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

On the Manifold Joys And Occasional Anguish of Being a Father

Dad Hands

About twenty years ago I saw a fascinating item in the magazine Scientific American.

It was a little blurb about a detailed study of the facial features of infants. According to the study, most babies go through a phase of looking like their fathers early in their development. This is the case even if they grow up to look nothing like their fathers, but rather become, say, the spitting image of their mothers.

Of course the researchers viewed this as a trick of evolution. The thought was that nature was giving a father extra assurance that the child is “his” early in the life of his offspring—to increase the chances that he will choose to take an active role in the protection and nurture of the child.

fatherlessYou don’t have to be a scientist to grasp the truth that children tend do a lot better in life with a Dad in the picture. (The studies showing the disastrous effects of fatherlessness in our culture are legion.) But what the scientists viewed as a clever artifact of evolution, seems to me to be evidence of design by a wise, benevolent Creator.

In other words, God created parenting to be a team sport—a team comprised of one man and one woman. You see, (spoiler alert), men and women are different, and are hard-wired to play different roles in the child-rearing process. We bring different strengths and skill sets to the table.

I once heard Pastor Robert Morris put it this way: A mother’s role is to nurture kids. A father’s role is to call them to their destinies. When a child scrapes her knee, Mom might say, “Oh sweetie, so sorry. Let’s get that cleaned up and bandaged.” Dad, on the other hand, says, “Aw, it’s a long way from your heart. You’re going to be okay. Get back out there and play.” (Football pat on the bottom optional.)

Both are good. Both are right. Both are necessary.

Other studies have observed that the way fathers tend to play with their kids differs markedly from play initiated by their mothers. It is the three-year-old’s father who is likely to be down on all fours pretending to be a bear; saying, “Rarrr, I’m going to eat you up!”; with the child at once laughing and screaming in giddy fear.

Both good. Right. Necessary.

However, psychologists are increasingly convinced that the rough, scary, father-kind of play serves a vital role in the development of children into future adults who can handle the stresses and pressures of life.

You’ve probably seen this graphical meme on Facebook:

child toss

This makes us laugh because it rings true to our experience as parents. Which brings me back to that study about fathers connecting to their infant children’s faces . . .

The Father-Heart Moment

It has been my privilege and responsibility in life to raise three daughters. With one married and all in their twenties, that blessed task is almost finished. On countless occasions I have said the words, “I love being a father to daughters.” And I have.

And early on with each one of my girls there was a . . . moment . . .

She is maybe five or six months old, which means she has stopped looking like a tiny alien, as all newborns do (let’s be honest), and now looks like a beautiful miniature human. She’s alert and responsive to you. She interacts. Best of all, you’ve figured out how to make her laugh.

Oh, how you love to make her laugh. (It’s like crack cocaine, that bubbling, baby belly laugh.)

So one day you’re hovering over the helpless little thing. And she’s looking at you. She makes a certain face. And suddenly you see yourself to a degree you’ve never perceived before. And maybe you also see your mother; or your brother; or that ancient, sepia-toned picture of your grandfather when he was a baby.

Then, without warning, your heart stops. Then it melts in your chest.

And in that moment you know that you must not ever let anything bad happen to her. That you would crawl naked across broken glass every day to provide for her. And that from this day forward it is your God-given mission to steward this wriggling, giggling lump of raw potential and help her become the best possible version of who He created her to be.

So you embrace that mission as if lives depended on it (and you know that, in fact, they do.) But soon three sobering realities confront you.

The first is that this world is a horribly twisted, fallen place. Depravity and violence seem to ooze from every crack in the crumbling edifice of our culture. This is the world you need to prepare her for. God in heaven, how is that even possible?

Secondly, you know all-too-painfully well how flawed and broken you are as a human being. You’re intimately acquainted with your every character flaw. With how very many mistakes and poor choices you’ve made up to that point in your life—and how many more you’re certain to make going forward. But now it’s not just your sorry rear on the line. Lord, she’s counting on me so I’m counting on you!

Thirdly, and this is the most startling revelation . . . you discover that she is broken too. That she was born neither a perfect angel nor a proverbial “blank slate” awaiting your brilliant writing. That she came out of the womb just as fallen and in need of divine redemption and restoration as you and every other son and daughter of Adam—only cuter. Dear Jesus, help me point her to you.

So in the face of these three bracing headwinds, you take a deep breath, lean in, and do the best you can.

3 girls

 

Oh, and you do all of this times three when God blesses you thricely. That’s when you discover that all three are utterly different in personality, temperament, gifting and heavenly calling. And therefore each needs different things from you. Each responds best to a different style of training, correction and love.

So you and your wife pray.

You pray to love them well; and discipline them wisely. You pray you’re striking the right balance between firm and soft—rigid and flexible.

You pray to know what’s a big deal and what’s a triviality you can let slide. When to say “yes” and be the hero; or say “no” and be the villain. When to embarrass them, and when to be cool.

Photobombing Dad

And most important of all . . . when to photo-bomb them.

You don’t always get it right.

But you pray for grace, And God supplies it.

You pray that His mercies will cover your mistakes. And you find those mercies new every morning.

Discovering What is Next

Those three are wonderful young adults now. As a living testament to the above-mentioned grace and mercy, they’ve avoided hard prison time and are productive, Jesus-loving members of society. The world is a better place because they’re in it.

Frankly, they’ve made it easy to be their father. They’ve made their mother and me look better and wiser than we really are. (I know many really great Christian couples who, for whatever reasons, have walked through much more arduous, heart-breaking parenting journeys than we ever faced.)

As I said, although I will always be a father, my season of father-ing is gradually coming to an end in a way. It seems a season of mentoring is ahead. God has already put several young men in my life who inexplicably want to know what I know about life and living. (Mentoring boys is an interesting counterpoint to 25 years of living in girl-world.)

Satisfied

Here on Father’s Day 2015, one thing is absolutely clear and true in my heart.

It’s said that every man’s greatest need is for honor. That respect is like oxygen to us. That the deepest thirst of the manly soul is for the clear water of admiration—particularly from his wife and children.

These blessings I have enjoyed in embarrassing abundance. Those three girls have always and only offered me these most precious of gifts—their honor, respect and admiration.

Move over George Bailey. It is me, David A. Holland, who is the richest man in town.

Us

 

 

 

The Surprisingly Sage Wisdom of Bill Withers

 

“But everything in life boils down to this riddle: Are you what you think you are?”—Bill Withers

Came across an amazing interview with 76-year-old music legend Bill Withers in the most recent issue of Garden & Gun. (What? You don’t know about Garden & Gun? It’s only the greatest magazine on earth.) Withers is about to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

G-G Bill WithersReaders of a certain age will know Withers’ music well. He was huge in the ’70s and early ’80s. Ain’t No Sunshine still holds up after all these decades. DC Talk covered Lean on Me a few years ago.

What struck me about the interview was Withers’ humility and deep, plainspoken wisdom about life.

He uttered the quote above in response to a question about whether he knew early on that he had what it takes to succeed in the music business. I want to put “Are you what you think you are?” on a t-shirt.

Withers came to that business relatively late in life—after a nine-year stint in the navy in the ’60s. Then, after 15 years of success, at the height of his popularity, he walked away from the music industry and never looked back. Why?

Most of my dreams came true; and some of my nightmares, too. I had a pretty good run. And by then I had a family and some kids, so I went about trying to do a good job at that. Without even thinking about it, I just went ahead with my life.

In other words, he recognized that remaining a success in the music business and succeeding at being a husband and father were incompatible goals. So he chose family. Very cool.

On being inducted into the Hall of Fame, he’s grateful but not letting it go to his head . . .

I feel it’s healthier to look out at the world through a window rather than through a mirror. With a mirror, all you see is yourself and whatever is behind you.

If you have a moment, do read the whole thing.

G-G

 

A Quantum of Winter Solace

ShackletonWell, here at Pine Thicket Palace we’re pre-hunkering down for the brief wave of late-winter weather that the Weather Channel hype-machine has dubbed “Winter Storm Quantum.”

The naming of winter storms was an inevitable development, I suppose. Television news and information ratings are driven by hype and hysteria-inducement. I await the Weather Channel’s dire warnings about Mild Warm Front Armagezzmo at some future date.

Mrs. Blather ran to the grocery store to pick up a few soup making supplies and found it a scene out of an apocalyptic B-movie. All the grocery carts were in use by the horde of shoppers frantically clearing the shelves. She’s not sure but a fight over the last jar of gherkins may have broken out on Aisle 3.

For me, it’s all a grand excuse perfectly rational argument for putting off a lot of work in the yard.

If we’re trapped inside for a day or two, I’ll make good use of the time. I need to prepare outlines for a couple of new Bible study series I plan to teach in March and April. (Stand by for news.) Plus, Mrs. Blather and I will be leading a marriage and family encounter weekend at a great church up on Wisconsin in April as well.

No, the only worry I have regarding “Quantum” is for all the new buds, blooms and blossoms that emerged over the last couple of weeks.  Same thing happened last February. We were about to get a riot of spring color and a long, hard freeze literally nipped everything in the bud.

Stupid nature.

 

 

 

 

 

Aging and Angola

Have I mentioned that I’m going to Africa in a couple of days? No? Well, things have been a little crazy lately. Must have slipped my mind. I’ll get to that in a moment.

Tomorrow’s big news is that Female Offspring Unit #3, a.k.a. “the baby” (because she’s our youngest) turns 18 tomorrow. That’s right, this was my last day on earth as a parent with a child under the age of 18.

What an amazing young adult this quirky, wiggy kid has turned out to be.

Confident, compassionate, strong in faith, great character, and fun to be around. She has also been gifted with a an exceptional singing voice.

This last weekend she sang at her grandmother’s little Baptist church to honor her on her 80th birthday. Mom was so very proud and profoundly blessed. As are we–proud of our no-longer-little girl, and blessed to know her.

 

Meanwhile, I’m heading to Angola Thursday evening. I’ll be there with a video crew and photographer for about 9 days to document some great work that is going on under some pretty grim conditions. Currently Angola has one of the highest infant mortality rates in the world.

I’ll have pictures and stories when I return.

Father-Daughter Road Trip

 

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.

 

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.