Sunday, March 5, 2017

A Place in the Order of Things

My grandfather died two weeks ago, a few months short of his 89th birthday, in the same room where he was born. Most every night of his long life, he slept under the same roof, in the farmhouse where his parents had settled just after their marriage.

Historically speaking, this kind of stability is unremarkable. But in modern America, where the average person moves 11.4 times in a lifetime, it would be difficult to compute just how rare it is. My eldest son, who just turned eight, has already lived in four different homes, in three different states.

My grandfather also died a farmer, as had his father before him, and his grandfather before him, back as far as the records go. We tucked wheat stalks and an ear of field corn into the floral spray on his coffin. The photos lined up at the back of the funeral home showed him on his tractor and standing in the barnyard with the Angus steers. There was a sign from Esskay, which bought his beef for decades, and an aerial photo of the farm.

He’d only foresworn the tractor two years ago, when a fall from the step landed him in the hospital for a few weeks. He continued to supervise the work done by others and to check the grain prices regularly. I saw him in the hospital a few days before his death, when the medicine was making his mind a bit foggier than usual. He looked out his window over a vast parking lot, but what he saw was a rolling field. “That one would be good for corn,” he told me.

My grandfather loved his work, went whistling out the door every day. He took his time about it, maneuvering a combine slowly across a field for the pure satisfaction of seeing the thing rumble. He had a precise way for doing every chore around the farm, and wanted to make sure anyone who helped him knew how and why it should be done in just that way.

The methods and his famously improvised tools often looked unpromising. But usually, the oddity was rooted in some quirk of the landscape or the 19th-century farm buildings or even the habits of a particular cow. He’d learned to work with what had been given to him, not against it. For him, that was part of the joy of farming.

One hot summer day, when I was helping him fix fence, he told me that this had never really been his plan. He was going to be a veterinarian, and planned on heading to college like his sister. They trained fine vets at College Park in the Forties, and he had excellent grades. Even then, it seemed that family farms in the hills of Maryland couldn’t be the way of the future. Working long days with horses and hayforks could be sheer drudgery.

But then the war came, and his father suffered a stroke. There wasn’t a farmhand to be found, with all the young men off in France and the Pacific. His father had nearly lost it all in the Thirties. Great-grandfather had sold meat from door to door in town, and they’d boarded travelers to scrape together enough cash to make the mortgage payments. His Teutonic pride and Republican principles kept him from taking “Mr. Roosevelt’s money,” even though it meant subsisting at the very edge of collapse.

My grandfather knew how much keeping the farm meant to his father. He missed a few days to bring in the corn the fall of his sophomore year of high school, and then a few more. When he went back to school for the spring exams, his teacher said he’d done very well, but she’d have to give him a C. It wasn’t fair to the other students, who hadn’t missed so many days.

He walked home that day and never went back to school. He remained an avid reader all his life, doctored his own cattle, repaired his own machinery. Grandpap channeled his cleverness and tenacity, his ambition, into the work he had known from his youth. Maybe he carried a bit of regret with him for a while, but those weren’t times for brooding. Soon he bought a tractor, and a decade later, a neighbor’s farm. He prospered as so many other little farms around his were sold for house lots or let out for pasture.

His farm work also kept him just outside the same little town where his family had lived for generations. He would sing tenor in the church choir for over a half-century. He served in nearly every church office there was at St. John’s, where he’d been baptized a few weeks after his birth. He oversaw the cemetery for decades and took his turn on a series of farm organizations and cooperatives. He cheered the home team, and clapped for the band in parades, and everyone knew him by name.

In time, my grandfather found the vocation he had never sought, the one he had assumed partly out of love and gratitude, partly out of necessity. He accepted God’s will for what it was, and found his spot in the order of things. In the end, none of us could imagine him as anything but a farmer. He seemed out of place every time he left Clear Spring.

I serve a congregation in a wealthy suburb, where we still have a surprising number of men from my grandfather’s generation. They grew up in small towns, mostly, the sons of hardscrabble farmers like my great-grandfather. But then they went to war, and the GI Bill opened so many new opportunities. They became bank presidents and rocket engineers, senior military officials and government lawyers. Theirs is the generation that made modern America. They made it away from cornfields and country church choir lofts.

I look at them and I see the life my grandfather might have enjoyed, if the war hadn’t come and his father hadn’t been paralyzed. Adventure, wealth, the world’s acclaim — they might have been his, if God hadn’t intended otherwise.

We live in a culture that urges us to disregard limits. We tell our children they can do anything they want with their lives. Paradise, we often assume, lies just after the next interview, when the break finally comes, in the big new house that shows we’ve really arrived.

Yet growth in grace often means staying in place, developing consistent habits, adapting to the needs of the community. “Commit thy way unto the Lord, and put thy trust in him,” wrote the Psalmist, “and he shall bring it to pass. … Hold thee still in the Lord, and abide patiently upon him (Ps. 37:5, 7). St. Benedict insisted that his monks take a vow of stability in his “school for the Lord’s service.”

My grandfather was no monk, but it’s that kind of stability I admire most in the life that God gave to him, the life he accepted fully, the bitter sacrifice that eventually became his joy.

My son will never be able to die in the room in which he was born (they’ve already torn down the hospital). He’ll almost certainly have opportunities far beyond his great-grandfather’s imagining. But I pray that he will learn, in his own way, to “abide patiently upon” God. I hope he sees his life’s inevitable limits not as obstacles to be overcome at all costs, but as gifts, wisely handed down.

I hope that he discovers his place in the order of things, and receives it in faith and gratitude.

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