In honor of my father

My father-in-law died 6 days ago.  We buried him yesterday in the cemetery of his church.  His place is near an old oak tree, its welcoming branches spread wide.  He is surrounded with beauty  — his quaint and historic church, headstones that go back to the Revolution, the Clay’s cow pasture and more distant views of the mountains, including Table Rock.

When driving into town, if I drive a little out my way, I can pass within feet of his headstone and wave hello.

At the funeral, it was a bit startling to hear the preacher say his full name — Sidney Louis Gaskins, Sr.  My own husband is Sidney Louis Gaskins, Jr., but since my father-in-law went by his middle name Louis, it is easy to forget their shared name.

Louis’ children, neighbors and friends shared many wonderful stories of Louis yesterday.  And I want to add my perspective as an in-law.

Those of us who have married know that coming into a new family can be like entering a foreign country — strange, exciting . . . . and a bit scary.

The Gaskins were indeed a foreign country to me.

When Sid and I were dating, he shared a childhood memory with me.  His dad had a pick-up load of hay bales that he needed to get up the driveway.  For those of you who have never visited the Gaskins’, their driveway is long and steep — the kind of steep that loses gravel in a hard rain, so they poured concrete on it.  So the Gaskins’ have a long, steep and HARD driveway.  With a couple of sharp curves too.

Well, this was a problem, because Louis knew that if he started up that driveway with his load of hay bales, he was likely to end up with hay bales scattered down his driveway.  But my father-in-law was a problem-solver, and he often solved problems . . . or attempted to solve problems . . . in unique ways.

His solution to THIS problem was to put weight on the hay, to hold those bales down.  So he rounded up his kids and told them to sit on the hay bales.

So up the driveway they go —Louis in his pickup truck stacked high with hay bales and kids perched on top.  They take a curve . . . and then the hay . . .and the kids . . .all tumble down the driveway.

I knew I might be in trouble when this boy I was thinking of marrying told me how much fun this incident was.   Rolling down a concrete driveway didn’t sound like fun to me.

Sid had many such stories that often revolved around something his dad did.

So I entered this family with a bit of trepidation.  My father-in-law clearly lacked a careful concern for safety pounded into me since birth.   My cautious family had raised me to be fearful, whereas Sid was raised to be fearLESS.

Marrying into the Gaskins’ clan was a culture shock.

I had the good fortune of a long relationship with my father-in-law.  I met Louis while still a girl of 15 yo, not fully grown.  First, he was the father of the boy I was dating.  It was a given that I would find him intimidating.  But a few months later, Louis also became my Chemistry teacher.

In my family, education was not highly valued.  It was scary enough dating a GASKINS, because everyone KNEW how smart the Gaskins were.  Their awesomeness was LEGENDARY.

And I had to slog through Chemistry taught by the patriarch of all this awesomeness.  To say that I was terrified is stating it mildly.

I expected Mr. Gaskins (as I called him then) to place a high value on intelligence or book-smarts.  But I slowly realized that he valued heart and work ethic far more.  He was interested in people, their experiences, their opinions, their stories.

He showed a kind of respect for people one doesn’t often encounter.  He showed me what it meant to live as righteously as possible, to see good in others, and to extend grace liberally.

He even respected his adult kids.  He respected us with the expectation that we would make right choices:  righteous choices and also right choices for US.  Even if we were a bit slow about arriving at those choices.

When Sid walked away from his professional career in TV-News in favor of a dirty, sweaty job swinging a shovel, to do a job that required no education (a job that my own illiterate father had done for 40 years), most people would question that decision.  Most parents would express doubts or concerns over their adult child moving down the food chain, all the way to the bottom —- to install other people’s wastewater systems.

But Louis . . .(and I swear he did this with quiet excitement) picked up a shovel and jumped in to dig ditches too.  Into his 70s, he worked with Sid, often embarrassing our younger employees who admitted that Sid’s father was out-shoveling them on the job.  Our younger employees worked harder than ever to keep up with him.

If there is a motto by which Louis lived his life  — only one instruction that he could give to his children and grandchildren — I think it would be this —

to faithfully serve.

Louis was the most faithful and the serving-EST man I know.  Most people think of faithfulness only in terms of faithfulness to a spouse, which is a concrete idea or faithfulness to God, which is a blurrier notion, with a bit of fuzz around it for most of us.

But Louis’ faithfulness was not just an abstract thought.  He sought to put hands and feet to his faithfulness in every way he could.

Those who knew Louis know what I am talking about.  They witnessed his faithful service.  But those didn’t know Louis well, may not know that he also served in quieter, unnoticeable ways.

After I gave birth to my fourth child, I didn’t do well for a long, long time.  My mind and body were broken, and I did not know how to ask for help or even what specific help to ask for.

My father-in-law, my busy, busy father-in-law, would stop by my home several times a week.  He sat on my couch in my tiny, cramped trailer.  Little Sidney, Lincoln and Rachel clambered over Grandpa while baby Prairie slept.  He talked about growing up or taxed my brain with an unusual theological question.

Often he would fall asleep, sitting upright on my couch, with my children still attached to him.

At first, I was perplexed at why he took the time to hang out with us week after week, when I knew he had many commitments.  But eventually, I realized that he was checking on me and looking for some unobtrusive way to serve me.

He was probably hoping for manual labor, something to fix.  It would probably surprise him to know that he was fixing, or building up, my faith.  Church so often felt empty and useless to me, and faith slippery.  But Louis’ theological questions, crazy though some of them seemed, drove me to my Bible, reading scripture and then asking my own questions.

I learned from Louis to be fearless in asking God the big, scary questions.

And to be fearless when those answers are not clear.

Louis changed my approach to God and the way I talk to my kids about God, faith and the Bible.

I began to tell my kids, “Be fearless in seeking the Truth.  I learned that from your Grandpa.  But just in case he asks, don’t climb onto any hay bales stacked on his pick-up truck.”

When the words won’t come out the way I want them to

It is a beautiful fall day, the kind of day everyone loves — sunny with morning chill.  Later, we will be pulling off layers and lightly sweating in the garden.  Well, I will be sweating in the garden.  Sidney will likely tinker on his car.  Lincoln and the girls will play in the woods, with Lucy or the stray kitten the girls found last week.  And Sid will drive to the funeral home with his mama to plan his dad’s funeral.

That stray kitten has completely undone the steel of my husband’s resolve.  Sid strongly dislikes cats.  Perhaps I should say that he is indifferent to other people’s cats, but he is opposed to our family owning a cat.  We have tried it before, when a friend going through a divorce talked us into taking his cat.  It seemed like the least we could do.  We couldn’t repair our friend’s marriage or his pain, but we could relieve his concern about his cat.

We blinked and the cat’s gestation period passed in that blink.  That one cat turned into 18 cats.  It was traumatic.  We don’t like to talk about it.  Plus we realized that taking our friend’s cat was not the least we could do.  We could have done less, like NOT take the darn cat.

Then this starving kitten hides in our old goat barn, trapped by our dog.  It mewed and cried until our girls found it.  So, now we are stuck with a cat, because two experienced parents with years of saying “No” did not want to quell the hope in a daughter’s heart.

Unless Lucy, our dog, eats the cat, which is a possibility.  Perhaps a secret, hopeful possibility for my husband.

So today is a lovely day.  I have work to do in the garden and lovely schoolwork to do with my children.

And I have all these words to describe the weather, our uninvited cat, and the ordinariness of today.  But there is this big, gaping hole that I keep pretending is not there.

And the important words, the ones that matter most are clogging my heart, clawing their way up my throat until I feel like choking.  The words bubble up and leak out my eyes and nose — messy, sticky words that cling no matter how much I wipe them away.

Words like father, faithfulness, stubborn, pain, good, love, family, church, grandfather, protector, kind.  And even careless.  Though that tear-word makes me laugh too.

Sometimes, a few of the words connect and form cohesive bonds

I miss him

what a father should be

He was so good to me, so good to me, so good to me

I meant to ask him . . .

He made me feel worthy

Sid just left with his Mama for the funeral home

so glad I had him

And mixed with my congested and disjointed thoughts are flashes of memory — when Louis put my small child on a pony and then walked off . . . without the pony!

When he caught a 12-inch long snapping turtle and brought it over because he thought it would make a great pet for 3 yo Sidney.

When he brought me a vase of flowers in the hospital after I gave birth to Sidney.

When he created chemical explosions for a younger Sidney and Lincoln at the kitchen table rather than outside.

When he turned over our bobcat 3 different times, within inches of the whole machine toppling into his pond and Sid had to figure out how to get it out.

When he taught the kids his version of Psalm 23 . . surely mercy and grace shall follow me all the days of my life . . . and never catch up with me!”

Perhaps most precious to me . . .after I had Prairie and was sick and not recovering well.  He would drop by randomly, sit on the couch in our tiny, cramped trailer, while the 3 older kids crawled all over him.  I would sit fold laundry or make bread, while he played with the kids or asked me a deep theological question.  Most of the time, he fell asleep, sitting on the couch with kids on him.  And it was a comfort to me.  There was no pressure.  He expected nothing of me.  He simply loved me.  He came and sat on my couch several times a week because he loved me and he was checking on me.

Like I was a daughter.