John Franklin Smith, 91, did not die of the COVID, although it severely limited the number of visitors allowed to gather around his hospice bed. Neither did he die from dozens of other close calls during his long life. He didn’t die 50 years earlier from trying to break in that useless horse. He didn’t drown that time he stubbornly drove his car down a flooded highway. Nor did he die those four years he was in the army during the Korean War. We thought he was a goner when his colon ruptured in 2017, and again when he was felled by a massive stroke in 2019… but no. In the end he simply stopped breathing, the inevitable culmination of a chronic, decades-long respiratory ailment, an unfittingly boring end to my father’s life.
He wanted to be cremated, but my mom argued that the idea was repulsive. I tried to mediate but got nowhere. Washing my hands of the whole matter, I growled that when he died we would cut him in half, toss part of him into the blaze and pitch the other half in the ground. Despite this threat they never did come to an agreement. But since my mom outlived him, she won, and he was buried in one piece in the Camp Butler National Cemetery, a perk granted to military veterans. Dad didn’t really like being in the army. He resented how much they tried to change him and he chafed at their rules. But that didn’t keep him from using the GI Bill to either go to college or scoop up a free grave plot.
A whole COVID year has now passed since he did. Our memorial services were necessarily inhibited, leaving our remembrances and celebrations feeling incomplete. I felt that I hadn’t yet grieved enough, or laughed enough, or shared enough about him. And so I set about writing these reflections and sharing them with others.
A son sees his old man’s life a bit differently than others. There’s an intimacy there, a life-long inner wrestling between pop and boy that may be nobody else’s business, except perhaps the therapist’s. But the trove of stories and vignettes tucked away in the son’s mind can potentially be redemptive and life-giving. From them one might craft meaningful memories, glad celebrations, and lasting legacies… possibly even gifts to share with others. In these four essays my dad is the protagonist. A big part of my own personality was shaped by him, sometimes emulating, other times disclaiming him. In his long life, with his compliance, four ingredients of personality emerged: the rogue, the strongman, the dreamer, and the sweetheart, his own unique recipe for living.
I. THE ROGUE
The dictionary defines a rogue as someone who makes up their own rules as they go along, disregarding convention and advice, covering up their shortcuts and naughtiness with charm and charisma. Rogues are addicted to breaking other people’s rules, often going to great effort merely to ignore the norm.
My dad came from a family of rogues: hillbillies, partially converted Baptists, Klan sympathizers, etc. Our real name might not even be “Smith.” After all, a name change was just the thing in the early 1800s when a scoundrel was trying to evade the authorities. Family genealogists trying to discover the truth about our ancestors can only go back to 1850. It seems that the Tennessee courthouse with the pertinent information just happened to burn down about then. Maybe one of our great-grandpas was an arsonist?
My dad inherited this dynastic rogue-ness. But in him the rogue trait also had to share elements of tenderness and integrity, much to his chagrin. Consequently, he became a more sophisticated rogue than the others.
My schoolteacher mom tried to keep him in line. She is smart and sophisticated, as addicted to following the rules as my dad was to breaking them. Propriety is paramount for her. She had some success in reforming him, but still, it was like playing “Whack a Mole.” Even though you can smack down plenty of the little nuisances, something new keeps popping up, irritating you over and over.
His speech was one of her major headaches. He knew proper grammar. But every time he got together with his hillbilly relatives, it took her a week to reprogram him, so much did he delight in her frustration.
He even tried to go rouge on the government. When the state of Illinois instituted an income tax in the 1970s, he got all tea-party and decided not to pay it. But when that letter arrived from the Department of Revenue threatening him with jail, he shrugged his shoulders, sent them a check, and wandered off to find someone else’s rules to break.
And there’s this: everyone in our immediate family has at least one aghast memory of his unexpected nudity. There wasn’t anything immoral going on: it was just him purposefully not giving a damn.
He even went rogue on his own rogue, rough, and racist relatives by moving to the north, going to college, inviting Japanese and African classmates to spend the night at our house, and teaching us kids to never use the “N” word. Had he not been so roguish, would he ever have broken free from the humiliations and prejudices of his kinfolk?
His roguishness was especially revealed in two pets he brought home, a pony and a pig. I believe that pets are our alter-egos: they express that part of the sub-conscious self that we are too socialized to acknowledge. (I conclude a lot about people by observing their pets. If you want to know what I secretly suspect about you, consider how your dog or cat behaves.) The pony and the pig revealed a lot about my dad.
The pony was his 1967 Christmas gift to us four kids. Dad walked us out to the garage that freezing Christmas morning, threw open the door, and presto: a rust colored pony that none of us had been pining for. Leading her out by the rope, dad invited me, the eldest, to have the first bareback ride. It lasted all of five seconds before I got bucked off. Jim, Steve, and Jay were all told to take their turns, which they obediently did. None of us lasted long enough on the bucking bronco to earn any rodeo points. After we collectively declined the opportunity for a second ride, my dad tied the pony to a tree and we all went in to eat breakfast. When we went back outside afterward the pony was gone, escaped.
We should have had the prescience to just let her go, but no. We spent all Christmas day chasing her up and down the three streets of Rock Grove, Illinois. Neighbors would call the house through the day to report sightings. The pony would let us get as close as five feet away before galloping off again. It was three p.m. before she tired of the game and let us lead her back to her feed bucket in the garage.
My dad told my brothers and me that it was our job to tame this pony: it would make men out of us. He was too busy with his work to do the job himself. But we boys were only 13, 11, 10, and 6, and amply endowed with our mother’s caution. Breaking horses (or bones) was not part of our ambitions, particularly after meeting this particular pony. And so “Christy” the Christmas present was never domesticated. Only later did we learn that dad had never himself broken in a horse. He had merely heard stories about his dad and uncles doing so; questionable stories straight from the mouths of a whole generation of rogues.
That summer we moved from Rock Grove to a country parsonage north of Sterling, Illinois, an abode with a barn and a pasture. The pony moved with us. An acre of pasture and a high fence kept her contented. She stayed on her side of the fence and we stayed on ours. It was live and let live, although increasingly awkward to explain to folks why we kept this no-good equine around. But in response to each inquiry, my dad would pitch his dream: this pony will someday become a gentle, treasured member of our family, providing idyllic rides through the countryside for one and all… or some baloney along that line.
Once in a while, when he had a free day, he’d go out and try to ride her himself. That never went well. It inevitably became a physical fight between the two of them. We’d watch from the kitchen window, terrified of becoming orphans. The pony always triumphed, being both bigger and more roguish. But something in Christy’s spirit resonated within my father: deep calls to deep. And so we kept her… years longer than we should have.
The pig came from a neighboring farmer. As a piglet, he was the runt of the litter, destined to die of malnutrition, the one who could never find a free nipple amidst the clamor of his greedy siblings. My dad, always partial to the little guy, brought him home. We kids affectionately named him “Arnold” after a famous TV pig. Arnold, in return, thanked us for his salvation by rooting up all the grass in our yard, constantly jumping over the pasture fence, and being generally obnoxious. The only time he was cute was during a rainstorm, when he would stand under the pony to keep dry. He gave hogs a bad reputation. My dad eventually took him to the butcher, refusing to believe that an uncastrated boar would taste odd. And so it was that Arnold turned out to be not only a rogue pig but rogue pork as well.
One of the biggest ways my dad’s rogue-ness came through was in his telling of stories. He didn’t stick to facts. He would take the particulars of an interesting event, stretch and twist them until that grin appeared, and then tell his revised version over and over. My mom, preferring accuracy, would try to correct him, but to no avail. Each time she would try to set the record straight, and each time she would eventually give up, roll her eyes, fall silent, and let him hog the stage until he finished.
John Franklin Smith was a pastor. Being a pastor while being a rogue makes for an interesting juxtaposition. It has the potential of going very bad: abuse of power, betrayal of trust, professional misconduct… But when controlled and crafted, such a paradox can be a lifesaver in a profession that is rule-bound and stereotyped. While Christian creeds claim that Jesus was “fully human,” congregations seldom grant such humane permission to their pastors. My dad discovered that playing the rogue just right can be a fairly ethical way to escape those moral straitjackets bestowed on the clergy. The Methodist church forbid their pastors to smoke or drink alcohol. So, my dad kept a pipe on the living room lamp stand and ordered a beer now and then at a restaurant… when people were looking. And when he noticed that several self-righteous members in his Protestant churches were decidedly anti-Catholic, he started wearing a priestly clerical collar on Sundays.
My dad didn’t fit all the dictionary definitions of the word “rogue.” He was not dishonest, nor a cheat, nor savage, nor a tramp. For him, going rogue meant being a charming scamp, mischievous, playful, and incurably averse to following other people’s rules. One occupational hazard of being a rogue is that you disrespect and hurt people. But my dad’s innate gentleness and caring for others kept him from doing much damage.
It’s an inheritance I think I’ll hang on to. It helped him survive the depression, a stint in the military, a solid marriage, a demanding family, and an over-prescribed career in the ministry. It also gave him some incentive to stay fully engaged with people for all of his 91 years. It seasoned his decades of retirement and kept him from getting overly depressed when he was gravely ill. It was even a weapon he used to shake his fist at death, when it finally came to his door. Yes. I’ll be a son of a rogue.
And to my dad, this: well played, you old scamp!
II. THE STRONGMAN
My dad was usually the strongest guy in the room. As he aged, he went from one kind of strength to another, which is how he maintained his advantages, even into feeble old age. In tandem with his development, I myself progressed: from being a little afraid of him, to becoming hostile to him, to turning competitive with him, to finally, when I was in my forties, trying to imitate him.
We were on a family vacation one year, spending a rare night in a motel. Usually we camped or stayed with someone my dad knew. But on this night we had packed seven people into one cheap room. (At no point in his life did any of my dad’s strength come from wealth.) I have two vivid memories of that night. First, it was a split level room, an accident due to poor construction. There was a jagged break in the concrete, one part of the room six inches lower than the other. We kids (including a cousin) slept in the “loft” and my parents slept in the sunken sector. My second memory is of the thunderstorm that hit about 3 a.m. Dad jumped out of bed and lunged at the open windows, trying to get them closed before everyone got sprayed with rain and woke up. (Parents will do anything to keep their exhausting kids asleep!) But these windows were no more repaired than the building’s slab foundation, and Dad struggled mightily to get them shut and save the night. I opened one eye during the ruckus and witnessed the bout: my father versus his immovable foe. I was mesmerized. In that bewitching hour it seemed to me a mythic battle, not between mere man and stuck window. The flashes of lightening revealed Hercules, combatting those powers and principalities that would undo us. And my impressions weren’t just because my dad was dressed exactly like the statues of Hercules I’d seen. The god-man conquered that night. Windows finally secured, he crawled back under his sheet. And I, more secure, slipped back to sleep.
My earliest recollections of his powers were of muscles, trash talk, and occasional explosions of anger. In the eyes of a six-year old, his biceps were humongous. They were especially on display when he wore a white tee-shirt around the house, short sleeves rolled up, a remainder from former days when they sheathed his cigarettes. He would boast about delivering furniture for Kroehler Company in Naperville, a very physical job during his college years. His physical strength was intentionally conspicuous when we’d see him eagerly move pianos and appliances, playfully hoist my mom in his arms to carry her through a doorway, wrestle our feral horse, push cars out of snowbanks and mudholes, and get down on all fours so we kids could all jump on his back and ride around the room. He was almost six feet tall, nearly always the tallest one in the photo, towering over his parents, his sisters, my mom, and, in the early years, us kids.
Furthermore, he accessorized his muscles with trash talk. And we kids fell for it, doing whatever we could to avoid being “whacked up-side the head,” “lashed with a willow switch,” “kicked out of the house and down the street,” “taken down a notch,” or “dragged to the woodshed.” We did not want him to mop the floor with us. Neither were we enthralled when he thundered about cleaning our clocks or blistering our behinds. Such speech was tactical, a common move on his part to rein in his four growing sons. He would often argue with my mom and with other relatives and with church members. But the trash talk was confined to us kids.
Keeping with the times, he believed that corporeal punishment and occasional explosions of anger were acceptable means of fatherly discipline. On one occasion we sent a seventh grade babysitter home in tears. She was a little over her head in trying to supervise four energetic boys. And when she called her mother to get some advice, we smelled the fear and started to harass her, teasing that she was calling her “boyfriend.” Dad was furious and decided to give us one whack of the belt for each year of our respective ages. As the eldest, I thought this arrangement egregiously unfair. On another occasion my brother and I mismanaged the financial side of a paper route we shared. Back in those days, we delivery kids went door to door every Saturday and collected the subscription fees from our customers. We were supposed to pay the publisher for the wholesale cost of the newspapers (once every three months), and then we got to keep the rest. The first quarter of our business venture was a disaster, mostly because Mrs. Earle, who sold candy, colas, and comic books in her rickety little restaurant, allowed ten and twelve year-olds to run a tab. My dad was livid when he found out that our bill with Mrs. Earle exceeded our gross receipts. It was the belt again. I came away from that sad day with two life-long determinations: never again to let my debts exceed my capacity to pay, and never to punish my own kids while I was enraged.
Being blessed with muscles and gifted with verbal swagger, early on my dad came to believe that being the strongman was a good way to get what you wanted. But your muscles don’t last forever, and your kids smarten up and no longer believe your braggadocio, and maturity muffles your bursts of rage; and thus the decent adult comes to cultivate other varieties of strength. We move from strength to strength, rejoices the Psalmist.
And so it was that my strength-seeking dad came to traffic in the likes of relationships and religion, flexibility and forbearance, preparation and persistence, storytelling and self-discipline, optimism and orneriness. Such was the repertoire he used to improvise new methods and styles for playing the strongman.
Being ornery could make him the strongest one in the room since it exhausted everyone else while requiring little effort on his part. Optimism is contagious, and when he happily had his mind set on a trip, a project, or an experience, none of us was able to resist him. Self-discipline, for my dad, meant delaying gratification so he could get his work done. People found him reliable because of his self-discipline. They came to trust him, and being trusted made him even more powerful. His legendary story-telling gave him a strength that could lift the spirits of everyone in the room. Preparation and persistence were sources of strength that helped him get through college and move his churches forward. Forbearance neutralized the slights and insults that came his way and allowed him to save his powers for that which gave him joy. Religion gave him access to sources of strength beyond himself.
And then there were the strengths he discovered in relationships. He would ultimately draw the bulk of his powers from more than a thousand healthy relationships that he initiated and maintained over his lifetime. He paid careful attention to people, and he was eager to lend them a hand, flash a grin, share some nugget of wisdom, or simply just be present when there was nothing sensible to be said. The apostle wrote that love consists of building another person up. Dad’s social skills were constantly employed in such building endeavors. And as he built strength in others, he mysteriously grew stronger himself. Everyone who knew him well will attest: he was often perceived as the strongman in the room.
Of all the relationships that made my dad strong, the one he had with my mom was the most poignant. The writer of Ecclesiastes noted, “two are better than one…for if they fall, one will lift up the other…if two lie together they keep warm…though one might prevail, two will withstand.” (Ecclesiastes 4: 9-12) My mom and dad brought everything they knew about different forms of strength into their marriage. They had countless arguments and an equal number of reconciliations. Theirs was a dynamic strength that only comes from “a long obedience in the same direction.” (Eugene Peterson) Their marriage was two days shy of 67 years when he died. The two of them somehow found a way to pick each other up, even if the other didn’t deserve it. And they became stronger through sickness, want, failure, disappointment, relocation, diverging careers, family dramas, and opposite personalities.
My dad remained a strongman, even after his stroke, even after the skin on his arms flopped loose where muscles had once reigned, even after he became the shortest one in the photo. He went from strength to strength.
In his younger days his strength mostly fed his pride. But as he became wiser, his strength became a means to happiness, for himself and others. Strength that is devoted to controlling others or compensating for lack of self-confidence bears seeds of its own decline. It is what we mean when we say that those who live by the sword die by the sword.
But strengths that are devoted to happiness and camaraderie possess something eternal. One strength begats and then yields to a higher strength. And even to the last breath, one might indeed be the strongman in the room. I know: I saw it with my own eyes.
III. THE DREAMER
I hate to speak ill of the dead, especially my own father. But dad was a lousy corpse. That was clear to me the moment I approached the bier and peered in his casket for the first time. It was hard to figure out immediately what was amiss… The undertaker had clearly checked all the tasks off his list: wash, powder, groom, and dress the body. No, this was something my dad seemed to be screwing up. He was looking uncharacteristically dull, given this last chance to be center stage.
It took me about two hours to figure it out. The cadaver had no grin. The funeral director couldn’t fabricate something that can only come from the spirit of a person. In real life, John Smith was never more than a moment away from flashing “the grin.” It was even present in his last moments of lucidity. During his last two days, all we could do was bait that grin: tossing out names, places, memories… The flickering grin was the last part of his personality to expire.
What was it about his grin anyway? Like the gauge on an appliance, his grin indicated that his imagination was churning, making him happy. Sometimes the grin was a residue of built up pleasures from past dreams played out. Of course, some of those dreams were pure cockamamie. But often enough, one would turn out to be priceless.
You couldn’t help but grin yourself when you found out the latest concoction brewing in his mind. For example, he had a lifelong dream of being a farmer. He didn’t want to be a full-out farmer, with tractors and fields and herds of livestock; he was far too busy to milk cows every day. Rather, he imagined himself a gentleman farmer, continuing his work as a full-time pastor while leisurely dabbling in those charming amenities of rural life.
This was how we became the owners of a sort-of chicken ranch in 1967. My dad came home one day with fifty cute cockerels. He’d met somebody who worked at the nearby hatchery, where baby chicks were separated shortly after emerging from their shells. The pullets (females) would go on to become productive egg laying hens. And the cockerels (males) were killed.
He grinned that whole day, reckoning he could get some free roosters, imagining how pleased his boys would be when they learned they would be raising chickens, supposing how many free chicken dinners the family would get from this enterprise…
When dad grinned, we kids grinned. The whole family grinned, all except my mom. When dad grinned mom would frown. If his grins signaled that dreams were afoot inside his head, mom’s frowns communicated that she was trying to preserve some common sense inside hers.
At this point it is important to note that my dad grew up in a refinery town, not on a farm. He knew next to nothing about chickens, except how to cut up a carcass so you could pan fry it.
We then lived in Rock Grove, Illinois, the aforementioned town of only 80 people and three streets. The parsonage was at the end of one of those streets, virtually in the country. There was a small shed behind our garage, the place where this half-cocked dream would come to pass. It turns out my dad never reckoned that roosters would establish a pecking order and then attempt to kill the individual at the bottom. His tactical response was quick enough as he tried to medicate the victims while simultaneously yelling and kicking at the offenders. Nevertheless, for about three weeks we’d go out every morning with a shovel, find the latest victim, and bury it. When we were down to thirty survivors my dad felt his dream of chicken dinners slipping away. So he got an axe, rid the rest of the bullies of their heads, and boiled a big pot of water to rid them of their feathers. In my sleep that night I kept visualizing headless chickens running up and down our driveway.
In the end, my mom’s frowns were validated. But so were my dad’s grins. He not only got his chicken dinners, but posterity got a really good story. His grins factored in his belief that his dreams would always eventuate in a good story.
For my dad, dreaming was a necessity. His dreams emancipated his desires. The power of a dream was the power of a key to unlock happiness and free it from being boxed in by too many squeamish feelings or prudish attitudes. He dreamed of places he would go, things he would build, gatherings he would organize, animals he would raise, vehicles he would drive, causes he would engineer, congregations he would lead to greener pastures, and people he would rescue.
He fashioned those dreams from shards of memory, snippets of stories, wishes of people around him, whimsies from boyhood, inspirations from a variety of characters.
Oh, places he would go. His dreams got him to all fifty states. Then when he was 81, he and my mom cashed in half their savings and took off to China. And when he was almost 90, he cashed in the rest of his savings and pursued his longtime dream of going to Europe. Disdaining tour groups (what did they know about what he wanted to do when he got there!) he bought a couple airline tickets, and off he and my mom flew to London, confident he could charm strangers into helping him after he arrived, such as finding lodging from night to night and getting on the right train each day. My niece (Ariel) was studying abroad in Belgium at the time, and she was able to shepherd them around when they swung by there, but the rest of the time they traveled by the seat of their pants. Dad was determined to see several specific places long featured in his dreams. But his plans were sketchy. They survived on the grace of strangers in England, France, Germany, and the Netherlands, tickled I suppose by his boldness and spunk, and probably a little sympathetic to his octogenarian sidekick.
All the places dad dreamed of going presented him with a major obstacle: he lacked the wealth needed to travel in style. His dreams were always bigger than his bank account. Therefore the early family travels included tent lodging. They also included relatives and friends whom he imagined might put our family up for a night…or more. He purchased a treacherous homemade camping trailer from a friend, one made of plywood, plumbing pipes, and plastic. Those early voyages resulted in stories of floods, faux-cousins, and trailers breaking apart while pulling them down the highway.
In time my dad was able to afford that RV that had been zooming around in his day dreams. Once again my mom expressed a minority opinion. But when you are arguing with a dreamer, your opinion is always in the minority, no matter how many people agree with you. And so my dad got his big RV. He fancied himself to be a good driver, but the evidence betrayed him on that one: the camper always seemed to have a dangling side mirror, a crack in one of the bumpers, a shattered taillight, or a fender dent.
One day, while driving around town in his regular car, with heavy rains flooding the streets, he and my mom came across a low spot on road with water rushing across. My mom frowned and told him to turn around. He, however, grinned and plowed ahead. Fortunately a good Samaritan saw it all and called the fire department… who came and pulled the two of them out of the car, which was stalled in four feet of rushing water. The next day my dad started imagining what car he would buy next, since the Kia was totaled. He also had to start imagining where he could get another auto policy, the insurance company finally cancelling him and his rouge imagination.
Despite the occasional element of danger, my dad’s dreams kept him mentally healthy by giving him both vicarious and actual escape. He loved losing himself in his novels and movies, especially the ones that featured smart asses, rebels, and irreverent protagonists. I think the fictions helped him navigate all the demanding roles in his real life. He was a good husband, a good father, and a good pastor. But to be good in those particular functions requires surrendering oneself into a tight fit, squeezing oneself into expectations and restrictions not always conducive to mental health. Dreaming kept him from getting commitment-claustrophobia.
A dream can make life better or worse. My wife and I were with my parents on that China trip. The jet lag had not only left him exhausted, but had aggravated several of his chronic health problems. Early in the trip, with a full social evening planned for the four of us in Nanjing, he and my mom decided to head back to the apartment early. We wanted to help them get a cab, but he fancied that he could get around a Chinese city on his own. He shooed us off and we headed several blocks to meet more of Jie’s relatives. None of us had cell phones on that trip. And while he couldn’t speak Chinese, he did have the apartment’s address to show the cab driver.
Cab after cab slowed, got a look at my parents, and speeded on by. For almost an hour they tried to get someone to stop, growing more and more humiliated. Finally, a young woman was leaving her office building for the day and noticed their plight. She knew that cab drivers were leery of elderly foreign customers because of the potential hassles they posed. So, she not only hailed them a taxi, but also went with them to assure the taxi driver. She even paid the fare and accompanied my parents it all the way into the apartment, to be sure they were okay and in the right place. The next day she called the apartment and explained to Jie what had happened.
But my imaginative father conjured a different scenario. He whispered to me that the young woman was hitting on him. “She even came into the apartment with us, but I think she didn’t know what to do with your mom, and so she left.”
At first I was amused. An old fool had just dreamed the impossible dream, and I wondered what book or movie had planted such craziness in his mind. And then I was appalled. He had allowed racial stereotypes about Asian women to get loose in his imagination, notions that were condescending and pornographic. Such notions have led to unspeakable degradations in real life. He was usually an example of how to keep such notions at bay. And then I was curious. Don’t we all need the freedom of imagination to boost us through the broken places in our real lives? Shouldn’t private imagination be given more license than our words and actions?
In my dad’s dreams he rearranged himself and the world around him. He dreamed that he
could go to college, even though his grades in high school were mediocre. He dreamed that he could become a pastor, even though his father discouraged it. He dreamed he could win people over with his grin and his stories and his transparency, even though he was often around people who thought themselves smarter or better than him. He believed he could help people, even in tragedy. As a pastor, he fancied that he could just walk right in a room full of grief and anguish, stand vigil, and perhaps be a touchstone of compassion and meaning for people whose world was falling apart.
One of the most powerful dreams provoking his European trip was a life-long desire to visit Normandy. He had first heard tell of D-Day when he was a teenager. And he had celebrated that heroic adventure in countless history books, novels, and movies. He had nurtured lifelong dreams about that hallowed place. But on the day he planned to go, due to his own haphazard planning, he missed out. My niece said it was the most depressed she had ever seen him. But he recovered within a few hours and came up with some convoluted reason he wanted to head for Salzburg instead. The grin returned and off to Salzburg they sallied.
When Ariel, my niece, told me that story, this odd idea began to form in my mind: I should go to Normandy. I can even imagine my dad whispering: “Go! I bequeath you my dream…”
And I can also read my mom’s mind: Just don’t go off half-cocked like your dad did!
IV. THE SWEETHEART
The most unexpected feeling after my dad died was the gut reaction I had to people calling him a “sweetheart.” It seemed that everyone kept saying it: “He was such a sweetheart.” I hated it. But I would nod and grin and keep my disgust to myself. In the year since he died, however, I’ve been pondering why: why did they call him that and why was I so repulsed every time? It’s complicated.
When old men get called “sweetheart,” it seems to mark their decline. When you lose your teeth and your impotence, people somehow begin to think of you as cute… as long as you don’t drool, fart constantly, or get bossy. It’s an aura of condescending pity. When they start calling you “sweetheart” you are only two or three phone calls away from the undertaker.
But my repulsion was more than that. They’d been calling my dad a sweetheart long before his dotage. He grew up in that southern culture where people are all the time calling each other that. It’s a ubiquitous dubbing, habitually on the lips of aunts, waitresses, and nurses. My dad was a sweetheart from the moment of his birth, due to a preponderant proportion of females in his life. Add them up: a proud mother, a doting grandmother, two adoring sisters, nine starry-eyed girl cousins, and six gushing aunts. He was an only son, the only boy cousin who lived locally, and he was spoiled rotten. He could do no wrong.
Had he acted like an ass, of course, all the nonsense about his being a sweetheart would have dissipated. But the boy had charm. He had an easy grin and aimed to please. And then there were his extraordinary good looks. He always got the girl he wanted. Employers instantly liked him. Why should he sweat for anything more? What could good grades give him that his charisma couldn’t? Why ever leave town? Who needed to be born again when everything was going so well?
And then he joined the army, where it is a liability to be called sweetheart, such as by your sergeant. While my dad’s people-pleasing talents helped him get into Douglas MacArthur’s honor guard in Japan, on the whole the army disillusioned him. So, when he was approaching his discharge, he hankered to be the sweetheart again. It was about that time that a high school girl he’d never met started writing him letters. It was the custom in those days for folks from home to write to soldiers abroad. This particular girl happened to be the new preacher’s daughter from his home church. She wrote splendid letters and seemed such a sweetheart.
Sadly, when John Smith got back home to Hartford, Illinois, the preacher had moved on, three hours away to another church, and taken his daughter with him. But a guy who had travelled all the way to Japan and back would have no trouble making the trip to Mt. Vernon and back. The trouble came with his parents. When they heard he was going to Mt. Vernon to see the Haworth girl, they decided to come along with him. They really liked the former preacher and his family and thought this would be a wonderful reunion, an evening of fine fellowship. And so on January 11, 1952, Leonard, Lucy, and John drove south to spend the evening with Murray, Nettie, and Esther. It was like a triple date.
At some point in the evening the two youngsters found a way to ditch their parents and enjoy fellowship on their own. They became instant sweethearts. By Christmas Eve, 1952, they announced their engagement to be wed seven months hence. Initially, it was a romance full of childish elements. But marriage doesn’t have anything to do with nostalgic notions planted in childhood. Neither does it extend present happiness into eternity. For better or worse, it only makes you partners as you step into a future neither of you can imagine.
Esther and John would be married for 67 years. At the end, they were just as much each other’s sweethearts as at the beginning, but in a very different way. “Sweetheart” is a compound word. As we mature, the emphasis moves from the first component to the second. In the beginning, it is all about the “sweet,” while “heart” is simply the tail of the dog, throbbing and flailing along. But when a partnership grows, day to day living is all about “heart,” and the “sweet” becomes the heart’s North Star, guiding one from gloom toward joy. The “heart” makes one courageous, empathetic, wise… The “sweet” makes one happy, hopeful, pleasing…
In their marriage, “sweetheart” morphed into something different. It was no longer all about heartthrobs and swooning. Their new version of “sweetheart” was more along the lines of definition #3 in my fat dictionary. Sweetheart: a beloved person.
A story from the Bible illustrates this. When Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River by John the Baptist, the heavens opened and God proclaimed, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” From that moment on in the story Jesus displayed enormous powers to bless people. Those powers didn’t come from some divine DNA. They came because Jesus was loved. Being “beloved” makes all the difference in who one becomes and what one can do. The love of others is the sunlight that unfurls the bloom and ripens the fruit of our latent goodness. Love in its pure form makes us strong, pleasing, joyful. My dad and mom grew into mature sweethearts as the love they shared evolved.
Of course, such transformation isn’t instantaneous. The worst thing that can happen to a young, sweetheart is to have four boys. The spoiled young father is blindsided by the competition. Strapping sons do not look at their fathers and see a sweetheart. His charm is lost on them. He is no longer center stage. In frustration he overreacts, firing off cheap putdowns, even bullying the boys from time to time. Oh, he loves them, to be sure. He would die, if he had to, for any of them. He is not selfish with them, and their joy pleases him. But he is jealous nonetheless, in ways only the sons can detect, even though they don’t understand. And it all provokes an edge in them, an uneasiness, subconsciously enlisting them in competition against him.
Perhaps this is the main reason I’ve been so repulsed at the idea of my dad being everyone’s sweetheart: the competitive nature of the father-son relationship. He was so damn good at it. It was the arena where I had no chance against him. And so I rejected the notion entirely. I would indeed best him in competition, but in criteria of my own choosing. We were both pastors, he and I, and so that was the arena where I would outperform him.
As a pastor, he used his persona as sweetheart to gather people, comfort them, and lead them. I would develop a different persona. I wanted my sermons to be more scholarly, funnier, sharper. I would lead people by becoming the consummate political player, smoothly navigating rules, trade-offs, and subtle intimidations. While his sweetheart skills kept him relevant within his parishioners, I would be relevant beyond my flock: I would spit about justice, rock the boat, test the patience of my bishops and superintendents. Determine to be a better than him, I would change the church and the world. Thus I came to reject the sweetheart role, even despise it.
But sometime in the 1990s he was serving a church where a core of people wanted to get rid of him. They begged the bishop to send them a better pastor. In the midst of this happening we had a family gathering, and he and I went out on several long walks. For the first time in my life I was conscious of his emotional pain. I had never before seen him on the verge of losing heart. In his anguish I saw what I had not recognized before: he was a really good pastor!
That sweetheart thing he had going for him wasn’t just a smug way to garner popularity. He really loved people, and he thrived in being loved back. This hostility he was encountering was blinding him, however, to the love of others. It reminded me of the biblical story of Samson, whose hair made him strong. Cut Samson’s hair and he had no powers. Cut my dad off from a sense of being loved, and he lost his powers too. Only as it was fading did I become aware of the heart he had for community, for the individuals…even the mean ones, and for those who felt themselves looking in from the outside. Even a grouch like me could appreciate a sweetness of that kind. I had spent the first decades of my ministry trying to be different from him. From that point I spent the rest of my ministry trying to be a little more like him.
A father and his son are natural enemies, by God’s design. They unwittingly craft and shape each other by their jousting. The father’s way is the thesis, the son’s the antithesis. And as long as they hold to the notion of “love your enemy,” the synthesis that emerges enriches them both, more than if they had simply ignored each other.
My most vivid experience of this theory occurred in the first year of my ministry, I was a freshman in college, serving as an assistant pastor in a church down south, when accusations surfaced that my senior pastor had sexually assaulted a 21-year old man in town. The District Superintendent (the one assigned in our denomination to handle such matters) had a nervous breakdown and never showed up. Our bishop foolishly decided to handle things himself, remotely, by phone, from four hours away. He never set foot in our church. And he never took the allegations seriously, immediately promoting the accused pastor to a larger church up north (where he would assault another young man within the year.) Meanwhile, half the leaders of the congregation went berserk with paranoia, supposing that hordes of homosexuals were about to devour every boy in town. It was an unmitigated mess. Also, it would be two months before a new pastor could be sent to replace the discredited one. What to do in the meantime? The bishop directed that a retired minister from a nearby nursing home should be picked up and brought into the church to preach on Sunday mornings. Meanwhile, he gave me the responsibility to preach every Sunday evening, do all the pastoral care, and oversee all the boards and committees. I was an 18-year old freshman in college at the time. Too naïve to be intimidated, I relished the challenge. And still years away from the “synthesis” with my dad, I would NOT handle this situation by being everyone’s sweetheart. I would be politically savvy about it, but the Jesus I preached would be tough, not sweet, urgent, not wishy-washy.
I made it through the interim period but then hit another stumbling block when I got to know the new pastor, a man utterly incapable of empathy. So, partway through my sophomore year I resigned the job and tearfully said goodbye to those who had astonished me with their love. I was sad, wounded, and disillusioned, but mostly livid.
After heading home for the holidays, my dad invited me to preach the Thanksgiving sermon at his church. So I did. Still furious at churches in general and church leaders in particular, I got it all off my chest. I blasted my dad’s parishioners for all the meanness, hypocrisy, and stupidity that I had seen in my life so far. When my sermon was over, I felt pretty good.
When my dad caught up with me afterward, I actually thought he might compliment me, at long last assure me that my decision to become a pastor was a good one, tell me how proud he was of me. I also hoped he might finally see that my way of strength was more effective than the sluggish progress he accomplished from being a sweetheart.
Instead he walked up to me, stuck his finger in my face, and said very slowly, in a soft, white-hot voice: “Those were my people. I am their shepherd. You will never speak to my people again. You’re no pastor! If you were really a pastor, you would know that your only job in a sermon is to show people how much God loves them. You made my people feel like crap.” And he walked away.
From the moment he yelled at me, I sensed the truth in what he had said. But it took years for that truth to convert me. Eventually my dad did let me preach for him again. And after a couple decades of acting like two studs in a standoff, we finally backed off and discovered that both of us were changing. He begin to compliment me on several of the ministerial talents I had cultivated, and I noticed that he was trying out a few of those things himself. I, in turn, started emulating some of the ways he opened his heart to love and be loved.
A 91-year run of being a sweetheart is an amazing thing to ponder. It involves having a heart first nurtured in the sweet affirmations of grandmothers and girl cousins, then grown secure in the loyalty of a 67 yearlong marriage, heartily challenged by competitive sons, repeatedly broken by thoughtless parishioners, and ultimately matured with divine mercies bestowed day after day. In the future, when people tell me that my dad was a sweetheart, I’ll nod and grin… and think “We don’t know the half of it.”