Henry Tyler Robinette, RIP

Yesterday was the anniversary of my grandfather’s birthday. Henry Tyler Robinette was born in 1874 and died in 1975, when I was 16. He turned 101 just days before his death. What started out as a cold quickly developed into pneumonia, “the old people’s friend” as I’ve heard it called. He was gone in less than a week.

Papaw Robinette, the patriarch of our family, was an interesting man. By the time I was old enough to have memories of him, he was senile. He was 85 when I was born; I was the last grandchild in the family. When I think back on the story I know of his life, he faced many hard times. His first wife died, he was left with 5 children; he remarried and had 6 more children; he went bankrupt during the Depression and lost not only his farm but also his brother’s. Still he managed to survive and soldier on.

Henry Tyler Robinette was the eldest son of 7 children born to Samson Sage Robinette (b. 1826) and Micah Jennings (b. 1834). He had two older sisters, Julia and Jennie. When Papaw was a young man, his father split the family land among the 5 sons (I guess the women got overlooked because they were married and had someone to “take care of them”).

Papaw went to college at Lincoln Memorial University in Kentucky and majored in business. He returned home to farm. Evidently that business background didn’t help him very much, because he lost both his and his brother’s farms during the Great Depression. Or maybe he applied all the knowledge he had, and times were just so tough that there wasn’t much he could do about his desperate situation. Most of the people who lived down in his “holler” (hollow) in Fairview, Virginia, were in about the same situation.

Sometime along the way he married Allie Myrtle Kyle, and they had 5 children (3 boys and 2 girls). Allie fell ill with consumption (as they called tuberlosis in those days), and as a last resort Papaw took her and the children out to New Mexico, hoping the drier climate there would help her. Sadly, it didn’t, and she died in 1911.

Not long afterward Henry met a young schoolteacher named Rosa Alice Steele, and they married in 1912. They had 6 daughters: Eunice Mae (b. 1913), Reba Susan (b. 1914), Della Bertha (b. 1916, I think), Myrtle Virginia (b. 1918), Edna Frances (b. 1919, I think), and Hattie Bernice (my mom, b. 1921).

During the Depression, Papaw and Mamaw wound up sharecropping after they lost their farm. Papaw took off every now and then and peddled goods (I’m not sure what he sold besides milk and vegetables from their farm).

He was a staunch Baptist and a Republican; Mamaw was an equally staunch Methodist and a Democrat. After women were finally given the right to vote in 1920, Mamaw took pride in voting every chance she had. She and Papaw joked about canceling out each other’s votes. Papaw won out on the religious front; they were members of Zion Baptist Church in Fairview, Virginia.

Somehow my grandparents managed to send all of their children (at least in my grandfather’s second family) to college, and every one of them completed college. That was a rarity in the community where they lived. I’ve “heard tell” that the older children worked after completing college and sent what money they could to support whoever was in college at the time.

Most of my memories of Papaw weren’t pleasant, but looking back on them from an adult vantagepoint helps me understand him a little better. Here are some things I remember about Papaw:

  • When I was a young child, maybe 3 or 4, I remember running across Mamaw & Papaw’s bedroom on the way to the only bathroom in their house. I was running to avoid what I knew was going to happen–Papaw would stick his leg out of the bed and pinch my leg with his sharp toenails. There was little distance between his bed and the potbellied stove that sat nearby, and I had to go between them. Sure enough, out came the leg and that big toe (yellow with fungus) and other toes clamped down on my leg. I screamed; he bellowed with laughter. (This obviously had happened several times. )
  • I recall hearing a tape recording my family made of Papaw talking. Two things stand out in my recollection of that recording: (1)  my cousin Joe kicking a coal bucket loudly and repeatedly, with Papaw responding, “Yeah, kick it, Joe” (or something to that effect)  and (2) I was crying in the background. Papaw, who had ruled his family with an iron fist, had mellowed by that time. His response to my crying was, “Give ‘er what she wants.” My mom often laughed as she told that story.
  • I don’t remember much more about Papaw until I was in third grade, and he and Mamaw moved in next door to my family. My aunt Reb bought the house next door. She and my mom had an understanding: Reb would provide the home and finances (most of them), and my mom would cook and take care of my grandparents’ personal needs. They hired a sitter to stay with my grandparents while they were at school (my mom taught elementary school, and my aunt was a principal). Mommy took care of bathing Mamaw and Papaw, at least on weekends when the sitter was not there.
  • We ate dinner with my grandparents and aunt every night. My mom cooked most of the dinner at our house, and I was the runner, carrying food next door. Papaw was coherent at times, but by nighttime he was not the most pleasant person to be around. He often fought as we tried to help him out of his rocking chair. I remember him stabbing his canes in the air toward me when I went toward his chair to help him up. I was scared until I noticed he couldn’t see well enough to actually hit me, and then I got amused. Once he was on his feet and we could actually get him moving somewhere, he was a little more reasonable, and things were relatively calm at the dinner table.
  • When I was in seventh grade, my grandmother had an episode with her heart and was hospitalized. Evidently she had a severe reaction to medication she was given; her mind was never again the same. Though my family didn’t talk much about it, I think she had a nervous breakdown. She came home (they did not want to put her in a nursing home, even though the doctor advised it). Thankfully she was sweet and docile, so she wasn’t as challenging to deal with as Papaw. The next plan my family hatched involved me: I was assigned the responsibility of sleeping in Mamaw’s bedroom, just so she would have someone to assist her if she got confused or needed something.
  • Mostly I think my family wanted to protect Mamaw from Papaw. Papaw had it in his mind that men were coming to visit my grandmother at night.(Very funny, when you consider that Mamaw was in her 80s and sex was the farthest thing from her mind.)  He often sat on the edge of his bed, canes crossed, keeping vigil as he waited for those men to show up and sneak down the hall to Mamaw’s room. Sometimes he sang, mostly hymns, at night; other times he ranted (I always thought he was a frustrated preacher). All I wanted was a little sleep! Fortunately Mamaw was blissfully unaware of most of this.
  • Occasionally I’d hear Papaw’s canes click, click, clicking down the hall to Mamaw’s and my bedroom. He’d flip the light switch on in the middle of the night, go over and look at Mamaw in bed, and then come over to my bed and peer at me. I’d say, “Papaw, it’s just me…go back to bed.” Somehow my family always managed to laugh about this situation. I, on the other hand, was irritated. I often went to school sleepy (a little more so than the average adolescent).

So anyway, yesterday I was thinking of Papaw and how he affected my life. I used to think all old people were crazy, based on my experience with my grandparents. At one point in my young adult years I thought about working with older people, as I seemed to have some skills in relating to them.

Funny, but I can’t articulate any deep thoughts about how living near Papaw affected me, other than to say that it sensitized me to the struggles of elderly people facing physical and mental decline. It also impressed on me the stress of the “sandwich generation”–when  middle-aged adults have to make decisions about how to care for their own parents at the same time they are raising children. I really admire my family, especially my mom, for doing what they did to care for my grandparents. I’m not sure I’m made of the same strong stuff.

The Importance of Rituals

Today is Ash Wednesday, and I’ve had ashes smudged in a cross shape on my forehead as I heard the words, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Repent and believe the gospel.” Somehow I don’t know quite how to respond to that; something within me wants to say, “Amen.” I usually wind up nodding solemnly at the person who’s imposing the ashes on my forehead.

I grew up in a faith tradition that did not observe Lent. Instead, we emphasized Holy Week and the events leading up to Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. In recent years the church I used to attend has held an Ash Wednesday service as a time of reflection. The closest we got to the cross-shaped smudge was receiving strips of burlap cloth to remind us of repentance.

Now I am a Methodist, and we love rituals. There’s something beautiful, comforting, and challenging to me about the rituals in our worship services, whether it’s saying the congregation’s vow at baptism, speaking the Nicene creed in unison, passing the peace, praying the Lord’s Prayer, responding with “And also with you” whenever a worship leader says “May the Lord be with you” or saying a resounding “Thanks be to God” after someone proclaims, “This is the word of God for the people of God,” or holding out hands to receive Communion after we participate in the familiar liturgy. These rituals remind me of what being a Christian is all about. They connect me with Christians from centuries ago and with Christians around the world; most of all they remind me of the many things all believers have in common.

Today I am remembering an Ash Wednesday several years ago when my dad was in the hospital for a quadruple bypass. That particular day I was feeling exhausted from being at the hospital, and I was downhearted. I found myself wanting to attend an Ash Wednesday service and have ashes smudged on my forehead. I’d already been reminded of my own mortality that week and was more than a little frightened about whether my dad would recover from his surgery. (He was 80 at the time. He’s still alive and kicking at age 88.) I needed to be with other Christians, say the words that remind me of what I believe, and feel the assurance of God’s presence.

Now that I think about it, that is the purpose of rituals: these repetitive actions and words  remind us of what we believe. They comfort us and reassure us that God is indeed present where two or three are gathered together. They are  important links to our history and markers toward our future. Perhaps most important, they remind us that everything we do together is a sacred action–and that we are all connected in this journey called life.

The Sacredness of Another’s Story

Jesus’ story of the prodigal son in Luke 15 has always been a powerful one for me. I know at least one person whose  life turned around from a path of self-destruction after he heard a sermon on this scripture text.

On Saturday morning of Writer’s Corner at West End United Methodist Church, the conference participants were beginning to feel a little more at home with one another, even though several of us came to the conference not knowing anyone else there. Our workshop leader, author Joy Jordan-Lake, had led us through a couple of writing exercises.

Then she asked us to listen to three stories from the Gospel of Luke and decide which one we related to the most: Jesus’ parable of the shepherd searching for a lost sheep, his parable of the woman who lost a coin and swept her house looking for it, and the parable of the prodigal son (or as some call this story, the parable of the loving father), who asked his father for his inheritance, left home and squandered the inheritance, but finally came to his senses and decided to return home, asking his father if he would take him on as a hired hand (you’ll have to read Luke 15 for the father’s response, if you’re unfamiliar with this story).

Here was our next assignment after hearing the scripture read: Imagine yourself in the story. What character are you? Who are the other characters? (They can be different genders from the one in the story.) What sounds do you hear, what smells or other senses do you experience? What other details would you add to the story?

I chose the parable of the prodigal son because I could relate to it from some experiences in our family life. I started out writing, “There was a mother who had a son and a daughter.” Then I thought, “No, this story involved our whole family, so I crossed out ‘a mother’ and put ‘two parents.’ ” I went on to write part of a story that happened in our family a few years ago as our son, then in high school, experimented with drugs and got expelled from school. I was planning to parallel our daughter’s experience with that of the elder brother in the prodigal son story, who stays at home and doesn’t cause any trouble. But time for this writing exercise expired, and Joy asked us to share our stories with the people sitting at our table. It turns out that we had just the right number of people at our table to share intimately–three.

One woman had already shared some very personal responses in a previous exercise, in response to the writing prompts “My mother never . . .” and “My father never. . .” She had trouble with this exercise, I suspect because she had already talked about  intimate matters.

So I began reading my story and, in the sharing, burst into tears. This is not a common occurrence for me, and I usually feel quite embarrassed to show emotions in public. However, in this setting, it felt just fine, probably because the other woman had set the stage by sharing those private memories from her childhood.

The next thing that happened gave me goose bumps. The woman next to me, a retired physician who had already told me some of her life story (and it involved much difficulty), started telling her story. She had not written it down because she just sat there thinking about it and the prodigal son story, and all she could do was cry.

She talked about her younger brother, a brilliant high school student who had gone to Dartmouth and encountered the academic challenges and reality of being surrounded by other students just as bright as he–and then suffered a psychotic breakdown.

Over the next several years, as his sister graduated from an Ivy League school and went on to medical school, the young man tried to put his life back together. He worked at various jobs and attended college, but he was unclear about what path to pursue. He became  discouraged at how long it was taking him to complete college.

In the meantime, his parents divorced. He spiraled into depression and went to each of his family members for help. His father, who had remarried,  told him he he was not welcome at his  home. His mother was much more accepting, reaching out to him and trying to help him. But nothing seemed to work.

Finally, in desperation, he went to his sister, who was by then married and had a three-year-old son, as well as a demanding full-time job as a physician. She allowed him to come stay with her family for a week, but told him that he would need to leave after that. After he’d been with them for a week, she and her husband took him to the YMCA (which at that time provided housing for people in need) and left him there.

As our new friend was telling her story, she reflected on how her father had been unlike the father in the prodigal son story, and how  her mother had acted like the loving father. She then wept as she said, “That was the last time I saw my brother. Not long after that he committed suicide. I felt so awful, remembering my last contact with him and how I really hadn’t helped him at all.”

By this time everyone at our table was crying, including Joy Jordan-Lake, the guest author. I don’t remember what we said–we tried to come up with consoling thoughts, but there’s just not much you can say in the face of such sadness, even 30 years after the fact.

The woman who had shared her painful story seemed relieved.

I thought about what sacred moments we had just experienced. To hear another person’s story is indeed an honor–that person has entrusted us with part of himself or herself. It’s also a catharsis for the storyteller. I was reminded of a quotation I had read in Trevor Hudson’s book A Mile in My Shoes: Cultivating Compassion: “Everyone sits beside his or her own pool of tears.”

I pray that I will always pay attention to other people’s stories and not be so consumed with reflecting on my own story that I miss such holy moments.

Goose Bumps from a Writing Workshop, Part 1

This weekend I attended Writer’s Corner at West End United Methodist Church, with Joy-Jordan Lake as the featured author. Some moments of the workshop gave me goose bumps.

The first occurrence was Friday night when Joy shared some stories of her childhood, which she wove into her first novel Blue Hole Back Home. She told how she grew up in Signal Mountain, a sleepy Southern town overlooking Chattanooga, in the 1970s. Some not-so-sleepy events were taking place, with race riots in Chattanooga.

About that time, a family from Sri Lanka who were nonpracticing Muslims moved to her town, and they wound up attending her church (a Southern Baptist church, where her dad was pastor). Joy became friends with the young girl in the Sri Lankan family, and the girl became part of her youth group. The Sri Lankan family felt fairly safe and accepted in Signal Mountain, a lily-white community.

First Joy recounted her memory of a frightening incident that took place when she was a child: her family got stopped at a Ku Klux Klan roadblock. The roadblock was set up with orange and white highway traffic-control barrels,  and several men from the KKK, cradling rifles in one arm and holding Kentucky Fried Chicken  buckets in the other, were stopping cars and “gently” encouraging them to contribute money to the KKK. (I don’t remember  Joy saying the men were in their Klan regalia, but I imagine they were, since the organization has often relied on the secret identity of its members.)

Joy described what happened when her father approached the roadblock. A Klan member thrust the KFC bucket  in the window toward her dad, saying, “Would you like to contribute today?” Joy commented, “Somehow I knew how my dad was going to respond.” As she and her brother watched wide-eyed from the backseat and her mom looked on nervously, her dad replied, “No, I will not contribute to your organization.”

In response, Klan members surrounded their car and started rocking it back and forth. Joy described the fear she felt, wondering whether their car would roll over. Somewhat miraculously it did not, and her family was allowed to leave the roadblock.

Another incident she told about–this is the one that gave me goose bumps–was about a cross burning that took place in her Sri Lankan friend’s yard. Her dad was contacted the night this horrifying incident occurred, and he went to be with the terrified Sri Lankan family.

The father of her Sri Lankan friend asked her dad, “Which way is Mecca?” Joy’s dad tried to help him determine which direction to face so they could pray toward this holy city for Muslims. Together both men prostrated themselves on the floor and prayed toward Mecca. (This is the moment I felt goose bumps, as I thought of both men, one from a conservative Christian denomination and the other from a Muslim background, bowed down to the floor, side by side, in a posture of utter humility, praying as if their lives depended on it.)

When we get right down to what really matters, there are no barriers between us humans in moments of crisis. Even when our faiths differ, we still feel the need to pray to an unseen and all-powerful God. We know that we are beyond our own strength.

Would that all of us would have the courage and sensitivity to pray with a fellow human being, a child of God, regardless of that person’s religion or race, in moments of crisis . . . or even in the ordinary moments of our lives.