Originally posted June 23, 2012, at … in the Meantime. Republished with permission of the author.
I don’t know how it worked out this way, but I always seemed to get “stuck” at the dinner table with my uncles and father. It was summer, and we were gathered together at a cottage in Cooperstown, N.Y. The cottage had been bought by my great-grandfather in 1906 and our families had been gathering there for a portion of the summer ever since.
My uncles — Fred and Lutie — and my dad were related by marriage, not birth, but also by a common calling as Lutheran pastors, which meant that the talk would inevitably turn to the church. The older cousins had fled, but for some reason I lingered and remember regularly being half-bored and half-curious about all the goings-on of congregations and synods and all the rest.
My Uncle Fred died this week. He was the one who had the boat with the 6½-horsepower Johnson engine that, when we were old enough, we could take out on our own. He was the one who would sit out late into the evening on the screened porch and smoke his cigars. He was the one who was up before everyone else making breakfast, almost always eggs, though sometimes pancakes, on the gas stove and griddle. He painted watercolors, too, and would often call me Schroeder, even though I didn’t think I looked at all like the “Peanuts” character.
He came to my ordination and presented me with my grandfather’s stoles and cross, which had been in his keeping as the eldest of three sons who all followed their father into ministry. I have often wondered how listening in — whether by choice or not! — on all those conversations after supper shaped my own sense of call.
Uncle Fred had been in decline for a number of years. He was the one I wrote about last year, who though forgetting his family, loved us still. And so his death comes not as a tragedy but as a quiet close to an unremarkable, yet oh so remarkable life of a man whose family, and parishioners, and nieces and nephews were marked indelibly by his life and faith.
I don’t know why John Magee’s poem came to mind when I was thinking about Uncle Fred. As far as I know, he was never a pilot, as Magee was. Nor did his death have the note of drama of either Magee’s — killed at age 19 in 1941 over London — or of those aboard the space shuttle Challenger, whose death prompted President Reagan to use these lines to memorialize them.
Perhaps it’s simply knowing that Fred, too, has slipped the surly bonds of earth — and failing memory and frail body and all that goes with it — that calls these words to mind. In any case, I just wanted you to know a bit about my uncle, whom I miss. Go well, good and faithful servant, to rest prepared for you.
Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds — and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of — wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air —
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue,
I’ve topped the windswept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, or even eagle flew —
And, while, with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untresspassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.
— John Gillespie Magee Jr.
Find a link to David Lose’s blog … in the Meantime at Lutheran Blogs.