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In Memory of My Grandfather

In Arts & Letters, Christianity on May 8, 2013 at 8:45 am

Allen Mendenhall


The following was delivered at the graveside of my grandfather, “Papa,” on May 5, 2013.

Julius “Jay” Porter Farish, III

November 15, 1929 May 2, 2013

You could have given me from now until eternity to write something special about Papa, and I would not have found the right words.  Sometimes words alone can’t convey the way you feel about someone, the way someone makes you feel.  Papa is beyond words.

But then again, sometimes words aren’t necessary.  They only get in the way. Papa had the knack and, as a grandfather, the prerogative to teach by example rather than by stated words or instruction.  I learned by watching him.

He taught me how a man is supposed to conduct himself, how a man is supposed to dress, how a man is supposed to love and care for his wife, how a man is supposed to love his children and raise a family and fear the Lord.  Without having to discuss them, he gave me standards to live by and goals to reach.

When I was thirteen and Brett was eleven, Nina and Papa came to our house to stay with us—our parents must have gone out of town—and we begged Papa to play us in basketball.  He did.  And he “whipped” us.  It was two against one, but Papa, who must have been in his late sixties, had not lost his touch with his two handed jump shots or his Wilt Chamberlin-like hook shots.  Brett and I were amazed by the ease with which he rebounded over us and buried his three-pointers.  We didn’t take losing very well, except on that day, when losing made us proud.

Young boys always look forward to becoming grown men, and having become grown men, wish they were still young boys.  Papa knew this and treated my brother and me as if our opinions mattered to him.  And they did matter to him.

During a trip to Arizona, in a hotel in Flagstaff, Brett and I would wake up early—about 6:00 a.m.—to make sure we were downstairs in the hotel restaurant to drink coffee (which we never drank at home) and read the newspaper with Papa.  We must have made quite a sight: two prepubescent boys with our heads buried in the newspaper, sipping coffee and passing judgment on current events, Papa looking on and nodding in qualified admiration and probably enjoying our enjoyment more than anything else.

On another occasion, Papa took us rafting down the Snake River in Wyoming.  Some Canadians were in the raft with us, and Brett, for some reason, took to lying flat on his back in the middle of the raft.  He took up so much space that the Canadians started muttering among themselves, quietly at first but then with whispers loud enough for Papa to hear.  “Come here, Brett,” Papa said, rearranging his large body and cramping himself into the smallest, tightest position he could.  “You can lie down here,” he said.

Brett, who was only about ten and didn’t notice that the Canadians had grown restless, moved over to where Papa was sitting and sprawled out there.  The Canadians, seeing the sacrifice Papa had made, seemed satisfied at first, but then the apparent leader of these tough-to-please people of the North decided that this was not enough.  The leader cut a glance at Papa that seemed to say, “Aren’t you gonna punish him?”  Papa looked at the man, not angrily, stretched out his long body, and made as if he were going to get up—all gently to remind our companions who the strongest man on the raft was.  He patted Brett on the head and said, “This is my grandson.”  And the man understood, or pretended he did for his own sake.

The only time mom ever let me out of school to play golf was when Papa told her that he wanted to take me to play.  I missed Science and Social Studies that day so that Papa and I could fit in nine holes at Atlanta Country Club.  Before the round, he took me into the caddy shack to introduce me to the caddies, all old black men who told me how much Papa liked to take them fishing.  I later learned that they weren’t allowed to fish the ponds on the course unless a member was with them.

I could tell dozens of stories about Papa. There are at least a hundred paths I have or haven’t traveled because I thought Papa would or wouldn’t approve.  I’m not sure there was ever a moment I spent with him in which I didn’t learn something.

But the most important thing I learned from him was how to be a leader in Christ.  As the oldest sibling and oldest grandson, I’ve known something of the responsibility of setting precedent and leading by example, but I’m afraid I’ve fallen short in more ways than I’ve succeeded.  Now I’m a father and faced with the nearly overwhelming responsibility of raising a son in a fallen world, and sometimes I get so discouraged by what I read in the news and see on television that I fear for my son and my future children who must live in this time and place.

And then I remember the effect that Papa had on me and think about the possibility that, God willing, I could have that effect on someone else, and I realize there is hope.  Papa himself realized there was hope when he was brought to tears while driving through Ohio on a business trip one day and gave himself to Christ.

And then there was the time Papa did put his instruction into words.  On May 20, 2001, he wrote me a letter after I graduated high school.  In it, he said, “As you begin a new chapter in your life, I would recommend that you ask God to give you a vision for your life…He will not let you down because He desires the very best for you at everything good you try.”  I followed Papa’s advice, but over the years I was much more likely to create my own visions for my life rather than to ask God for His.  Now I look around me at my wife, son, family, house, and job and realize that God has blessed me with so many things that were never part of my vision for myself, and I realize, too, that Papa was right: God’s vision is so much greater than ours; His gifts are far more precious than anything we could imagine or create for ourselves.

The Book of James tells us that we are just a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away.  As the psalm says, “As for man, his days are like grass; he flourishes like a flower of the field; for the wind passes over it, and it is gone.”  I always wanted to believe that Papa would last forever, that this day would never come.

I was half right: because of the grace of God and the sacrifice of His Son, Jesus Christ, Papa will last forever.  And although it is tough to overcome my own selfish desire to have Papa here on earth with me, it is also comforting, humbling, and empowering to know that he is with the Father and that one day I will be too.  I look forward to that day, and until it comes, hope that I can be at least half the man Papa was.

Thank you, God, for allowing us to know Papa.  We are all better people for it.

  1. Beautiful words about a profound experience…lives shared…I was blessed this morning to have a chance to meet your Papa. See! He is still touching lives.

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