I think I can count on my fingers the number of times I’ve been to visit family in McAllen Texas. I mentioned to my cousin that I wished I’d been there more over the years. He said yeah, it’s just that way when you live so far down the road. The road home today will be eighteen hours. Then I get on a bus and ride another five to my home.
I reckon that my real roots are here in South Texas. My mother was born in the Chicago area, and while I love it there, my heart’s horizon is in this sunny land of faith, family, and yes, the American Dream. My dad was raised to be a success. Out of that little hope chest in the room where we slept this time came another FFA banner, one of dad’s first ministry articles, and one of the first newspaper articles to speak of what would become the television venture for New Life Evangelistic Center. It’s an odd sort of newspiece. Even then it was an attempt to untangle Larry Rice’s way. It spoke of a man who could get things done, pray food onto the table, and house vagrants and transients. It didn’t try to speak of the disparities between living at a shelter and the hundreds of thousands needed to run and maintain a television station. And oh, was that really done?
I’m not sure that I’ve ever sat at a table with my dad’s family while he was missing, but it happened last night at the dinner table. We’d just sat down at the table for lasagna when dad’s cell phone rang. He went out on the patio and talked to a special someone for, was it an hour? His brother Ken and sister Caroline shifted into fine form, like they were thirteen again. “Let’s scoop up the rest of the lasagna and hide it and tell him there’s none left.” Grandma immediately set to protecting dad, Caroline said just as she always did. It’s been a rough year for dad. We lost mom in February, a week after her birthday, and then we lost grandpa a few months back. During the trip dad often stopped, stuck his fingers in his eyes and planted his elbows on his knees rubbing away.
The trip home was harder than I’d expected. For some reason the latch on the Uhaul trailer came undone and the door rolled up. Of course, as it happened, it was my turn to drive. I had my Ipod on (I’m still not sure whether that’s legal in Texas) and I notice on my left that two girls in the car next to me are trying to get my attention. Dad says “Pull over.” So I pull over and that’s when we learned that the latch hadn’t been properly hooked. We lost a plant and a young banana tree somewhere down the road. We had no way of knowing where. That’s the thing about the Interstate. You move in one direction and there’s no way of going back on the same road.
So we latched the door properly and got back on the road, switching places every hour and a half or so, filling the tank whenever it got to down to about a quarter. All of this went really well, I reckon, until we hit the Missouri state line. For some reason, I guess it was around two or three in the morning, I wasn’t hearing dad the same way. He seemed to be a demanding brute, and I his unyielding servant. To make matters worse he kept answering my anger with, “Its okay Chris, you’re just tired.” And my wife would say the same thing when I called her. So I’ll just defer to their judgment. We pulled into my sister’s place near Marshfield Missouri and I got to hang out with my niece while she petted their new cat Daisy and watched “Curious George.” Suddenly all I wanted was to be home with my own children. Kids are so darling first thing in the morning.
When we arrived in St. Louis dad checked us into a Motel 6 and then he went to unload the trailer. While he was gone I managed to get a back spasm just trying to lift my big black suitcase onto the bed. The last one I got was four years ago. So there I lay on the floor writhing in pain thinking, “If only I can wriggle over to the cell phone and call someone,” but then I thought, “What are they going to do for me?” Well I wriggled over there anyway, if only for the moral support. I discussed my plan to try and reach the tub and my wife assured me that was a good plan. I made it through that night, and two days and hundreds of milligrams of Motrin later, here I sit at my office desk.
I’m so grateful for this trip. It was bittersweet in that I know it may be the last time I see my grandparent’s home as it was in my memory. My grandma is moving, in part because the property is too much work for one person. Also, what I’m learning is that home is not home without the people who make it home. Place depends upon the bodies, the voices, the moments shared. These are what make our sense of place, and when someone we love dies or is no longer there, the sense of Place is never the same. This is a hard reality, but it’s one we will all share at some point. We can fear it as we fear aging and change of any kind, or we can accept it and do our best to adjust. What was so beautiful about this trip was the way we were able to interact as family, my dad, his two remaining siblings, his mom, and I. The family lost dad’s youngest sister Shirley some years ago to cancer, and now Grandpa is gone. I look at the generational picture hanging in the hallway and marvel at how so much can change in twenty five years. The children pictured are now adults with children of their own. Some of the adults have died or divorced, and yet the memories remain.
One of the strongest themes that I found around grandpa’s house was the interaction between family, work, church, and civic community life. Grandpa lived in the same community all his life, attended and was active in the same Lutheran church, and for thirty-five years worked for the same company, Coca-Cola. His morals and values ran like a strong cattle rope through every sphere of his life, binding them all together. Coca-Cola had a values/mission statement for its employees, a code to live by to the effect that its workers were ambassadors of merit. Grandpa had a letter from George W. Bush when he was still governor of Texas, congratulating he and Grandma on their fiftieth wedding anniversary, and reminding them of how marriage is the moral institution that makes Texas great. On one of the tables in the living room sat a large open white family Bible, and behind it was an ornamental plate featuring a white church. These images are symbols of a heritage, a moral stream meant to make society work.
I’m rather realistic about these symbols. I know that they form a picture of a bygone era for the most part. A time when Mainline churches flourished and guided America as a vanguard of liberal democracy. Things are very different now. Families are different, homes are different, churches are different. Work is different. Society is different. Maybe there are places where the Mainline picture of stability still works. I know that for my dad, there was a lot missing from the picture. He saw racism and preference for the well-to-do as obvious signs that this perfect wedding of home, church, and society had problems. But looking back over the years, this trip home was one in which to remember the good times. The way despite our differences we all made it back here to be together. There were many tears shed over the change. Sometimes we just went out in the yard and picked fruit from the trees that lined the house. Work in our family is a solace, a way to adjust, to do what is at hand. But when necessary, yes we cried.
Time moves us along. This Texas family has the unique distinction of continuing to love in the face of many changes. We’ve learned to love through disagreements, different callings, different ways of being human. I know that that is a gift from God. Some years ago I had a very different family visit. My heart was so full of bitterness and fear that I couldn’t see the gift of family, all I wanted to do was run away. This return trip was redemptive of that occasion. My eyes were clearer, more open. I enjoyed many fruitful talks with my Uncle and Aunts. The kind where you can just be yourself, and speak of life in terms of God’s faithfulness over your life journey. I’m so grateful for that. We had the gift of understanding, of compassion, of being truly present.
I’m moved to pray and to care for my family in new ways. I called my dad this morning and shared that I knew just a bit more of what it must be like for him to have everything stripped away. He’s had several homes over the years now change forever. The place in Lafayette Square where I grew up, the place near New Bloomfield where I spent my teenage years, the place in Marshfield where mom nested for the last time before she passed away, and now the home his parents shared for twenty five years, where the family all gathered to be together. That’s a lot of roots cut out from underneath you. Where does he go from here? Well, I know he continues to do what he has done. He continues to share himself with very different people than the ones who would fit into that Mainline picture of healthy society. That is beautiful to me. He doesn’t ask for my tears. If anything I’m rather uncomfortable with how little he asks from me. All I can do is pray as I watch him search for ground beneath his feet. Jesus Christ is who remains the same. I watch him pray and meditate, wrestle and strive with God, and I know that nothing in this life can separate us from that Love. That’s a lot to be thankful for!