"Tell the girls that Grandpa Hartzler has two arms now," I said on the phone to Jim on Friday.
My dad’s dad, Glade Hartzler, passed from this life into Heaven on Friday, June 22nd. And although we are grieving for ourselves, and though there is suddenly a baffling empty space next to Grandma where my grandfather is supposed to be, yet we are rejoicing in his good and faithful life, and in hope that we will be with him again one day in Heaven.
Grandpa lost his right arm in a farming accident when he was young, and yet he was a carpenter and farmer all his life. I never once heard him complain, or thought of his missing arm as a handicap. Even until his last days he was busy doing the things he loved most: working on the farm, serving his church, and helping my grandmother serve countless meals to family and friends. They loved people.
My earliest memories of my grandparents’ farm are still the closest my imagination can reach into what Heaven might be. It was a place where all of earthly joys were present, and I was young enough to simply accept them as the way life is. It wasn’t until I grew up that I understood how rare and exquisite were those gatherings on the farm. And yet maybe we did know, in the way of children who are drawn instinctively to what is pure and lovely and good. It was what drew us to the place, cousins, to the table where there was sure to be all of life’s sweetest things: strawberry jam and sweet iced tea, ice cream that had been churned from the green fields outside the window, to the cream from the cows, with strawberries from the garden.
It was all so simple and so joyful. Always too much, too excessive. We were conservative in most ways, but liberal with the butter, the cream, the hugs, the laughter. We ate with the fullest pleasure.
Laughter was the full-body kind. I did not know then that it was our laughter as much as the feasting that was nourishment, medicine that healed and cleansed our spirits, knit us together, produced a tenderness and affection for one another. Our bellies ached, we laughted unto tears. Aunts and uncles and cousins quibbled and spat, argued and teased, all in this delicate spirit of affection and respect, an unspoken delight in one another, in being together, and this was good too; so much goodness.
I can remember every detail of the farm as though it were yesterday. If we stopped by on a Sunday night the house was sure to smell like popcorn. Grandpa would pour us Dr. Pepper into cold jewel-colored tin cups, we sat on the floor half-listening to the grown-ups talk. This listening in on adult conversations was my first entrance into wisdom, into putting together what life is and how to face it, how to love life and love people, even when life hurts, when people hurt you. I learned by listening how to grapple with hard things but to not let them make you bitter or hard, how to forgive, how to love God and love your neighbor. I understood even then that this is the greatest commandment; though I’d yet to read it in the Bible, I saw how it was lived.
Family was as certain and secure then as the land, as enduring as the tree in the front yard. We climbed to the top and swung from it’s branches. It had not yet entered my realm of possibility that sometimes families split; even now our families remain close, gathered together beneath the shade of our grandparents’ commitment to loving each other, to their family, and I know now that this is it’s own kind of miracle, rare and beautiful.
In this way, what formed in my earliest understanding about God, about Heaven, was of abundance; a satisfying rhythm of hard work and sweet rest, contentment, abiding joy. Truly the richest lives are the quiet ones, connected to the earth, serving the land and others, humbly dependent upon God.
In the cold months we hugged good-bye beneath the porch light, and the short walk to the car was a bit of magic to a young girl, a sort of ceremony. I would breathe deep, and look up at the stars. I loved nothing more, then, than the sweet fresh smell of the farm, the quiet movement of cows in the barn, the clear open darkness of the sky, and I still do. It is a memory even now so hushed by the presence of wonder and mystery, but glowing behind me is the light of my grandparents’ home; the warmth and acceptance of family, the quiet presence of wisdom and godliness. Even now this memory remains as my deepest awareness of God, my closest sense of the beauty of existence, of hope in death.On summer nights we hugged good-bye and stepped out into the promise of fruitful land. It is in this golden light of a June evening that I think of my Grandpa Glade now. We stand together on his front porch, full from a good meal, satisfied, humbly aware of our blessings. We look out on the rich green fields. He hugs us strong, like he always does, blue eyes twinkling; but he hugs us now with both arms. The sky is pink, and long shadows cast across the farm, across a community, across generations. In this shadow of love, of hard work, of faithful, quiet goodness we lift up our children and swing them from the branches of the tree in the front yard.
We say good-bye, but mostly we say thank-you.
(note: these photos are actually taken from my parents' home, which was originally part of my grandparent's farm. I know, know, know that I have pictures of my grandpa on this computer and I cannot find them! grrr . .. )