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Listening to great-granddad’s wisdom

By DAVID WHITLOCK
Life Matters

Smiling, I posed for a picture with my great-granddad.

Actually, I was posing for a picture with a picture of my great-granddad.

We were traveling from Altus, Oklahoma, to Lubbock, Texas. Two dear, long-time family friends, Anne and Caitee Boxeur, had graciously agreed to help move my mom to a smaller unit in her retirement center.

But along the journey, we passed through Olustee and Eldorado, Oklahoma, two places where I knew my great-grandfather had served as a Southern Baptist pastor, sometime in the 1930s or 1940s.

“You don’t mind if I stop and do a little family archiving, do you?” I asked when we drove into Olustee, the first stop.

The church had relocated from the original building, but a deacon was there to give us a history of the church. Great-granddad, I learned, pastored First Baptist Church, Olustee from 1927-1933.

A few miles down the road, we found great-granddad again, this time stopping in Eldorado, the last town before the Oklahoma/Texas state line.

We knocked on the door of the church parsonage, adjacent to the church building.

“Sure, I know of your great-granddad,” the pastor told us as he led the way into the building. He had seen his picture many times in the church library.

And it was there that my friends made my picture with him, with the dates, August 3, 1941-July 18, 1943, beneath his name, A.F. Whitlock.

I somehow felt connected to my great-granddad as I stood there next to his picture, there where he pastored, and led, and taught God’s Word.

And faced trouble, I felt sure, somewhere along the way, for after all, he did pastor people.

Walking out of the little room that was the church’s library, I glanced back at his picture, trying to remember the sound of his voice, now a vague echo, after these many years.

I remember listening to great-granddad when I was a boy. By then, he was in his mid-nineties. But his eyes were still penetrating, his jaw still set, and though his steps were unsteady, he yet walked with deliberation.

“Who’s going to take granddad a plate of food?” Grandmother Whitlock would ask after she had fed us ample portions of fried chicken, mashed potatoes, corn on the cob, and fried okra.

“Can I go?” I always tried to be the first to volunteer.

His house was across the street from my grandparents, and there I would find great-granddad sitting in his plain, cotton-upholstered easy chair. A single lightbulb hanging from the ceiling barely lightened the room. During the summer, I might find him tuned to AM radio station KMOX, home of St. Louis Cardinals baseball.

I often felt like Jacob or Esau, when Isaac wondered which son was which, for cataracts had clouded great-granddad’s eyesight, so he would take me by my hand — and I can still feel his fingernails unintentionally digging into my wrist — and ask, “Now, which one are you?”

“Davey, L.D.’s youngest boy,” I would say.

One time granddad was with me when I visited great-granddad. Great-grandad was 102 at the time, and his son, my granddad, was then 82. Having recounted the churches he had pastored, great-granddad paused, and granddad interrupted, noting that great-granddad had forgotten to include one church. Without missing a beat, great-granddad said, “Well, I never did like that church anyway.”

Great-granddad had apparently learned the importance of forgetting some unpleasant people and moving on. But he kept a sense of humor as he did.

Once great-granddad shared with me how a few people in one church had antagonized him and even threatened him.

“I had helped work in their fields with many of my flock when they were shorthanded, when sickness kept some from bringing in their crops. They remembered that and weren’t about to let the troublemakers have their way.”

Another lesson: Work with people, genuinely love them, and they will help protect you from the  unruly sheep.

Writer, Maya Angelou said, “We need to haunt the house of history and listen anew to the ancestors’ wisdom.”

Maybe that’s why I gained strength just by standing there next to great-granddad’s picture.

I was doing more than just cruising through Southwest Oklahoma on the way to Lubbock.

I was haunting my own house of history, listening to a voice from my past.

Contact David Whitlock, Ph.D. at drdavid@davidwhitlock.org or visit his website, davidwhitlock.org.