Question for you:
What’s more important, striving to be the descendant that previous generations would be proud of? Or working every day to become an ancestor that future generations would want to claim as theirs?
You think on that for a while and we’ll circle back.
Very briefly I’d like to sum up what’s been swirling around in my head/heart to one degree or another as of this week for the last twenty years. And I’ll precede those thoughts with a blanket apology to anyone I’ve arrogantly wished would just “move on” from their annual recognition of grief anniversaries as if they could just turn off the spigot. So . . . sorry. Very sorry. I do think, though, that at the 20-year mark there is a balm of holy quietness that spreads itself across one’s sky of the mind in place of misery’s clouds, as a sort of supernatural check mark recognizing not only the passage of time but also the lessening of regret, of sorrow, and of the deep affliction of grief. At least that has been my experience.
Every March 13th for years and years and years after my dad passed in 2002 I called the ambulance. Not literally, but in memory, in sleeplessness … on constant replay. And every March 20th I called the funeral home. Now I say this not for sympathy or concern or even confirmation that you knew all along I was off my rocker, but more to illustrate that grief is a rotten friend and an unreliable filter for reality. It skews memories, wrongly interprets conversations, and replays scenes in perpetuity, all the while standing back and laughing, watching you suffer.
My dad and I fit together pretty well. Yes, he would become impatient with me, exasperated at my lack of whatever was needed at the moment, (flashback to symphonies he would take me to at Macky Auditorium on the CU campus where he would shoot me the deadly “straighten up and fly right” look or that dreadful day he kept me home from school and dragged me through my “Oregon–the Beaver State” report for 5th grade) but the incidents where true anger came were few and far between. Trust me when I say I gave him multiple opportunities during my last two years of high school to display anger and what he modeled instead was the undeserved grace that in a couple years’ time I would begin to understand as originating with Jesus. I never knew that anyone’s father/daughter relationships were any different and had a lot to learn about sympathy and empathy regarding others’ situations as I matured — not all girls were blessed with good daddies and that’s putting it mildly. I came to feel spoiled by the sheer wonder of it. If it were not for the unbounded grace and help given to me by my earthly father and my Father in heaven, I very likely would not have lived to see adulthood. I can only be thankful. And do my best as a parent.
He had sayings (like a lot of dads do) that stuck with me, many of them sounding ridiculous when stated aloud in mixed company, hence my habit of mostly keeping them to myself, but I may share a few . . .
When, as a child, I would get pouty or blue or grumpy or anything resembling those categories, he often would call me a “sad sack of sour balony” to which I responded by endeavoring to become even more sour. If the look on my face manifested a less-than-cheery mood, he would announce that I looked as though I’d just “bitten the north end out of a southbound skunk.” This apparently was his opinion about my 7th grade school picture in which I was trying to look like I was “smoldering.” He thought it was more of a skunk thing. About once a week he’d threaten to “trade you in for a good milk cow.” My teenage conversations, according to Dad, occasionally drifted toward the “maudlin.”
Now, may I just add here, if ever my personality could be categorized as leaning in a melancholy direction, I KNOW FROM WHENCE IT CAME. Case in point: My dear father had taped to his mirror in his bedroom a quote from a Christina Rossetti poem that goes something like this: “Does the road wind uphill all the way? Yes, to the very end.” So ha! I heard him say more than once that we all “lead lives of quiet desperation.” And yet, he rarely showed this side of himself. But there it was. Lurking. I have always believed that two years into his monstrous grief over my mother’s death, his own heart broke. Literally.
Dad worked hard at everything he did in sort of an all-encompassing competition with the global population. Usually he either won or placed in the top ten. One can expect only so much when you’re up against billions.
You’ve seen lists of mine in other posts detailing areas in which he excelled so that’s enough of that, but one quick addendum to that collection would be to state that he strove to conquer grief better than anyone ever had. Therefore, when he lost my mom, he pushed himself to swing open the gates of exploration into aspects of life he’d only either read about or watched.
He bought a brand new red Jeep and drove it all over the western United States. One day I inquired as to where he’d been all day and he said he took a day trip to Flathead Lake. “Montana?!?” exclaimed I. “Yep,” said he. I looked it up. That’s a 762 mile round trip from Idaho Falls, Idaho. And here’s the rock he brought home with his writing on it. It sits in my desk drawer with a bunch of others.
Dad, longtime English professor and storehouse of knowledge with skin on, answered an ad in the paper and auditioned for a bit part in the community theater’s production of Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor. He did not get that part. He got the lead of Falstaff. Thus began weeks of late-night rehearsals and a relationship with a small troupe of people who came to love and appreciate him even though he arrived home mad one night because the director had called his delivery of lines too “professorial.” Ha! I attended every one of their seven performances. One of my regrets (come on and do your thing, 20-year balm) is that just before Dad had his heart attack I told him I would probably not be at every single one of his upcoming Romeo and Juliet performances in which he was playing Friar Tuck and for which he had already memorized all the lines. Opening night was a week after he passed. All his fellow actors attended his service.
It was decided that on the occasion of my 40th birthday Dad would buy us golden retriever puppies. Yes, two of them. One for me and one for him. Where that idea originated I do not know. But Theo and Ellie came to be part of our households. Dad said he needed another beating heart in the house although he called Theo a “MOE-ron” most of the time. With love of course. I think. When Dad died the puppies were nine months old and Theo came to us. It was like elephants in the house when added to another dog and four big kids. He eventually went to live out his glorious fun life with a nice family from church on their farm.
In the dead winter of 2001 Dad bought a camping trailer with a sleeping capacity of seven. Makes perfect sense, of course, because next along his thinking trail came a summer trip to Disneyland for our family of six and himself. We would pull the trailer with our Suburban and he would drive separately in his Jeep because … grandkids. Loved ’em. Couldn’t stand to be in the car with ’em.
So off to Disneyland we went the first week of July and had a grand, grand time. We “ricked ourselves in like firewood” (his words) to our designated sleeping spots in the trailer at night and spilled out every morning. In addition to Disneyland we trekked down to San Diego Zoo, and on our way back home had a spontaneous camping night at Yosemite. Thank you, Daddy. Who would’ve dreamed this up? You, of course. And here is a short not-so-great video of you doing a jig at Disney. If you don’t like it, sorry. (I was going to say, “too bad” but got a little worried it sounded sassy. Once somebody’s kid, always somebody’s kid.)
Oh, Oh, Oh, I have to tell you this, chuckling as I type. As an older kid and young teenager I would try and throw words around to impress my father, often landing on my proverbial face. Once in a while though I would manage a successful zinger.
Successful: Dad was driven crazy when I, a newly transplanted southerner, would follow the language patterns of my summertime peers and declare, with suntan lotion and towel in hand, that I was on my way to the backyard to “lay out.”
Dad: “It’s LIE out.”
Me: “It’s a regional colloquialism, DAD.”
He did not argue. I wore that one around like a crown for quite a while.
Unsuccessful: During some kind of verbal tussle with him (I remember where we were standing by our kitchen table and it’s all kind of in slow motion in my head as natural disasters have a tendency to be) and nearing the point of no return as I was clearly losing the argument, I came back at him with a retort leaving my dear pater whitefaced and speechless. Please remember I was adding all kinds of words and misinformation to my vocabulary from summer daytime television, primarily the marginally risque Match Game ’74.
Dad: “What do you have to say for yourself?”
Me: “Well, I’m no virgin you know.”
Fairly immediately we established that the more apropos word would be “angel” and that the other word would be explained to me in further detail by my mother.
So let’s revisit our original question about our roles as descendants vs. ancestors. What are your thoughts? Here are the exact words of a recent tweet from organizational psychologist Adam Grant’s twitter account:
Too many people spend their lives being dutiful descendants instead of good ancestors. The responsibility of each generation is not to please their predecessors. It’s to improve things for their offspring. It’s more important to make your children proud than your parents proud.
Honestly that’s a pretty tough thought process for me. It’s also blatantly humanistic if you have an antennae tuned toward that sort of thing. Certainly it’s a positive characteristic to want to please good, admirable parents, yes, even to live up to and honor their memory after they’re gone. The constant buzz of storytelling voice in my head and I go down that path all the time. When my house gets a little, um, less than sparkling, I think of the words of my father about his mother and how she would make whatever rough (and that’s a euphemism, trust me) house/shack they lived in during the Depression gleam as best it could. As the family traveled, following the west coast fruit harvest, she covered windows with curtains she brought with her, even if the windows had no glass in them. She swept dirt floors. She made a home from literally nothing. Am I trying to please her, and in turn my father, by modeling myself after her desire to make a home? Or . . . and here’s the crux of it for me . . . was she passively working at being a good ancestor for future me as I am for my children and grandchildren, also modeling that I should put a clamp on that constant buzz in my head that drives me to please my predecessors? Ugh.
You decide and tell me. I’m tired. Cite a scripture if you will. And, yes, I know the ultimate correct answer is always Jesus.
This will be all I write about my dad, Joe J. Keen. He left for “a better country” 20 years ago as of March 20. You’ve heard enough and maybe too much. If you knew him you’ll recall that he always had a song on the tip of his tongue and so many lyrics and tunes in his memory bank that even after 45 years of marriage to my mom he’d come up with one out of the blue that she’d never heard. It wasn’t only hymns he sang. There were old radio songs, many many folk songs, and a few that he most likely ran across in the army which we’ll save for another time (ask me sometime about “Runnin’ Bare”). He knew if he wanted to get a rise out of me and sometimes even a quick exit from the room, he could launch into one of these old cowboy folk songs that never ended well for the participants. I unfailingly cried and he’d call me a “bawl bag.” Here’s The Streets of Laredo although I think my dad did it better. Lyrics to follow for our deaf and hard of hearing friends.
It’s not a coincidence that in my own Bible reading this week I’ve been spending time in Hebrews. There is much to be learned there about God’s perspective regarding ancestors and descendants. Not surprisingly His omniscient gaze into topics of eternity are deeper and hold more weight than all of humanity can muster. Chapter 11 of Hebrews is even known as the Faith Hall of Fame as it runs through the stories of heroes of faith and their examples of endurance. I challenge you to read through chapters 11-13 in a couple of different translations. Then ask God about your role as a descendant or an ancestor. Those of you without children or grandchildren, do not be fooled into thinking you have no influence. Far from it. There are folks in my past I looked to for guidance and example who were not themselves parents. Everyone is an influence. Someone is always observing.
Here’s a hand-scribbled note from my dad he left on our kitchen table not long after my mom died. I keep it in my jewelry box. He was (of course, why wouldn’t he be?) a Bible scholar and was not demonstrative about his faith. This act of leaving scripture for me was unique. As was he.
I have become accustomed to the grief sweeping over my sky these last couple of decades, though the beams of light breaking through now far outweigh the darkness. God has done a work to straighten out skewed repetitions of scenes and replaced them with goodness, anticipation, and thankfulness. In light of eternity, it won’t be long, Daddy. And until then I’ll be going about life humming that @#$%&! Streets of Laredo and shedding the expected tears as I work to become a good ancestor.
I trust that you’re still threatening to trade me in for a good milk cow. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth.
3 John 1:4