Speaking not as a preacher but as a son, and on behalf of my two older siblings — to whom I have looked up all my life – it is an honor to offer for my family words of remembrance about our dear father, now departed.
And, of course, there is only one appropriate way to begin: To make a long story short …
Indeed, the old man could tell a story — lots of them, and they could spring forth at any given moment. If you asked John to turn on the light switch in the living room, inevitably you would become the beneficiary of a 20-minute recounting of the time he visited the Thomas Edison Museum. “110 volts, 60 hertz!” he would explain, with that gleam in his eye. Even if you couldn’t care less about Mr. Edison’s preferred voltage, you had to admit you had a good time learning just a bit more about it.
Repetition was such feature of his storytelling that we often threatened to number his tales (1, 2, 3, and so on) thereby saving everyone a great deal of time. “You remember, number 14 …” and we’d all laugh. “That’s a good one.” Now, amid the silence, I suspect we’d give anything to hear him tell one again, in full.
Dad was a masterful storyteller, not by any formal training in the craft, but simply because he paid attention to the world around him—especially to people, and the funny things we do, our endearing folly.
His stories reveled in the everyman, because he was one himself, and he knew it. Everyday fellows like Otis, our grandfather’s yardman, who when told by his boss to “take the handle off the lawnmower and put it in the trunk” for servicing across the lake, Otis did just what he was told. Dad always said: “The joke was on Papa. He arrived in New Orleans, opened the trunk, and found – what else? – the handle!” Dad loved that story.
He also loved to tell about the man who called the local Cleco office with an electrical problem. “Mr. Hawkins, your company is sending too much electricity to my house and you’ve ruined my electric blanket.” “How do you know this?” dad asked. “Well, when my wife and I get into bed at night we get a big shock.” (This is a true story.) “Don’t believe me? You should come by and experience it for yourself.” (Incidentally, through a process of elimination, Electrical Engineer Hawkins determined that the culprit was not Cleco, but fuzzy slippers on shag carpet—plain ole static.)
Then there was the story about the two teenage girls at a Covington Presbyterian Church picnic years ago. “Mr. John! What kind of ice cream are you making in your ice cream machine?” Without missing a beat, the old man said: “Spinach.”
He told tales about the past, about his beloved New Orleans during the war, about presidents he remembered hearing on the radio, about the Army in Kansas and atomic bomb tests in Nevada. He had an insatiable appetite for history, biography, politics, and street-level philosophy. Jack and I spent an evening with him in St. Tammany hospital this summer, and all he wanted to do was talk about the 700-page biography of Winston Churchill he was reading … again. This hunger to learn all he could about the world around him has been bequeathed to his daughter in the form of a strong academic rigor and a fierce curiosity of the mind.
He told tales about machines: boilers and Buicks and Baldwin locomotives. Hear him recall the story of getting a stubborn substation back online after a hurricane and you’d swear it was a page torn from Homer’s Odyssey. He liked machines, and how they work, and why it matters. In the care of his eldest son, he has left an impressive mechanical aptitude, and a passion for it, and with those gifts: a strength of character to keep the whole matter of machines quite human.
In the end, however, the stories that loomed the largest in his imagination turned out to be from the Biblical narrative, and he studied the scriptures with an engineer’s precision. Just last week, his life ebbing away, he told me he was looking forward to teaching again the woman’s Bible study one more time. (Hey, my father was no fool.) He especially loved the Old Testament. He was fascinated by King David and loved to read about the old patriarchs – their blessings and their curses.
This summer, after a brief but endearing visit with dad in the hospital over Father’s Day, I found myself writing about Laban – an obscure Old Testament family head, remembered mostly for his final blessing.
Allow me to finish with these words, honest as they are about dad’s recent health struggles. I offer this episode as a testimony to dad’s best legacy for his children and theirs – a living faith in Christ Jesus.
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June 22, 2009
My father has every reason to be self-centered these days.
His legs no longer move him from here to there. He is fifty pounds less the man he was just a season ago. His bones press outward under his dermis like knobby sticks in a pile. He cannot put on a shirt without ready assistance. He is dying, adagio.
If ever there were a time for self-absorption, for pity and loathing heaped on his own head, this would be it. And yet.
We all held hands around his hospital room — an impromptu sanctuary consecrated amid hoses, drips, and medicinal odors. The bubbling water in the little tank on the wall provided our only prelude music—its watery gurgle, a baptismal reminder.
We were all there, but it was drawing to a close, and it seemed good and right that we pray. I was all set to do my part as the family preacher, when suddenly a sacramental query fired across my brain: What if the victim here was instead the host?
“Dad, will you pray for us?”
No hesitation. He cleared his throat, moistened his tongue with a sip of water. The way he dropped his head to pray suggested that he would have fallen prostrate, would his body have allowed him the ancient gesture. His voice was strangely high-pitched, high up in his throat, as if suddenly he was in a different way, a holy way.
“Dear Lord, we just want to thank you, for your love in our lives.”
“Lord, you have been so good to us, blessed us in so many ways.”
“Father, we thank you for our family, for being here with us now.”
I broke the old rules and opened my eyes, looked up and across the room. The words came forth from his broken-down frame like a Sunday song, in an artful cadence not to be expected from a man who spent his life working square electrical equations and smiling on objective facts. They were not those overly pious words born of denial, those prayers we sling to God in order to convince ourselves. His words were more solid than that, more substantial. It was as though they had been waiting to be spoken for some time.
Midway through this Great Prayer of Thanksgiving, he turned the tables on us. He began praying for his children and grandchildren, including those not present. He blessed each one of us, by name, and by his grammar it was not clear if he was talking to his family or to God. I remember thinking that this was prayer at its finest imprecision. Over his grandchildren, he prayed:
“May God give you good health, help you make good grades, and work that matters in the world. May the Lord bless you as you raise your own families with love and faith. May God guide you in the way you should go. May you trust in the Lord always.”
This went on for some time.
The length was not so much because the old man was rambling—a preferred mode of speech, as we all know. No, he went on and on because he could, because there was time to take, because it was his time to take it. If not then, when? If not there, where?
It was a thing worth getting right, this prayer. It was one last equation to be solved. It was fastidiousness born of love. It was his Christ-shaped shot across the bow his stubborn demise.
It was his blessing, on the cusp of departure.
Genesis 31:55 says, “Early in the morning old Laban rose up, and kissed his grandchildren and his daughters and blessed them. Then he departed and returned home.”
Ironic, really: Because of our concern for him, we had gathered to his bedside. But because of who he was – who he had become, by God’s grace – he chose to make the moment about us.
Goodbye, Laban. Go in peace. Thanks for the stories.
You looked sharp, you stayed tight.
You did good.
You got it right.