My spiritual mentor
“Let us not demean the dead,” my grandfather said quietly, his head turned slightly toward my father at the head of the table. We were all silent, holding our breaths in shock at the whole scene. No one ever spoke up against Dad. But today at Thanksgiving dinner, where we were all gathered as a supposedly happy family, he had spoken without thought about his deceased mother-in-law, our grandmother, whom he had never liked. I forget what he said, but he was not thinking with any respect that Grandpa was here with us.
Dad never showed respect to Grandpa. Perhaps there was a jealousy under all; in his own house Dad was top dog. Grandpa, on the contrary, former state senator for ten years, respected all over western Michigan, invited to speak at commencements, churches, public ceremonies, always spoke respectfully to my dad, as he did to everyone. Dad had married the senator’s daughter and that was all he needed from his father-in-law.
During the Depression, the Republicans of western Michigan were looking for a senatorial candidate who would stand up for education. Grandpa served on the School Board, the County Welfare Board and the bank board. They asked him to run and he won. He was paid $2 a day as a senator, only when the senate was in session, so between sessions he worked in the general store he owned with his brother. His brother began to drink, claiming he had too much work, so Grandpa agreed that he would quit the senate if Lowell would quit drinking, and that was the way of it. Grandpa returned to being a small town grocer with complete cheerfulness and grace. Lowell eventually returned to drinking but Grandpa never spoke of him with bitterness. He looked back at everything in his life with gratefulness as if all was a gift to him. He’d tell with relish of tromping through the bitter snow in northern Russia during World War I and learning a few words in Russian which he can still remember, to speak to the locals.
Mom was raised a Lutheran and stayed a Lutheran when she married Dad. When Dad proved that Martin Luther had been a Catholic priest she opened to joining the Church. Twenty years after her marriage, an old friend told her that when she married Dad, the Lutheran minister gave a sermon that Sunday about the wrongness of parents who allow their children to marry Catholics, with Grandma and Grandpa sitting in the front row as they always did. Grandpa had never said a word about this. When Mom had asked his opinion about marrying Dad, Grandpa had said “I’ll respect whatever you decide.” Mom was furious to learn about this story from the past but the pastor was long gone.
Grandpa’s library spoke to me of a different set of values. To begin with, he owned and treasured books! A whole room of walls quietly filled with inspiring books – biographies and autobiographies of great people, books of quotes and jokes he used in public speaking, Bible study books he used in his fifty years of teaching adult Sunday school. In my house, though we had money, I cannot remember seeing any book around the house except an unused Bible on the coffee table of the parlor. For Christmas we got hair dryers, petticoats, roller skates, nice things for teenage girls but not books. When I went into Grandpa’s sunny quiet library I felt my body lifted in surprise and delight. Grandpa let me borrow from his books and these were food for me in a way our family kitchen didn’t provide.
One Easter morning I was home from college when Grandpa stopped on his way to his church. He didn’t usually do this. He said in his cheerful simple way, “I’ll be teaching the adult Sunday School this morning!” I froze. It was Easter. How special! What I heard was an unspoken invitation to come and hear him teach. I longed to say to my parents, “Can I go with Grandpa?” But such was my fear of my parents’ disapproval that I did not say a word and Grandpa cheerfully hurried on.
I’ve lived under the shadow of my father’s temper and opinions most of my life, though I followed Grandpa’s path into the world of religious studies, spiritual practice, and service. I endured a lack of understanding and support from my father because I never earned much money on this path. But I’ve come to see that Grandpa has been the father of my adulthood, the example of walking humbly and cheerfully over the earth doing worthwhile things. I know my grandfather’s mentor was Jesus Christ and Grandpa did his mentor proud. I hope in the end I may also do Grandpa proud.