Am in the middle of reading my first book for my Anthropology of Church Ministry class, and hating every minute of it. I'm having flashbacks to my undergrad experience reading texts in social sciences that use the driest, most academic language possible as a means of making the information applicable to any and all educational institutions.
And, so my mind wanders...
Mom and Dad just returned from their annual Labor Day pilgrimage to Charleston, West Virginia. We lived in Charleston for seven or eight years while Dad worked as a Project Engineer on a number of the bridges being built for the new interstate highway. Although we moved away from Charleston in 1980, my parents and I (my brother was born after we moved) have always had a real affinity for the place thanks to it's people. We loved, and love, those people who took us in... lost flatlanders struggling to make sense of their mountain story.
During their visit, Mom and Dad visited one of the families that have been so important in my journey. Nancy Reeves lives on land granted to her family by George Washington. A "Conner", her family's story is as much a part of the story of West Virginia as any other. It just so happened that when we moved to Charleston, we moved into a small house on Conner Drive, and Jack and Nancy Reeves had a son, Jason, who was my age. It was out of that experience, among others, we became a small part of the folklore of those hills.
I practically lived at the Reeves growing up. I was as comfortable getting a Coke in their house as I was in my own. I can't say the same for Jason and our home, but you need to understand that we were the refugees.... the immigrants.... our heritage lay elsewhere. The Reeves, I believe, saw it as their responsibility to welcome us into their world. So Jason could come over to my house, but his family immersed me in their world. There's a difference. Kind of like the difference between reading the Bible, and knowing that its story is your story. When you become immersed in its world, the words have a different kind of power.
That's what this family offered me, with no expectation that it could be offered back. That's a heck of gift.
So I learned a lot in the Land of Conner. I had my first taste of beer at the age of five with Jason's grandfather, Arthur, on his back patio, to celebrate the lawn being cut. I found out how much better a tomato or ear of corn taste when you grow it yourself. I learned that time can be measured by a river, how high or low it has been. I discovered that you could mourn the passing of a mountain, blown up to make room so people could get from "Point A" to "Point B", and yet still be tied to it, not out of a sense of loss or anger, but rather in the knowledge its story is your story.
Oh... and I learned about forgiveness. The power of forgiveness.
One night, probably on a weekend, I stayed over with Jason, which was a pretty regular occurrence. I must have been about six or seven years old. It was a night like a lot of other nights - two kids eating Doritos, watching TV, playing Gin Rummy and shooting pool - except that it was different. I don't remember the circumstances, but it probably started the same way every fight between a couple starts. There was some misunderstanding or disagreement or pent up frustration that comes when the person you've committed your life to pushes you past the edge. It's the "worse" part of "for better or worse", and you can't control when those moments come... they just do.
I remember the sound of yelling and dishes breaking. I remember my friend crying, afraid of the passion two people had for one another being turned sideways in the kitchen downstairs. Finally, Jack left... took off in Nancy's beautiful two-toned (blue and silver) 280ZX to go take out his anger on a transmission and some mountain roads. I remember Nancy coming upstairs speaking this nugget I have lived: "They say God protects drunks and fools. Let's pray tonight that's true." Then she went back downstairs to begin cleaning up that which had been broken... the beginnings, I realize now, of the restoration of a love so great that it even transcends death.
But my most vivid memory... the moment I've hidden in my heart, but treasure more and more, was Jack's return. I remember bracing, worried there would be more fighting. More chaos. I remember my mom telling me earlier that day that I could call, and they would come get me. I was definitely considering that possibility as I heard him come back into the house, and then up the stairs to where we were, Jason and I.
To be honest, I was genuinely afraid.
He came over and sat down on the couch between us, and with each of his big, strong arms, pulled us closer to him. He kissed his son, apologized, and whispered his love for him and his mother once again in his ear. He asked for forgiveness, which the son granted. And then, he spoke to me:
"I'm sorry Bryan. I'm sorry you had to see all of this. Moms and Dads get angry at one another sometimes. Isn't that true?" I nodded my head, not knowing how "true" that statement would be for another 30 years. "But we never stop loving one another, so don't worry. Don't be afraid. You are like Jason's brother, like my own son, and I don't want you to ever be afraid of coming here. Are you OK, cause if you are scared I can take you home."
Nope. That'll be fine. I'll just stay right here.
Jack is gone now. I was there at the funeral, a witness to the greatness of an ordinary man humble enough to ask forgiveness of a seven-year old boy. Mom told me that Nancy is fighting cancer, a seven-year battle being waged so she can see her grandchildren, who still live next door on the land George Washington gave the family, grow up and become the next chapter of the mountain story. A battle waged out of a passion to tell that story to a beloved husband as it continues to unfold. A passion that probably still comes out sideways sometimes, but is redeemed so powerfully that a man struggling to read about inter-cultural communication, sheds a tear, and thanks God for that moment, a lesson learned, and attempts to play it out again and again in the story he now finds himself in.
"Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God." Words uttered on the side of a mountain, and lived out in a mountain story.