Father’s Day, 2014 was a beautiful Michigan day, humid yet breezy. The little zephyrs whispered through our Grand Rapids home as my wife, Kaile [pronounced Kay-lah] relaxed after morning worship. On the way back from church, we had decided to visit my parents in Big Rapids, just an hour’s drive north. As I write, they still live in my childhood home. As many midwestern tourists and cottage owners will attest, it is just south of Big Rapids that Michigan begins to feel northern. Around exit 131 on US 131 North, drivers crest a hill then traverse a long bridge spanning the Muskegon river. In June, they’re sure to see a fishing boat, far below the freeway overpass, trolling for walleye or trout, and if they happen to be looking up and ahead, they will see the Muskegon’s River’s verdant valley, its fields mostly dominated by stands of thick pine and aged hardwood. This section of lush river valley contains a few small villages-Hersey, Reed City, Rogers Heights-and a small town: Big Rapids.
This is the town that shaped me. This is the community that knew me during most of my earliest years. This is the town in which I sometimes struggled but ultimately began to understand what it meant to follow someone named Jesus. To get to my parents’ place, you pretty much take the first right as you head into town, then take the next left. Their road is at the top of a hill overlooking a golf course. They’re out of town limits slightly, but if one were to walk to the end of their cul-de-sac road, they would see most of the town stretching out to their northeast.
It was always a quiet street.
We knew all the neighbors, some better than others. The Bayless family, wealthy from Amway dollars, lived around the corner in a mansion that always seemed to get bigger. I told all my friend how I once helped weed their garden, and how they let me use their bathroom. They went to our church, but I was usually scared to talk to them. The Murreks, a calm family with mideast ancestry, were down to the right. Just to the south were the Browns, an elderly couple originally from Indiana. Mike Brown would always keep us around as kids by telling stories about years past. When we got lucky, he would tell us about his WWII missions he led. We were transported to another place time as he recounted trips flying back to the American base in England in his injured B-24 bomber. Then there were the Petersens, another elderly couple. Mr. Petersen always took walks in the neighborhood. One time he told my brothers, Phil and John, and me, a riddle. It involved a pirate ship, a monkey, and a peanut. We tried and tried, but to this day have not grasped its dubious meaning. The Powlowski family lived to the north. Jack Powlowski used to shoot moles and gophers with his .22 rifle, which somehow made the boyish version of me both sad and jealous. Jack’s son moved in a little later in my adolescence, and we took care of his little boys, Dennis [who had a very cute form of Alopecia] and his slightly-older brother CJ, a few times. Even as toddlers, they terrorized the neighborhood in the best way possible. One time they hid in the ditch with pinecones, and when my junior-high girlfriends’ dad, Mr. Monfils, drove by, they pelted his van severely. I think he was mad about it. They were, at the most, 4 and 5. Mrs. Harlemm lived to the north on the other side of the street. She took great pride in her yard. I know this because I made the mistake of riding my bike through her yard. I wish I could say this only happened once. I still remember tearing through on my blue BMX cruiser, looking back to see her waving a broom and yelling, “I’ll sick the cops on you!!!” Right across the street lived the Harrises. Nick always played with my brothers and me in the yard. That is, of course, until he got into high school, at which point he became a bit too cool for apple wars in the back yard. We watched reruns of The A-Team with his younger brother, Mitch, in their basement and rode skateboards. One time their tiny dachshund, Scooter, chased me on my bike. I had the ingenious idea of stopping really fast and letting him run past me. The brakes on my 10-speed were far more effective than I had expected, and the neighborhood, initially coming out to their porches because of the loud barking, bore witness to my youthful body cascading over the handlebars and slamming into the dusty ground by the road. Somehow, the most interesting of memories can be stirred up by a gentle summer breeze.
Snap back to Father’s Day, 2014.
After a relaxing Sunday evening of intense political discussion and spiritual questioning, Kaile and I finally could not continue. After a decent rest, we got up [I’m embarrassed to admit it was 10:20am]. Wiping the sleep from our eyes, we said good morning to Greg and Ann, the original homesteaders on this small estate: my parents, Mom and Dad. I was left with the task of making French toast, but the difficulty of this morning task was mitigated by a small beany gift: steamy espresso from my mom’s machine. We all sipped, then after some morning chatter, settled into Sudoku and a crossword puzzle. My Dad read the Wall Street Journal, seemingly one of the more culturally acceptable Murdock-owned news venues. My poor mother had an uncomfortable doctor’s appointment in Grand Rapids that Monday, so they had to take off in the early afternoon. Though we had time for a few still moments and a walk at Hemlock Park, it still felt as if they were rushed. Either way, we would connect down the road. We said our goodbyes, hugs and all, though I do not recall my mother’s newfound cheek-kiss tradition that time around.
Kaile and I had decided to stay for an extra couple hours that afternoon, promising to close the garage door. Kaile had an hour-long phone meeting for her at-home job. I had just a couple small tasks: digging up some ivy and mint to transplant, picking some lettuce, and gathering a cutting from a vine that I hoped to propagate. After my parents drove off and Kaile had begun a pre-meeting nap, I paused before my imminent tasks to take a quick picture of the house. I wanted to make an Instagram post. I had found just the right angle.
Just then, I felt a breeze from days gone by.
It was a breeze that, at once, both sobered and softened me.
It was a warm June breeze that carried with it the smell of sun-warmed fields and garden soil, of wildflowers and sun-dried leaves.
It was a warm June breeze that helped usher in a snapshot of my formative years.
It was a warm breeze that helped me understand so much, yet nothing new at all.
Feeling my cheeks, I realized suddenly that it was not my mild allergies that caused the tears. I wept as the memories flooded in, assisted by abundant recollections of the events that had transpired on this hallowed ground. My humble parents, the gently-aging stewards of this homestead, were gone, and in their absence I was left to soak in the strangeness of becoming reacquainted with a place I had left years ago, though it never left me. Looking down to the pine needles in front of me, it was the string of old bulb-style Christmas lights that my Dad never took the time to cut out of the old spruce tree when we first moved in. There they were, still lying on the same brown needles. Glancing over my shoulder, it was the 1/3 acre garden my parents had faithfully cultivated every year since we came to Big Rapids in 1991. Taking the time to peruse the garden, I realized not much had changed. The perennials, chamomile, asparagus, and rhubarb were in the same spots. I think my parents still pick those little miniature daisies and dry them in the hot shed on bake sheets to make winter tea. I think we still have a family picture somewhere of my younger brother, Phil, dressed only slightly immodestly in large rumpled rhubarb leaves tied on with jute at age 5 or 6. My Dad thought it was a good idea to take a picture on the back deck. I’m glad he did. My walk continued, and I looked through my emotionally-manufactured mist at the rock wall we build over about a decade. When it began my Dad said we would wrap it around the house and to the front yard. By the time I was a teenager, it finally did, just like he said. I remember taking orders from my older brother, John, wearing a crisp, new Civil War hat after a family trip to Pennsylvania. We had begged in the gift shop, and Mom finally granted our request. With sticks as sabers, we fought back the Confederate forces and made heroic stands from behind the rock wall we had helped to build [and would, sometimes begrudgingly, continue building for many more years].
And the trees. The glorious trees.
My Mom loves open spaces. Meadows and sweeping fields delight her. My Dad seems to love fields too. He had decided with my Mom to buy about 100 acres of mostly open land in 2 parcels outside Big Rapids when I was in 6th grade. But he seems to love trees just a little more than fields. They’re both happy when they go on evening walks at their 80-acre plot Northwest of town since it has both fields and open places, even though he has planted countless thousands of Maple, Oak, and Pine trees. As flowers appear and disappear seasonally, trees seem to announce the years like little else. The poplars we planted in our yard when I was little are reaching for the skies. Some of them grew too fast and they had to go. But pretty much all the pines are still there. The pines to the south of the house help form a natural barrier to strong winds. Our old neighbors to the south, the Murrays, never seemed to like them. I’m not sure what the new neighbors think about them, but it does not seem to be a point of concern; they have been far too busy with demolition of the Browns’ old place and construction of their new 5000 square foot place, complete with an in-home gymnasium. A dear friend of mine reminded me the other day of a quote from some Eastern-European poet: “trees are the ribs of childhood.” That guy was on to something.
And the people.
My parents always showed hospitality. Influenced by Hebrew Scriptures and New Testament parables speaking of the need for God’s people to care for the stranger, they always showed care to people around them. This showed up in the many exchange students they hosted over the years, young people from Mexico, Japan, Hong Kong, Spain, Guatemala. It showed up too in their resolve to support other families they knew from church, missionaries with whom they are still in touch. They empowered me, too, for these ends. During the summers before and after my senior year at Spring Arbor University, I remember hosting a junior high Bible study at their place. As it grew from a few lads in June to the point where we could no longer find enough outdoor chairs, so grew the number of cookies my Mom baked on those warm Wednesday evenings.
And the conversations.
I cannot say when it was that my Dad could finally articulate that God is real and present and stable and loving. For me, this realization happened when I was 13, and it was confirmed in our church community at my baptism in the warm waters of the Muskegon River by the Lossings’ place. My Mom grew up in the Free Methodist Church and knew the hymns all by heart. I think her passionate spirituality combined with the profound faith of my Dad’s grandparents were the primary tools of the Holy Spirit as he slowly came alive. Either way, that faith has seeped in over years of time. As I passed the garden shed, the one where he keeps the tractor, I remember my Dad telling me how it, “takes a stronger man to walk away from a fight.” I had gotten into some mildly serious trouble at school and spent a couple days suspended for a series of fights on the grounds. Those words were to shape me more than I ever could have known at the time. Another time, we were working on the garden outside on a Friday. Clearly I was unaware of which Friday it was when he asked if there was anything special about the day. Clueless, I told him I could not crack the code. “Jesus died right about at this time, about two thousand years ago,” he finally responded. It was his way of helping me to see eternal things in the transience of the mundane. I had not even realized it was Good Friday. And Mom; she would drop us off at school, even in early high school before I started driving the old red Ford pickup, and say, “remember who you belong to.” I remembered sometimes then, but even a bit more now as I head toward 30. When I was really little, she introduced me to the Psalms, poetry that bespeaks the transforming consistency of God. Plenty of afternoons kept me sprawled out on the floor of my room, glued to the carpet, sifting through, making sense of these ancient Hebrew texts. My Dad and Mom both still share stories of things long since passed over by time and history, some new and some revisited. They have stories of quiet wisdom from their families and friends and experiences, stories of renewal, stories that help remind us of our small but significant humanity in light of eternal hope in God. Their stories still come piecemeal to my brothers and me and our wives when we linger and listen. When they eventually pass, we hope we will have strained out as many stories as they will have had the audacity to recall.
And my brothers. John is just 18 months older than me, but always wiser. At one point my Dad summed up John in brief: “John marches to the beat of his own drum,” he quipped at dinner one day after John had gone off to college. And it is true; John does things his own way, which is nearly always either the most economical, the most efficient, or the most unique way; and this way was nearly always unimaginable to me. I remember when he set up our first home computer, an old beige Tandy. It was probably 1994. Phil, at the age of 6, looked on, never too interested in that big loud box but okay with the games this newfangled machine offered when it was working. Phil is 21 months younger than me. Both he and John are color blind, and he has finally accepted that I can, in fact, help him pick out clothes for special occasions. When John painted a royal purple ocean for his science project in junior high, Phil never quite could figure out why everyone giggled and fussed over it. Phil is as driven as John, though, but has always kept his gifts and talents a little out of sight. He is incredibly gifted with language, and probably translating, patiently, for a little diabetic Guatemalan couple at Mercy hospital today. He, like both John and my Dad, understands more than he shares [I share, sometimes, even the things I do not understand!]. For a time, Phil tested the fibers of his faith during a season of searching and exploration. It may have been a bike trip he and I did in Spain on the Camino de Santiago–the way of St. James–that helped him slowly recover the depth of commitment to the way of Jesus of Nazareth that we all now see in his life. John is pretty good too at hiding his good deeds; though he wisely hides a lot from the watching world, he cannot hide his patience, his thoughtfulness, his meekness.
Somehow, the most interesting of memories can be stirred up by a gentle summer breeze.
Snap back to Father’s Day, 2014.
The overwhelming realization of the breadth and depth of God’s love is so often made apparent in the overwhelming realization of a family’s love. I did not choose to have two delightful parents who care so deeply for me. Those decisions were made before I made decisions. I did not opt for brothers who would encourage and challenge and support and love me over the length of my life. But I now opt to return the favor. I did not choose to send a warm June breeze on Father’s Day. But I now opt to write about it.
It was that warm June breeze that helped me to revisit so many experiences. Though I did not learn anything new per se, newness of sight was given to me. This profound change of perspective only happens a few times in a lifetime, maybe even only a few times in the worlds’ lifetime, like John’s Gospel in the Bible’s New Testament. I am that blind man who, for the first time ever, saw for himself what was already there. I am that blind man who, trying to make sense of what had happened, simply responded to frustrated religious leaders, “One thing I do know. I was blind, but now I see.”