A Transfer of Treasure

 

Three daughters. As long-time readers well know, we were blessed with three girls in the first six or seven years of our marriage. Three remarkable individuals with widely differing personalities, temperaments, and giftings. Yet each child somehow a unique blend of their mother’s and father’s traits, strengths, frailties . . .

And eccentricities.

The firstborn gets to be the barrier breaker. The first to arrive at all the milestone touch-points in the long passage from childhood to womanhood. The first lost tooth. First babysitting gig. First to drive. First to attend a prom. First to head off to college. And so on.

Of course, that means for the one bringing up the rear, the baby, each of those milestones gets celebrated, but, human nature being what it is, that celebration may come off with just a little less wonder and awe than the first or second time around.

Even so, only a parent can understand how it’s possible to love all your children with absolutely equal intensity while having that love take on a slightly different fragrance and tint for each one—shaped in part by that child’s calling and character.

In a similar way, though each child eventually reaches the same  milestones in their rites of passage, each moment is as unique as a fingerprint.

I mention these things because in less than two weeks, at sunset, our youngest will take me by the arm. We’ll both take a deep breath, and I will walk her down a petal-strewn aisle, just as I did with her older sister one year ago this week,  and her eldest sister five years ago next week.

It will be a wonderful night—filled with hugs and music and food and toasts and dancing under twinkling lights, but first there will be solemn vows and prayers of blessing.

Yes, this will be our third wedding in five years but this event is no rerun. It will be as unique and distinctive and lovely as the girl who will rightly be the center of attention that night.

From the moment her personality began to emerge in her first year of life, we bore witness to a unique, complicated blend of creativity, imagination, vocality, passion, determination, compassion, empathy, and fierce sense of justice.

We also saw an individual powerfully drawn to to communicate through performance—singing (beautifully), dancing (uninhibitedly), dramatizing (dramatically), debating (forcefully), and writing (expressively.)

These traits emerged early and never receded. They have merely been shaped and tempered and harnessed by the same God who placed them within her in the first place. 

Now we approach one of the most momentous days she will ever have. Covenantally joining one’s life to that of another person is pretty much the most impactful thing a human can do. The ramifications are immense and lifelong.

Nevertheless, we approach this particular milestone with an abundance of peace because we believe she has chosen well.

This young man clearly adores her; treats her with the respect and gentleness that she has seen modeled in the house in which she grew up; and most importantly, shares her genuine faith in Jesus.

He is a good man. And she will inspire him to be an even better one.

That is the way of a good woman. She doesn’t change the man. Her love simply draws out the best version of him. This has certainly been the case for me.

The young man courted, wooed, and won her the old-fashioned way. He overcame her caution and resistance with tenacious patience. Kindness and respect constructed a bridge to her heart.

Back in April she and her roommate took a long-planned trip to Paris. The young man, having already requested and received my blessing, followed a few days later to surprise her. Thus, in the historic palace gardens of Versailles, he showed up unexpectedly for this moment:

And later on, this one:

And so here we are. As I said, this is our third and final wedding to arrange. Thus, it represents a milestone for us as well. The final launch into adulthood of the three lives we’ve been responsible for for about as long as we can remember.

God entrusts these tiny, helpless little things to us and we spend the next 25 years or so devoting enormous portions of our time, energy, thoughts, faith, prayers, and, of course, wealth to helping them become productive, functional, literate, Jesus-following, adult contributors to society.

At the end of all this, if we do our jobs right, they leave. We send them marching off into the future, with the occasional glance back over the shoulder for reassurance.

Still, the rapid approach of this special event brings with it a lot of memories and feelings—particularly because she is the last of our little flock to leave the nest. There will be no more after her. Life comes at you fast, as they say.

Wasn’t it just the other day that she was a newborn wrapping a tiny hand around my index finger? A few years later, wasn’t hers the hand reaching up for mine for when crossing the streets? Her hands applauded my heroic exploits as the only man in her life that mattered. Now, tradition demands that I take that delicate hand and put it in the hand of a new hero. And having placed her hand in his,  I will step aside. This, too, is as it should be.

For a third and final time her mother and I will transfer a treasure.

We do so with gratitude for the time we’ve had and the memories we hold precious. We embrace the next season with excitement and hope. By the way we will mark 30 years of marriage in December.

Blather Gold: Father Daughter Road Trip

Originally posted on BWR, March 2010

Female Offspring Unit #3 and I drove down to Austin Friday night so she could participate in a thingy Saturday morning. By Saturday afternoon we were headed back up I-35 toward home.

Now I have always endeavored to bring up children who are culturally literate and appreciators of fine art. That’s why I’ve insisted each of them have a broad knowledge of late 70s classic rock, disco, and early 80s New Wave.

Why allow a teenager to remain isolated in an iPod, Jonas Brothers cocoon when she can be introduced to the stark differences in Doobie Brothers music pre-and post-Michael McDonald?

On this trip, we discussed one of my favorite topics–“Misheard Lyrics.” Misheard lyrics are words to a song that are sung in such a mumblypeg way that you have no idea what’s actually being sung, so your mind makes something up–even if it makes no sense.

The trigger for this discussion was hearing Fleetwood Mac’s song, Dreams. It’s a long-standing joke between me and FOU#3 that Stevie Nicks is singing this lyric:

Women, they will come and they will go.

When Lorraine watches you clean your nose.

Stevie Nicks is the queen of misheard lyrics. The titular hook in Nicks’ duet with Tom Petty is Stop Dragging My Heart Around. But millions thought they heard, “Stop driving my car around.”

In her duet with Don Henley she sang, “Give to me your leather, take from me my lace.” But many heard something else. Among the interpretations of Nicks’ utterance in tongues was:

Give to me your liver. Take from my, my legs.

Give to me your letter. . . J. Cromley’s my name.

Give to me your ladder . . . J. Cromley, my ace.

The band Boston and Elton John have also proved an enduring source of lyrical confusion. The line from Boston’s iconic song, More Than a Feeling: “I see my Marianne, walking away,” has bewildered several generations of radio listeners. It has been sung:

I see Maid Marion, walking away.

I see my derriere walking away.

And thousands of other delicious iterations.

One of the most famous misheard lyrics of all time is a line from Jimi Hendrix’ “Purple Haze”. An astonishing number of people through the years thought the line “‘scuse me, while I kiss the sky,” was actally:

‘scuse me, while I kiss this guy.

Perhaps that’s because they were in some sort of lavender fog themselves.

“Kiss this Guy” is the name of a website devoted entirely to misheard lyrics and it makes for pretty hilarious browsing. But I digress. Back to our road trip . . .

A Detour Down “Roots 66”

As we approached Temple, Texas from the south we reached the exit for Holland, Texas. I’ve driven past the sign scores of times and told myself that someday . . . on a day when I wasn’t in such a hurry to get where I’m going . . . I was going to take that exit and visit Holland. This was that day.

 

As we drive the nine miles off the Interstate toward Holland, I told my daughter the story of how it got its start in 1874 when my great-great-uncle James Holland bought some land and moved there from Tennessee by way of Arkansas. He had cotton farming in mind.

Shortly thereafter he was joined by his father (my ggg-grandfather John A. Holland) and seven siblings. There, in those post-Civil War years, they homesteaded on Darr’s Creek and built the first steam-power cotton gin the area had ever seen.

Some of the houses from the 1880s are still standing in the area.

The powerlines are a slighly more recent addition.

 

In the decades that followed, Holland seeds blew all over Bell county, taking root in tiny towns with evocative Texas names like Cyclone, Prairie Dell, Red Ranger, and Salado.

Today, you’ll find the graves of John A. and Louisa Holland, side by side, at Cedar Valley Cemetery outside of Salado. John’s headstone reads:

Born June 19, 1824 – Died May 7, 1908

 

My daughter and I talked about all of the boisterous history that is surely squeezed into that delicate little dash mark sitting quietly between those dates. Eighty-four years of sweat and heartache and adventure and accomplishment.

As a boy, he would have seen men who served with Washington in the Continental Army. Before he died, he would read of the Wright Brothers motorized flight at Kitty Hawk and see babies who would be alive for the birth of the Internet and the dawn of the 21st Century.

I would have loved to have heard his stories, but I was born about 60 years too late. He might have carried some anecdotes from his own grandfather, who had ended up in the mountains of East Tennessee (Grainger County) by way of a land grant he earned fighting the British in the War of 1812.

Shortly after the turn of the 20th century, my great-grandfather, Samuel Houston Holland, born in 1884, left Bell County, Texas for Sallisaw, Oklahoma. The motivation for his move is not known to me–but it’s the reason I and hundreds other Hollands were born in the Sooner state rather than the Lone Star Republic.

He’s this tall glass of charged water:

 

He had 11 children. One of them, my grandfather, died when I was two. So even his stories are lost to me.

As #3 and I, drove north out of Holland on Texas 95 — past river-bottom land featuring tidy, evenly spaced rows of 120-year old pecan trees probably planted by  her ancestors or their friends — I made myself a promise.

 

She and her sisters will know my stories. They already know my music.

Hi

I disappeared from this space for a while because, among other things, I was writing a devotional focused on grace-based praying. That’s done now and I can resurface.

I have every intention of posting here frequently for a while. And we all know that good intentions make excellent paving material.

Two BIG events have transpired in our lives in recent months that have gone un-chronicled here. I’m about to remedy that.

As Paul Harvey used to say . . . Stand by for news!

Remembering a Good Father

It seems that with many of the truly important things in life, we don’t really understand how to value them until they’re gone.

Dad would have been 88 this Tuesday. Father’s Day always fell around, or on, his birthday. So we’re doubly mindful of him this weekend.

I honor him today by reposting the eulogy I delivered on behalf of my siblings at his homegoing service several years ago.

 

John F. Holland

June 20, 1929–October 11, 2010

It is customary, at a moment like this, to mention some of the attributes and achievements of my father–in other words, to talk about who he was. Instead I want to share a few thoughts about who Dad was not.

Our father was not pushy.

At home, as in his work life, he was not prone to imposing his will or asserting his opinions. And he did not enjoy confrontation. I get that. I’m temperamentally wired in a similar way.

I vividly remember one of the few occasions in which he really tried to change my mind about something–probably because it was such an unusual occurrence.

As a father, he would offer you his opinion but wouldn’t push it. He would occasionally offer you his advice unsolicited. Most of the time he would not opine unless asked. When he did offer advice, He was usually right. And when you ignored his advice, as I often did as a younger man, and made a royal mess of things, he would invariably be right there to help you mop up in the aftermath and without the standard and customary I-told-you-so.

It was the early seventies, I was about 13, and I had been lobbying Mom heavily to buy me my first pair of big bell bottom pants. Dad got wind of it. He had already, with some difficulty, reconciled himself to the longer hair which had increasingly become the fashion since the late ’60s. But now his oldest son was asking to dress like some character from Laugh In or Love American Style. He wasn’t a fan.

I remember being startled at how strongly he tried to talk me out of those pants I wanted. It was so out of character for him. I parried with the universal comeback utilized by all kids challenging a mystifying directive from a parent: “Why?”

He initially struggled to come up with a cogent, logical case for his ban on bell bottoms.  After floundering for a minute, he finally asserted–in so many words–that wearing bell bottoms could make me gay.

My recollection of his argument was not that bell bottoms would make me look gay, but rather that the pants were somehow imbued with exotic properties and powers that could actually make me gay.

I’m reasonably sure he was wrong about that. But he was right about most things–especially the things that mattered.

The long hair and the bell bottoms were just superficial manifestations of deeper cultural shifts taking place in our country in those years. And he didn’t like the way the winds were blowing. He was absolutely right to be wary.

I think that was one of the things that moved him to relocate our family from Oklahoma City to Wilburton. In the summer of 1965–the year the nation saw escalation in Vietnam, rising unrest on college campuses, and race riots in Watts–he moved the four of us as far out in the country as he possible could while still improving his job prospects as an aspiring college professor.

He saw the hills of rural southeastern Oklahoma as a good place for a kid to grow up. And he was right about that, too.

At that time it was just me and my younger brother, and we reveled and thrived in the wildness of the place. We roamed over the hilly, wooded countryside like two wild men of Borneo.

Dad made sure we knew how to properly tie a fishing lure and to use a gun safely. He saw that we got plenty of fishing, hunting, exploring and camping in. And when we got old enough, he served as co-Scout Master of our Boy Scout troop.

He wasn’t a perfect parent. But he got the big things right where my brother and I were concerned. And then “the girls” came along.

My parents really raised two waves of children. My younger brother and I (two years apart) and then ten years later two girls came in quick succession (a little more than nine months apart).

As he entered his early 40s, something wonderful and astonishing came alive in my Dad when those girls arrived in our home. He was suddenly animated, funny, and playful in ways we had never seen. When he was home, he invariably had both of them in his lap–one on each knee. And oh how he loved to tease them.

On Sunday mornings when they were three or four years old, Mom would dress them up and then send them downstairs to be inspected by my father. The first one downstairs would present herself to Dad, do a twirl, and then ask, “How do I look?”

Invariably, he would get a look of complete rapture on his face and gush, “You look absolutely grotesque!” And my sister would beam with delight.

This became a tradition that extended well beyond the time they came to understand the true meaning of the word grotesque. When they were teens he would create good-naturedly derisive nickname/titles for all the girls’ friends, among them, “Here Comes Trouble,” “Get Out of Town,” and simply “Toots.”

They adored him.

My father was not ambitious.

At least not in the way we usually think about ambition. Dad wasn’t driven to get ahead, climb anyone’s ladder, or draw attention to himself. He didn’t have a10-year plan, or even a 5-year plan. Actually, I don’t think he had a 5-day plan.

What he did have is something exceedingly rare in our day. Contentment. We live in a day in which few people seem to know how much is enough. However much they accumulate, they seem to always need more.

Dad knew what he wanted. A piece of land to call his own. The opportunity to dig in the dirt and grow a little food; cut some wood for his fire; to hunt and fish a little; to help out his neighbors when they needed a hand and the kind of neighbors who would do the same. A difficult crossword puzzle to master every day was vital, too.

And one other thing. To see his children doing well. He had all of those things. And that was enough for him.

Dad was not successful.

At least not in the way the world tends to measure success.

When he stepped over into eternity the other day, he did not leave behind much in the way of wealth, or titles, or headline-making achievements.

What he left behind was a 30-year long string of students—a lot of whom will tell you what they tell me whenever I meet one–that John Holland was the finest teacher they ever had.

He left behind a community of people who, to a person, will tell you he was good-humored and decent and kind and honest.

He left behind children who adored him. And a wife of 55 good years who had made him a better man.

I once heard a wise man say that he thought the world’s definition of success had it all wrong. He said real success was being the kind of man and living the kind of life in which—the people who know you the best respect you the most.

Come to think of it, John Holland was a success. In those terms, he was and is the most successful man I’ve known.

The Circle of Life

Our oldest had a birthday a few days ago but we’re finally getting a chance to celebrate it tonight. This was her 28 years ago this week, just a few hours old:

This was the last time I had more hair than she did.

Roughly six months ago we learned that she and our wonderful son-in-law were expecting their first baby—more importantly our first grandchild! A few weeks after that wonderful revelation, we learned that we actually have not one, but two on the way. Girls. (of course!)

I should be pointing with two fingers.

She’s going to be an awesome mom. She’s had the very best of mentors and models.

To be honest, the 28-year space between the moments these two photos were captured is a dizzy blur. That space is filled with countless good days. Really, really good days. But there are few days as monumentally life changing as the one in which you welcome your first child into this extraordinary world.

On one side of that day, everything in your life is one way—essentially the way it has always been. Twenty-four hours later everything has changed. Everything. Your routines. Your priorities. Your thoughts. Your view of the world and the dangers it holds. Your hopes.

All of this and more shifts seismically with the breaking of some water and the crossing of a simple line on a calendar.

Mrs. H has been making preparations to help with the new arrivals. She’s prepping with a zeal and logistical ferocity that would have shamed General Eisenhower with his comparitively lackadaisacal approach to the D-day invasion of Normandy.

As for me . . . I never really knew either of my grandfathers. I was too young when they passed to carry any directly imparted wisdom or influence from them. Anything I have from them came secondhand.  So I am profoundly grateful and more excited than I can express to play some role in the lives of these little girls and all the siblings and cousins that come after them.

And the earth continues to spin and wobble around the sun like a blue top, with no time outs and no “pause” button to hit. The circle closes and the tracing of another one begins.

Lost in Time

Ah, yes. Now I remember. That’s what a night sky is supposed to look like. So many stars . . . scores of familiar constellations . . . sparkling against a black velvet backdrop. There you are Milky Way, hung across the sky like a sash. There you are, Seven Sisters. It’s been a long time, ladies.

I know I’m far away from the city when I can see the Pleiades.

I’m back at the ancestral estate—the rural Oklahoma hill country acreage where I grew up. Like a salmon, I fought my way upstream from Dallas-Fort Worth on asphalt rivers called U.S. 75 and U.S. 69 to the place of my childhood. But I’m not here to spawn and die. I’m here to sort and cry.

It’s not just the night sky that’s different here. As I stand in the field in front of the house I grew up in, I’m aware of a strange sensation in my ears. Oh, right. It’s the quiet. I’ve grown so accustomed to the thrummy, low-frequency drone of freeway traffic in the distance and jets in the sky that I don’t even notice the noise until it’s missing.

Sound travels a long way out here. I’m actively listening. (Is this what the modern hippies call mindfulness?) From more than a mile away I hear a bull bellowing mightily, sounding like a Hebrew shofar calling the Israelites to battle against the Philistines. From a quarter-mile down the road I hear a woodpecker rapping on a tree.

And there’s bird song. So much bird song. It’s the next morning and I’m on the front porch trying to count how many distinct species of bird I can hear. I get to eighteen. What else can I hear? The breeze picks up and in a barely audible way, the tops of the pine trees begin whispering secrets to one another.

We have a history, those pines and I. My brother and I “helped” our father plant them when we first built the house and moved out here. Is it possible that our afternoon of tree planting will have been fifty years ago, next year? When we put them in the ground they were about a foot tall and no bigger around than my pinkie finger. They looked like sad little Charlie Brown Christmas trees. They survived.

Here they are today . . .

My Pines

Mom and Dad built this place about twenty years ago . . . about 100 paces from the two-story house they built in ’68. I was eight when the first house was finished, my brother six, and two sisters had not yet arrived. We all grew up in the that house over yonder. But this one was their empty nest—one story only, in anticipation of the feebler legs that eventually showed up.

Both homes sit on the same five-acre slice of rural southeastern Oklahoma I roamed freely as a boy—nestled in a valley where the Sans Bois and Kiamichi mountains serve as the front gate to the Ouachita Mountains and the Ouachita National Forest.

All these names are French. Or to be more accurate, French transliterations of Indian names. The first white people to explore this area were French trappers and traders. I’m reminded of that every time I drive out here. Right before you get to the old family place I cross a familiar old bridge over a creek named Fourche Maline—French for “treacherous fork.”

I’ve crossed that bridge thousands of times in my life and never witnessed any treachery along the creek. But then my crossings have all come about three hundred years after Bernard De La Harpe and friends first paddled their way into this neighborhood by heading upstream from the Mississippi River, the Red River, and so forth. Who am I to say that that the old stream wasn’t a little more malevolent back then.

After Dad passed away several years ago, Mom lived here alone as long as she possibly could. But it eventually became clear to all of us, her included, that living alone out here in the sticks no longer made sense. So she moved out of the house a couple of months ago with the help of my sisters. She is now safely and happily ensconced in a little efficiency apartment in a great retirement village in Oklahoma City.

However, only a small portion of her things could make the trip to the new place. A big part of the accumulation of a lifetime was left behind for us to sort through.

The contents will fall into four categories.

First, things one of us kids or grandkids wants to keep. Many of these items are keepsakes, mementos and sentimental treasures.  Some are practical items that the numerous grandchildren now setting up housekeeping for the first time will find useful.

From what remains, things to sell. What doesn’t sell will be donated or given. What absolutely no one will take, will be disposed of in some way.

So, I’ve been digging and sorting. It’s a bit like archeology. The deeper I go, the more ancient the finds. I’m uncovering things I didn’t know existed. Like a bulging, rubberband-wrapped envelope with a Missoula, Montana postmark dated the Summer of 1963. Inside was a stack of handwritten letters from my Dad to my Mom.

I dimly recall that when I was about four years old my Dad spent a couple of months away from us one summer, working on his Masters degree at the University of Montana. What I didn’t know was that he’d written her while he was away. As I noted the date on each letter in the stack, I saw that, in fact, he had written her every three or four days for his entire absence.

This in itself was a stunning revelation. My Dad was kind and sweet, but he was no romantic. At least that I could tell. I’d never perceived him to be the guy who thoughtfully and dutifully wrote his wife every other day while away from his young family. But he was that guy. We just didn’t know it.

Then I thought about the fact that she’d kept them—tucked away with a small cache of other precious mementos. And here I was, 54 years later, learning of their existence for the very first time.

I’ll share a few more of my finds in the days ahead. For now, just know that I’ve spent a weekend lost in time.

And trying to get my arms and mind and heart around the task of curating the remnants of two lives well lived.

 

There She Goes . . . Again

OffAgain Every child is different. No matter how many offspring you have, it seems each one springs from the womb with a unique, heaven-crafted bent. For example, our middle daughter emerged with an innate impulse for adventure with a strong streak of self-sufficiency. new doc 14_1 new doc 10_1

As a toddler she preferred crawling around to cuddling on our laps. At four or five she revealed she’d taught herself to tie her own shoes. At seven she called us outside to demonstrate that she’d just mastered riding a bike without training wheels.

Crawling. Shoes. Wheels. A theme emerges. This one was wired to wander. new doc 7_1 I’m convinced that the temperament, gifts, and even the seeming quirks that each child is born with are directly connected to the call God envisioned for her or him before He even began the process of construction. Her’s includes a call to the nations. There has always been a resilient, fierce, tenaciousness in her. She’s tough as nails, this one. Although when out with an older bald man, she could effect a startling impression of a delicate princess. Formal At seventeen, as high school graduation approached, she let us know she wanted to delay college for a semester or two and instead go work at an orphanage in Kenya. A “gap year,” as it’s known in the UK.  Getting approval for this plan required some epic salesmanship to overcome the worries of an understandably cautious mother.

This challenge, too, was met and mastered. Grayson 2 Once “out of Africa,” she completed a four-year linguistics degree in three-and-a-half years. In that span there was a semester of study in Argentina and a summer in Costa Rica, once again, at an orphanage. Another theme emerges.

As a college graduation gift, we sent her to Australia to visit her younger sister. She stayed for two years, working multiple jobs to pay her own way. It seems we have spent a good part of the last seven years seeing her off or communicating through dicey internet connections across some vast distance. GandJ

I should mention that while in Australia, she met a young man. A good man—Jesus-loving and with a ministry call upon his life as well.  We instantly liked him and quickly came to love him. We know that capturing her heart was no easy task. Her standards are high and her emotional defenses formidable. But he won her, and to us that spoke volumes.

Thankfully, he is of Miami not Melbourne. And about six months ago he—adorably nervous—asked me for permission to ask for her hand.

It was an easy “yes.” Her mother and I had clearly seen God’s invisible hand of providential grace on this relationship. From half a world away, we caught the unmistakable fragrance of His presence in their courtship.

Four short weeks from today, in a small, intimate gathering in Miami, I will walk her down an aisle and place her hand in his—to have and to hold from that day forward. But for now . . . for just a little while longer . . .  she is still mine. Even so, a few days ago, the young man flew to Dallas to help load her up and drive her to a new apartment in Miami so she can begin a job search. We filled every cubic inch of her car with all her belongings.

The accumulated things that had always comfortingly remained behind with us—even while she jetted off with a couple of suitcases to Kenya or Argentina or  Costa Rica or Sydney—all these were boxed or bagged, and stuffed into the little Ford.

Yes, this goodbye was different. But it’s all good. It is all the way it should be. The way it must be.

There she goes. Again. This time, in a forever sort of way. GoodBye

Giving Honor Where Honor is Due

I attended a funeral service in the old hometown in Oklahoma yesterday.  Dr. J. N. Baker was of one of the finest Christian men it has ever been my privilege to know. He was 96 when he passed into heaven last week and was buried with full military honors yesterday.

At my house growing up he was a respected and beloved family friend, and very much a surrogate grandfather to my younger sisters. For many who knew him as the former Dean of Students at OSU and then the president of Eastern Oklahoma State College where my parents were on the faculty — he was always “Dr. Baker.”

For the thousands of fighting men who served under him in both World War II and the Korean conflict, he eventually became “General Baker.”

He was born in 1919 in rural southeastern Oklahoma but was orphaned before he was old enough to begin attending the one-room school nearby. One of his daughters noted at his service that he liked to observe: “My parents came to Oklahoma in a covered wagon, yet I’ve lived to see men walk on the moon and to hold a powerful computer in the palm of my hand.”

ThunderbirdIn the 1930s he joined the Oklahoma National Guard while still in high school. (Apparently that was possible back then.) For the next three decades he was an integral part of the Oklahoma’s 45th Infantry Division—the Thunderbirds—established in 1920. The 45th was one of the very first guard units called up when the U.S. entered World War II in 1941.

In 1943 the Thunderbirds were part of the tip of the spear in the invasion of Italy, beginning with the amphibious assault on Sicily and then the intense fighting at Anzio and Monte Casino.

This was followed by an amphibious invasion of southern France at Dragoon, then the push across France and into Germany. Ultimately it would be the 45th that liberated the infamous German concentration camp at Dachau.

Their work finally done, the division got to come home in 1945. Five short years later Cold War hostilities erupted on the Korean peninsula. At that point, only 20% of the men of the 45th had fought in WWII, but Dr. Baker was one of them.

Eventually, he became the Thunderbird’s final commanding General, serving from 1964 to 1968.

Three surviving World War II veterans who served with him were there at the funeral to pay their respects  yesterday. Yes, members of ” the Greatest Generation” were in the house — but we’re losing them rapidly. Soon the last of them will be gone.

However, it wasn’t the military man my family knew and loved—although his perfect posture and a meticulous, squared-away approach he brought to every project and enterprise hinted at his training. Otherwise, you might never have guessed his background and rank.

He wasn’t the course, gravely George Patton stereotype. Quite the opposite. He was soft-spoken, humble, gentle, immensely thoughtful, and carried a deep, abiding faith in God.

He a was regular guest at my parent’s Sunday table for lunch after his cherished Helen, his wife of 64 years, died after a long illness that left her blind in her final years.

Whenever someone would remark admiringly about the tender, extraordinary efforts he was expending in caring for her in those years of heartbreaking decline, he would smile and brush them off. “She took care of me for sixty years. It’s my privilege to take care of her now.”

Whenever any of us was home for a weekend visit, it was our privilege to participate in those lunches with him. As the elder statesman at the table, the honor of blessing the meal frequently fell to him.

I remember being deeply impacted by one of those Sunday lunch prayers a few years ago. I can honestly say it changed me.

As we prepared to dive into mom’s pot roast, it wasn’t his prayer’s eloquence or profundity that marked my soul that day. It was the genuine gratitude that welled up out of his heart and flowed from his lips.

“Heavenly Father, you’ve been so very good to us. (long pause) . .  Thank you. (longer pause) Thank you, thank you, thank you . . . “

This was no perfunctory, religious saying of “grace” over a meal. Those repeated thank yous were an offering.

Thank you, Dr. Baker.

I’m grateful to have had the example of a life so well-lived.  Strength in kindness. Confidence in servanthood. Gratitude in selflessness. Cheer in hardship. This was the gold standard of Christian manhood.

Now he has joined that great cloud of witnesses who waits to see how we’ll run the balance of our races.

You’ll have to excuse me now . . . I’m suddenly feeling the need to lay aside some weights.

J. N. Baker (1919-2016)

On Dying Too Young

It was a jarring moment. More than a week later, I’m still processing it.

Allow me to back up and explain.

In my previous post I mentioned that I have spent quite a bit of time on Ancestry dot com piecing together the various branches of our family tree. I’ve taken most lines back several centuries.

In biological terms, each of us has two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents and so forth in an arithmetic doubling progression. That means we all have 128 5x-great-grandparents. For me, all but a couple of of these 128 forbearers were born on U.S. soil.

Put another way, when I’m pursuing a line of my ancestry and want to find the person who “came over” from Europe, I invariably have to go back at least to the early 1700s and in most cases to the 1600s.

At the risk of sounding like a Nativist, I find that kind of cool. It’s colonial era pioneers and farmers as far as the eye can see—with a few Methodist preachers thrown in for good measure.

The jarring moment I mentioned came when I was doing a little of this genealogy research the other day—however it didn’t involve any of these 17th century pioneers.

I found a picture I’d never seen of my paternal grandfather—that is, my dad’s dad—who died in 1961, when I was not yet two years old. I have no memories of the man and had only ever seen photos taken later in his life. So, I was fascinated to have come across this one:

Floyd John Holland

Floyd John Holland was born in 1905 in Sallisaw, Oklahoma. That’s two years before Oklahoma became a state. He appears to be about 15 years old in the above photo so I’m guessing it was taken around 1920–maybe a year or two earlier.

He was the second oldest of 11 children, and the date of his birth made him too young to serve in the first world war and too old to serve in the second one. He married my grandmother when he was 20 and she was 15. They went on to have six kids, their second-eldest was my father.

He died a slow, painful death from prostate cancer in a day in which treatment options were limited. He knew he was dying for months before the disease finally took him.

In attaching the above photo to the Ancestry dot com record for my grandfather, I took note of the date of his death and did something I, for some reason, hadn’t ever done. I subtracted his birth year from his death year to determine his age at death.

He was only 56.

I am 56.

It was a sobering moment. I could not help wondering what it would feel like to be finished right now, at this very point in my life. To know there would be no more accomplishments. No more milestones. No more discoveries. No more legacy building.

Yes, I know it sounds a little morbid, but in that instant I couldn’t help putting myself in his place— knowing that there would be grandchildren I’d never see born, much less have the opportunity to influence.

Fifty-six is far too young to to be done.

My grandmother survived him by 41 years and never remarried. A few months before she died, she pulled me aside and quietly shared an extraordinary piece of new information about my grandfather’s final days.

He had never been a spiritual man.  He wasn’t a church-goer. But my grandmother wanted me to know that shortly after the cancer had confined her husband to a bed he knew he’d never leave, he’d asked her to summon the preacher.

Knowing the end was near, he did business with God.

One of the countless wonderful things about the grace-driven offer of salvation God makes to every person in every place and time is that, as long as breath is in our bodies, it is never too late to say “yes” to it.

Forgiveness, peace and Heaven are not a prize to be won or a paycheck to be earned. These are only gifts to be humbly received.

He left behind something more than a wife and six children. He bequeathed to us all an example of a man working hard to do whatever was necessary to provide for his large, young family.

In my previous post I mentioned how every genealogical researcher secretly hopes to find royalty or nobility in their family tree. It strikes me that I’ve found it.

In the depths of the Great Depression, in one of the hardest hit areas of the country, my grandfather simultaneously worked as a custodian, drove a bus, sold cars on the weekend and farmed—all in order to put food on table and shoes on feet.

I can think of few things more noble than that.

Even so, 56 is far too young to be finished. And that jarring realization has added fuel to my resolve to be a good steward of however many years I have remaining.

Frankly, I wouldn’t be surprised if I have 56 more in front of me—112 is a good number. But we never know, do we?

This day—today—is the gift we’ve been given. Let’s see what we can make of it, shall we?

Backyard Visitors

Well, five large examples of this have taken up temporary (I think) residence in a large deceased oak tree in our back yard.

Mississippe Kite

A little research reveals that I have a group (flock? gaggle? murder?) of Mississippi Kites. Additional research yields the factoid that their favorite food is dragonfly. And boy have we had a ton of dragonflies zooming around recently–at least we did until these guys showed up.

According to the experts, they will be heading toward South America soon, presumedly to take up residence in some guy’s backyard in Bolivia eating all his dragonflies.

Until then, they’re welcome.

kite 2