or a cowboy) but lived in the country.  I noticed the absence of coon hounds, something that had always been a feature at his place.  Mary Lynn reminded me that he usually had a few beagles around as well.

He spent several hours nearly every night following his hounds through the woods.  He told me last year he thought those nightly miles of walking was probably what helped stave off diabetes–the family curse–until he was in his seventies.  (Most of us develop the symptoms much earlier.)

I used to think it was a cruel pursuit–hunting animals for their fur–though I did tag along one night years ago and can testify to the thrill of following the bay of the hounds through a moonlit woods.  I changed my opinion somewhat when Margaret (our friend who keeps us supplied with fresh eggs from happy, free-range hens) told us about a coon that got into the chicken house and tore the heads off of a dozen or more hens.  Raccoons can be pretty cruel themselves.

I did enjoy some good conversations with uncle Warren in the last few years.  He always enjoyed kids (he showed it by teasing us when we were young), especially his grandchildren.   He remained close to his sisters and his kids, my cousins, Charles, Mary Lynn, and Rhonda.    I regret that he won’t be able to take our grandson Elijah fishing some day.

Fathers and Sons

The readings for this Sunday include the parable of the Prodigal Son, which along with the Good Samaritan, is one of the two best known parables in the Bible.  These two short stories are part of the greatest story ever told, the story of Jesus.

Together these two parables sum up what Jesus was all about–reconciliation between father and son, brother and brother, sister and sister, national enemies, and all broken human relationships–and at the same time reconciliation of sinners to God, the hope of unconditional love–and the life of love, showing compassion for a stranger, taking a risk to show compassion to one in need.

One thing puzzles me.  These two stories are found only in the Gospel according to Luke.  How could the other two evangelists have missed them?

I don’t have the answer, but maybe the other evangelists knew of the stories and understand them better than we do.  Maybe they found them too shocking.

Scholars tell us the cultures around the ancient Mediterranean were “honor and shame” cultures–as if there are any cultures that are not motivated by honor and shame.

(Maybe we are getting close to it–the deposed governor of Illinois was not bashful about appearing on David Letterman last week.)

It is plain enough that the prodigal son had disgraced his family.  He forced his father to liquidate the assets of the family farm so he could travel to a far place to find himself.  And when his money and friends ran out he found himself feeding pigs–some job for a nice Jewish boy–and lusting after the pods they fed on.  So when he gets desperate enough, he remembers his father is a generous man.  He’s willing to go home on probation, work as a hired hand.

Hadn’t the father ever heard of tough love?

Instead of accepting the offer of probation, the father loses all his dignity, runs to meet his son, and throws a party for him like he is some kind of conquering hero returned from war.  Can you blame the older brother for resenting the whole scene?

I think of another father in the  Bible who had two sons.  David’s son Amnon developed a sick obsession with his half-sister Tamar, lured her into his room, and raped her.  Then he hated her and sent her away.

Absalom, her full brother, waited to see what the king would do.  David evidently felt he had forfeited  any moral authority with his sons.  He was furious–but did nothing.  Absalom let his outrage simmer inside for two years.  Then he invited all his brothers to a sheep-sheering festival, where he had Amnon murdered.  David was again furious and Absalom went into exile for three years.

David was finally persuaded to allow his son to return.  He was allowed to live in Jerusalem, but David refused to see him.  Finally after another two years David allowed a formal reconciliation with his son.

The formal reconciliation was not enough for Absalom.  Again he allowed his rage to simmer until he found the opportunity to lead a rebellion against his father.

Our children break our hearts.  A broken heart can heal by hardening or by remaining tender.  People who have been deeply wounded can become bitter or sweet.  Most fathers are more like David than the father in Jesus’ parable.

Aunt Norma

Our family lost my aunt, my father’s sister, Norma Snowberg, passed away this week.  The family has asked me to have the services Tuesday, December 22.

Aunt Norma was a strong woman.  There was never any doubt as to where she stood on any issue.  She grew up in the depression, the oldest sister in a large family.  She learned responsibility early, taking care of her younger sisters and brothers.

She married young; she and uncle Monty were both teenagers.  In fact, he told me they had to drive to Missouri for the wedding, because he was too young in Illinois.  I can imagine if you asked her why they married so young, she would have said,

We were in love, we had found our life partners, and we didn’t have any reason to wait.   When you find the love of your life, you get married.  When you get married you stay married.

I don’t think she would say people who have made a terrible mistake should stay married.  But she and uncle Monty were both committed to the marriage and to each other.  They loved and respected each other.  They moved forward and never looked back.

He was drafted within a few months after their marriage.  The expected draft was another reason for their early marriage.  If he didn’t come back, they would rather have a few months together than nothing.  They had 65 years together.

She found a church and became an active member wherever she lived.  I think she might also say,

If you believe in God, you go to church.  If you go to church, you support the church and do your part.

My cousins say there mom liked order and rules, but she also believed in freedom–she never liked to see an animal in a cage or in chains.  She was a housewife, homemaker and mother.  She enjoyed those roles and put all her energy and creativity into fulfilling them.  She was a modern woman, though, she would never expect the younger generation to be confined to traditional roles.

Uncle Monty was a home builder.  Aunt Norma took an active interest in his business.  When they came to visit us in Memphis about ten years ago, she had me drive her around the new construction sites to check out the work there.

I always enjoyed hearing stories of my elders and ancestors from her.  I will have to call on my cousins now to fill in any of the stories I have missed.

More than a Peck

I think I picked quite a bit more than a peck of peppers to pickle and freeze.  Our chili pepper patch was pretty prolific this summer.  They are still coming on strong, but we just missed a hard freeze last night and may have one tonight, so I went out today in the chilly wind to pick chili peppers.  I picked more than three bags full, leaving just a few small ones in case it doesn’t freeze and we have a few more days of warm weather.

It’s satisfying to enjoy the year’s final harvest, but  sad too.  This marks the official end of summer for me.

I would have posted a picture, but Sonja has my camera in Arkansas.

By the way, I’m still buying Iwig milk.  If you live in NE Kansas and drink milk, look for it.  It’s worth it and the dairy needs the help.

Separated by Circumstances

Sonja has gone to take care of her mother in Arkansas.  She took a leave of absence from job here; she is working part time, two days a week, there.  She is also enjoying spending time with our niece and nephew, Kayla and Justin.  Sonja and I are separated by circumstances, not separate in our affection for each other.

I keep thinking of the Ray Charles song–it has nothing to do with our family; this is not our story–but still the words come back:

Tell your mama, Tell your pa,

Gonna send you back to Arkansas,

Hey, Hey, tell me what I say . . .

I am going to see her, and my mother-in-law and other relatives, this weekend.  I have a day off Monday.  Tuesday I have only one class and I will conduct it online this week.

I haven’t posted in a while because I have been otherwise occupied.

I have been listening to the debate about health care–well, I would like to call it a debate; a conversation would be better–but really it has been mostly name calling and finger pointing.  But that’s a different story.  The issues that should be being discussed are not just abstract issues for us.  We are confronted with them every day.  We are making real-life health care decisions based on medical, economic, and family realities.

Haskel’s Passing

My father-in-law Haskel passed away last night around midnight–the same night Senator Ted Kennedy succumbed to his illness.  I will be traveling to Arkansas for the service this weekend.

Haskel was Sonja’s step-father.  Actually Maxine and Haskel started dating about the same time Sonja and I did.  They were married a few months before we were.

He had been advised of his choices for care in his final days, and he received good care.

Sonja and her sisters are with Maxine now.  I will be traveling with our two daughters to the memorial service.  Our youngest daughter Heidi was able to see Haskel this past weekend.  She had made the trip with Sonja, and they returned back in the wee hours of the morning Monday.