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Sunday, June 16, 2013
In the opening paragraphs of “The Last Gentleman,” Southern writer Walker Percy delivers an epigram that is as countercultural as it is true:
“For until this moment he had lived in a state of pure possibility, not knowing what sort of man he was or what he must do, and supposing therefore that he must be all men and do everything. But . . . he came to see that he was not destined to do everything but only one or two things. Lucky is the man who does not secretly believe that every possibility is open to him.”
According to Percy, my father is a lucky man — not because every possibility was open to him as he grew up in a house on a hill that overlooked a furniture company and a town that bore his name, but because he never believed in his fortuitousness — not even secretly.
My father learned from his father, and likely my grandfather’s father, that he was destined to do only the one or two things they were also destined to do. Focusing on these things, faith and family, has led to a host of other rewards for my father, not the least of which include serving a community through its most difficult hardships of the past 50 years and continuing a legacy of honesty and quality in a business unrecognizable from its founding more than a hundred years ago. But it’s his commitment only to these two things, faith and family, that never ceases, never wavers, and never fails to provide him with life’s many blessings.
Most often, however, my father is the one from whom all blessings flow. They frequently come in the form of cheap gas station candy from his pockets during a sermon. And though he’s always first to ask, “Who’s going to say the blessing?” before supper, he’s also consistently first to volunteer to say the short prayer before digging into the mashed potatoes. I like to believe my father’s lack of hesitation emerges not from the depths of his growling belly but from his devotion to God, and I hope my return from divinity school never causes him to question these brief yet significant occasions of divine reverence.
Similar little moments — powerful, poignant and anything but passing periods of time — have come to define my father for me: the first time he thanked me for helping him when he cut down a tree in our back yard; the many times he held a shotgun tight to my shoulder because I was scared of the kickback; the only time I’ve seen him shed a tear when his father was too weak to come to our house on Christmas Day; every time I hear that he and my mother had dinner with their godchildren at one of the inexpensive but decidedly delectable local Mexican restaurants; and each time he puts a wad of folded bills in my hand “for gas” before I head back to Raleigh after a weekend at the lake.
All of these acts may seem ordinary, but that they’re grounded in my father’s devotion to his family makes them extraordinary. In a review of Rod Dreher’s “The Little Way Of Ruthie Leming,” one writer notes, “[S]ometimes our highest calling is simply to be with our spouses, children, friends, family and communities. Sometimes the biggest way to live is to do the small, hard things of a quiet life spent trying to relate to — and reconcile with — those who know us best.”
If attempting to relate to loved ones is evidence of a big life, my father lives large.
He does so, in part, by trying not to live so largely. In “Blood Horses: Notes of a Sportswriter’s Son,” John Jeremiah Sullivan writes about his father, “I cannot think of more than one or two conventionally healthy things that he did in my lifetime, unless I were to count prodigious napping and laughter.”
Sullivan might as well be describing my own father’s affinity for resting his eyes instead of worrying about his resting heart rate, but in his small, quiet way of relating to my mother, he’s taken up the spin classes she teaches each week. They’re always followed by homemade pizza they cook together, of course.
I’ve learned a lot from my father, and yet the more I learn from him, the more I realize my own shortcomings. Perhaps one of his greatest gifts, a value I can only hope to adopt some day, is his humility. My mother recently told me that my father has been nominated and is due to receive the Martinsville-Henry County Chamber of Commerce’s Business Person of the Year Award this week. “He isn’t too happy about it,” she said. “He doesn’t like being recognized like that.”
Then he’s really going to hate this. But notwithstanding his love of faith and family above all else, his sons, wife, friends and community believe him to “be all men and [to] do everything.”
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