|Carved wood self portrait*|
Sunday, December 9, 2012
“WHAT IS THE GREATEST GIFT?”
Robert Hamilton (Papa Bob) Stewart embraced ne’er-do-wells. This I know.
My first marriage was ending. I’d been invited to a gathering at the old Boy Scout Camp at Chico Meadows (northwest of Butte Meadows, CA) to “entertain” congregants there by leading some songs, playing my two-dollars-from-a-junk-store Martin ukulele, telling a few jokes and doing some impressions. One young lady was particularly captured by my Jimmy Stewart.
The gathering was that of the Trinity United Methodist Church of Chico, California. Evan, my commute buddy, a member, had volunteered me to provide some campfire cheer. I flopped, I’m certain.
The Reverend Stewart, at one point either before or after the “show,” cordially asked, “How ya doin’?”
Unfortunately, at 10:00 AM that very morning, I’d been in the Superior courtroom in Oroville being granted my dissolution of marriage’s final decree. Caught up in the emotions of the day, my response was something far different from simply: “Fine.” I was a loser – and certainly not an entertainer.
Apparently, Papa Bob didn’t agree.
Months went by and Evan said, “You know, up at church campout, there was a young lady who, well, thought you were kinda funny. She’d like to meet you.”
I offered a few self-deprecating remarks, but he insisted.
A few years later, I returned to the Boy Scout Camp at Chico Meadows where the Reverend Stewart officiated at the wedding of 'the young lady who thinks you're kinda funny,' his daughter, to me.
After more than two decades and several moves for both Papa Bob and 'Nana' Pat, and for Candace and me, both of our households wound up in Placer County, CA. A weekly tradition became dinner at our home with good food, good wine and great discussions.
In the interest of full disclosure: I am not a churchgoer. I’d attended for a while during my first go-round at wedded bliss. But a straw broke my religious camel’s back when a fellow parishioner explained his reasoning for attending our particular church in Chico: “It’s the church where business is done.” My knowledge of the Scripture was scant, but I knew the bit about the moneychangers and I never returned. To this day, I prefer to explore spirituality on the Open Road.
Still, after dinner evenings with an 80-year-old Papa Bob recalibrated that which I had come to believe about churches and Christianity. He listened. He laughed. He nodded. And he challenged. He knew the Holy Bible, but also knew the times during which the particular scriptures were gathered and the reasoning behind their selection. His knowledge drove him to blend in his teachings of the historic church text and its current applications. We care for the people of color (got him kicked out of a Texas seminary in the 40s), we listen to grievances openly (got him kicked out of SI Hiakawa’s office in the 60s), we find reason with our place and need not assume the trappings of something greater (got him kicked out of Jim Jones’ manse in the 70s). We minister to the dispossessed (and married one of 'em to his only daughter).
Time advanced. A particularly cruel cancer took his wife. Six years later, a variant set in on him. No longer living independently, our weekly dinners became a bit less frequent but were always a treasure. No matter how great the pain, there were countless words of wisdom and perspective, laughter and joy.
Six weeks prior to his passing in early November, he’d somehow lost his hearing aides. We weren’t sure whether they’d gotten tangled in his bed sheets or fallen on the floor to be vacuumed up by personnel at the home. In any event, he was deaf. I’d found a new recipe for Cajun salmon and sautéed some. Although, he’d not been eating of late, he downed the tidbit offered, and then reached across to the platter. He worked through the better part of two servings. His eyes shared his satisfaction with our little repast while communicating sadness for the circumstance. The inability to hear had ebbed his spirit. We were reduced to either speaking uncomfortably loud – and he could pick out a little of what was said – or writing things on notes.
As the “conversation” waned, someone thought of Paul’s letter and wrote on the pad of paper, “What is the greatest gift?”
His eyes darted from the paper to me, to his daughter and back to me. That nearly irrepressible smile creased his tired face. He took up the pen and simply wrote:
* Self portrait photograph (c) Jason Powers Photography
Church of the Open Road Press