By L&T Columnist Rachel Coleman
A good friend of mine lost her father recently — he died so suddenly, the family immediately descended into that colorless plane of existence where profound grief and a sense of unreality lengthen the days and make it difficult to complete simple tasks.
My heart aches for her; I can’t imagine how difficult it must be to balance loss and life that goes on with its dinners to prepare, dishes to wash and bills to pay.
Yet as I watched from the distance of a different town and a less-wrenching set of circumstances, I saw once more that our losses are often the driving force behind our future choices. Of course, nobody knows this more than a father.
My grandfathers who died before I reached adulthood could describe how this works: one lost his father when he was still a child. This meant my Grandpa Seth grew up living wherever his mother could find work as a dormitory matron at the European boarding schools sprinkled across India.
His father-figures, I imagine, were schoolmasters of the Victorian kind, sparing with praise, sticklers for propriety. A pat on the head would be excessively emotional.
My Grandpa Schultz, the youngest son in a large family of Mennonite farmers, did not lose his father until he had a family of his own. However, his father lost the Montana wheat farm over a bank loan that would seem trifling today but loomed large in the 1930s. This meant young Abe had to quit classes at the Minnesota Bible college he’d just begun, and return to help pack up what was left of the farm.
Loss and change and the challenge of adjustment then marked the lives of my parents, both of whom knew and loved their fathers.
I’ve always wondered how my India grandfather knew how to be a dad to his own three sons.
Anecdotes tell me he was a stickler for honor of the British, high-road type: when he spoke like a smart-aleck to the household servants, my own father ended up in trouble with his dad, who did not believe in treating people badly — even if, perhaps especially if, you outranked them. I also know Grandpa Seth was no perfectionist, and that he valued people more than prestige. He received news of an especially poor set of grades my father brought home from boarding school with the question, “Did you do your best?” If the answer was “yes,” the scores mattered less.
Perhaps not having a father as he found his way to adulthood softened my Grandpa Seth. Perhaps he realized that how we spend our days with those we love matters more than how many awards they lug home. Certainly, he was not an exacting man.
My Schultz grandpa, on the other hand, leaned more to the intimidating side. He possessed a rich, booming voice, and made his living by explaining to congregants how the Bible’s commands applied to their daily life choices. He wasn’t harsh, though: he made it a habit to visit prisons, often bringing my mother along to play piano.
He also believed strongly in the value of education. It was always assumed that all his children would find their way to college. Though many girls in my mother’s peer group viewed college as a way to meet and marry a husband — and that turned out to be the case for her, too — Grandpa Schultz would allow no weddings until the degree had been granted.
Perhaps not having that unqualified support for his own education strengthened my Grandpa Schultz’s resolve to encourage his children to find a life purpose untied to the workings of his own household.
He may have pushed a bit too hard for the liking of some of his children — but that’s the way being a parent works. Working from the raw material of your own life story, you try to strengthen what is weak and correct what is wrong and avoid the worst mistakes in the only ways you know how.
These two sons, one from India, one from the farm country of the United States, carried their stories into adulthood as they became fathers themselves. My parents were shaped by what their fathers learned, and that in turn has shaped me, the man I married, and our children. When someone dies, it’s easy to default to trite comments, one of which is often, “His memory will live on in your life.” Yet, like most cliches, this remark is rooted in truth — baldly expressed, poorly-timed truth, perhaps, but straight and real nonetheless. That’s one of the reasons we allow time for reminiscing at funeral services: it’s not just that this is one way for us to honor the dead; we’re also cataloging the lessons we’ve learned, the principles worked out in real-life witness. We are listing what we’ve lost. Death makes us all step back to examine the larger story a life tells.
How else would we find our way as we forge ahead, holding our losses dear so that we can recreate what is most precious, what we miss?