Monday, April 29, 2019

The Death and Life of the Horseman Uncle


Image may contain: 1 person, shoes, hat, horse and outdoor

I was honored to be asked to speak about my uncle, Bobby Jones, at his funeral at. St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church in Sturgis, SD, on April 27, 2019.


My uncle Bobby was the consummate West River horseman and rancher, and for his first four decades a bachelor cowboy at that. The best photo I’ve ever seen of him is one that my cousin Anna took of him sitting up against a fence at the 2 Lazy J Ranch. Those long legs are all folded up like some cowboy origami, all elbows and knees. He has a straw cowboy hat on his head, a pair of black boots with scuffed toes on his feet, and a set of reins in his hands. With his long face and equally long beard, he’s nodding at the horse, and the horse nuzzling his hand seems to be nodding right back, as if there’s some unspoken language they both know – which wouldn’t be surprising when you’re dealing with a horse whisperer.

There’s a side of Bobby that’s well represented there: silent, stoic, thoughtful, still. This is the Bobby who would do his ranch chores with an eye to the horizon, watching for smoke to forestall the disaster of a prairie fire or the loss of a haystack that had been hit by lightning. Or keeping on top of the signs that his heifers were about to calve for the first time. Or silently stoking a stove-full of wood in the ranch living room to keep us warm at least until the wee hours before a winter dawn. No words. Just do the work. Git ‘er done. Do it all over again the next day. About the only time before he retired to town that I saw Uncle Bobby not actively taking care of the ranch was a 20-minute stint each day after lunch, when he and Grandpa Buster would take a quick nap on the floor in the living room and recharge for whatever haying or cattle feeding was in store during the afternoon.

I don’t expect that’s much different than it’s ever been for the men folk among the ranches of central Meade County, including Bobby’s best friend Floyd Cammack, or the Youngs further south, the Mikkudiks at the place north of ours, or the Bruchs and Vigs heading over to Fairpoint on the Old Stoneville Road. The ranch women had their extension club where they could connect. But the men would stand next to each other, leaning on their pickups after fetching the mail at the Stoneville Store, and say everything that needed to be said, but with as few words as possible. This is the ranching ethos, and Uncle Bobby served it faithfully.

Under that stoic demeanor there was a jokester and an imp. Bobby could get away with a quick-witted line under his soft voice. He’d say something about his beard covering up his turkey gobbler neck and then patiently wait for you to catch on. Healthy ribbing and leg-pulling were skills he’d mastered. The subtle joke was always better than out-and-out yuks. But when Uncle Bobby heard a good one he had a smile that stretched wider than a section of land, and he’d laugh with the best of ‘em.

Uncle Bobby was a steady presence in my life. He sat me behind the wheel of the old backward tractor and showed me the clutch and shifting lever, so I could help scoop up windrows and bring them to wherever he had the cage set up to stack hay. Later he taught me to drive the John Deere tractor with the hay fork on the front end. Still later it was that gold Chevy pickup with the plastic seat covers that left an imprint on your thighs. He trusted me to follow directions, be safe, and get my task done. It was from Uncle Bobby that I gained a love for peeing without walls. We’d be out with the cows, and he’d undo the four buttons on his Levis and let flow. This is an activity I believe we need more of in this world. He taught me to grab a cow’s teat just-so and showed me the rhythm of my fingers that brought milk squirting into a stainless steel bucket. He taught us kids to be careful in the granaries around the ranch and climbing stacks of bales behind the barn, so we’d be delivered back to our parents alive.

There are so many things in my life that continually remind me of Uncle Bobby. When I’ve let the lawn go too long between mowings and I think I could bale the grass, the smell of the new-mown grass takes me back to Bobby cutting alfalfa field across the road from the Stoneville School. When I catch a whiff of diesel fuel, I’m right back at the tank west of the garage with Bobby filling up the John Deere. Whenever I see the arc of something being welded on TV, I think of Bobby taking time to weld bolts, washers, and nuts together in the shape I wanted to make some goofball kid art project, which wasn’t far from how he created beauty from a strip of leather and a few tools. The feel of a rope in my hands takes me back to the contraption Bobby made to braid baling twine. And each semester he’s there when I tell my students about Christ the Lamb of God slain from the foundation of the world, I recount how Bobby and Grandpa would save an orphaned lamb from winding up on the ranch’s bone pile, by skinning a dead lamb and jacketing its skin on the bum lamb and presenting it to the dead lamb’s mother.

And of course there’s Aggie. I don’t know if my bachelor uncle ever had other shots at love and romance, and he sure waited long enough. But I’m grateful he was slow on the marriage front, because he and Aggie gave me a model in their long and faithful commitment to each other. The theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was hanged by the Nazis, once said that your love can’t sustain a marriage, but a marriage can sustain your love. That’s what I saw happening between Bobby and Aggie over more than just shy of forty years as they depended on each other, filled in the gaps, and raised their three kids, Patrick, Anna, and Ted. Bobby brought me an aunt who understood me, who could talk literature and liturgy and love of family each time we met up.

These last years haven’t been easy. Bobby and Aggie had looked forward to traveling. That didn’t happen, although seeing pictures from Anna and Mark’s Jamaica wedding proved to me that an old rancher can learn new tricks. From the waist up Bobby was all cowboy, complete with hat and western-cut shirt with pearl snaps. But go south from there and find shorts, white legs, and flip-flops under Caribbean skies. Bobby in shorts? Who knew that my uncle was capable of it?

Whenever I asked my dad about the ranch or relatives or the history of the clans of honyockers who homesteaded this West River country, my dad always said, “We’ll have to ask Bobby.” Uncle Bobby was an amazing repository of lore. He was the only person I knew who could keep track of who the Shaeffers, the Cales, the Braziers, the Crows, the Dows, and the Mutchlers in our extended clan were. With my dad, Aunt Ida, and now Uncle Bobby gone, all those stories have disappeared. With the lore gone, we’re left with my beloved Stoneville Steadies history books and whatever paltry information Ancestry.com can offer.

When my siblings and I were growing up there used to be a billboard for Rapid City Clothiers along I-90 south of Piedmont. It was a giant pair of bow-legged blue jeans and cowboy boots. Nothing from the waist up. Just a 20-foot pair of Levis. Every time we drove past we kids would point to them and say, “There’s Uncle Bobby’s blue jeans,” because he was such a tall and lanky drink of water.

It seems impossible that what we have of him fits in this little container. But we’ll take it out to Red Owl this afternoon and place it in the ground just a ways from the church where Aggie brought him Sunday after Sunday, like the paralyzed young man’s friends brought him to Jesus in Mark’s gospel. It’s the cemetery where Grandma and Grandpa, Aunt Ida Mae, and countless friends and neighbors have been laid to rest. In a couple months that prairie graveyard will be surrounded by yellow clover and sit under wide open skies. In a way we’ll release Uncle Bobby to the elements, the land he loved, the countryside where he worked tirelessly. And we’ll give thanks for his twinkling eyes, his unassuming voice, his hands that could fix anything with some baling wire and a pair of pliers, and his gentle heart that loved with quiet strength. Blessed be his memory.

Monday, March 4, 2019

My Uncle Carl: the King of the Pasture



I was privileged to write a piece that was read at my Uncle Carl's funeral at First Prebyterian Church in Sturgis, SD, on March 4, 2019.


Dear Candy, Lisa, and Carl,

I’m grateful for the chance to write a few words about your dad, my uncle with the ready smile, the barrel chest, and such resilient faithfulness to his work, his community, and his family. Uncle Carl was a steady presence in my first couple decades, when we’d gather at the Atoll school for Christmas programs and at the ranch afterward to open gift, or when we Jones kids would spend a summer week each year playing or picking potato bugs down in the garden and dropping them in a jug of kerosene. Whatever we did Uncle Carl was there.

In the winter time he’d be dressed in coveralls and a Scotch cap heading out to feed cattle, in the summer it was a straw cowboy hat and work cowboy boots, and on trading days when he’d come to town he’d be decked out in that black leather vest, white shirt, black hat, and black cowboy boots. And along with it came the badge of a working cattleman: an untanned forehead. That was nothing, though, compared to seeing Uncle Carl when he took off his pants at bedtime. We’d be dazzled by the brilliant light show of his tighty-whities in combination with the brightest white legs that had never seen a ray of sunshine.

In my memory Uncle Carl took his work seriously. Successful cattle operations don’t appear magically, and he came by his hard-working way honestly. That’s what his folks, Jack and Ella, brought him up to do. And it was the legacy from his grandparents and your great-grandparents Carl and Liesel who came from Germany and homesteaded that Diamond-S Ranch in central Meade County. The spirit of the honyockers remained strong in him, that pioneer generation that plowed the gumbo and ran the Herefords, making do and often barely getting by. Uncle Carl was a man of the land, always more comfortable it seemed without a roof over his head, which might have been the reason behind his buying that red convertible. I remember him putting the top down and racing north to Jim and Vicky’s place, with gravel dust billowing behind us but blue skies above.

I never put much stock in the fact that Uncle Carl was on the school board. He was just my uncle. Besides, no kid understands how those things work, and I somehow had the idea that my Meade County ranching kin couldn’t have been as important as bankers and attorneys in the county seat. But I know now that they’re the salt-of-the-earth folks who actually make life work. And looking back now I can see the qualities that planted him on that board and rooted him there for all those decades: his honesty and trustworthiness, his diligence, and even the example of civic service he no doubt had from his own uncle, Jake Wahl, who himself served on the school board and in the South Dakota legislature. Uncle Carl had a commitment to making the world around him better, more productive, more efficient, more able to bear fruit into the future.

Of course, Uncle Carl had a side that truly delighted in those times when he let down. He knew how to have rigorous and righteous fun. I remember him at a rodeo in Union Center pulling a cold Schlitz out of a cattle tank filled with ice and beer cans on a hot summer day, with a lit Camel in his other hand. And I can still see him, rifle in hand, shooting rattlesnakes with the other menfolk, or watching us kids traipse around Goblin’s Gardens, or stomping the snow off his boots as he carried an armload of Christmas gifts into our house. Every memory includes his hat cocked a little to one side, a glint in his eye, and sideburns to spare. Put Uncle Carl on a dance floor, whether at the Red Owl Hall with my own grandpa playing banjo in the band, or at those early German Club Oktoberfests in Rapid with a polka band, and you’d see the picture of suave delight.

It’s been over forty years since I lived in Sturgis, and I’m sorry that I hardly knew Uncle Carl as an adult. That’s how our regrets work, don’t they? If I could, I would have asked him about the event that in a round-about way led to my existence. I’ve heard about the destruction of a car in the mid-50s and some resulting trouble with the law that involved your dad and mine, and how it led to both of them deciding that the better part of valor meant a hitch in the military. My dad’s service took him to Germany, where he met my mom and where I showed up on the scene. And it’s also the connection that got your mom to follow us with Vivien in tow back to South Dakota, and why you three also exist.

I’m thankful for your dad, my dear Uncle Carl. Over the years he came to resemble a big old red-and-white Hereford bull surveying the pasture he’d been given dominion over. But not even the greatest prize-winning bull ever had Uncle Carl’s straight line of white teeth that would stretch into a gleaming grin. When he directed it at me, it was his vote of approval and my own point of pride. I’m looking forward to seeing his smile restored, along with the rest of him. I hear the Pearly Gates are really less of a gate than a cattle guard that keeps the cloven-hoofed from crossing over and allows the rest of us to roll in. I suspect Uncle Carl is on the other side, refusing the haloes they’re handing out and demanding his black cowboy hat back. Thanks for sharing your Papa with Gine, Troy, and me, and with all of us who’ve been blessed to know him.

Love,
Kenny

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Is God male or female?


Chapel at Grand View University this semester focuses on common questions students ask about the faith. This sermon was delivered September 25, 2018.

Our question we’re tackling today is this: “Is God male or female?” The easy answer is “No.” Thank you very much. Have a nice walk to your next class. And enjoy the extra ten minutes. Amen.

Of course, the answer is no because God is God and not a creature. Back in ancient Greece, Xenophanes, who lived a few hundred years before Christ, could have told you that. A couple weeks ago, my Ancient and Medieval Philosophy students learned that Xenophanes argued that it’s just wrong to think of the Greek gods as having human bodies. And thinking the sun is Apollo’s fiery chariot streaking across the sky isn’t much better. If our own God is going to be God, then we’d also be wise about assigning gender to a being who’s way more than a binary creature with either internal or external plumbing or X and Y chromosomes.

In Genesis we hear that God made human beings male and female and that they were made in God’s image. But that doesn’t mean that we’re male and female because God is multi-gendered. No, we have to look a few words later and see what God says about all that was created. When God’s divine identity was expressed out into the cosmos, God declared that it was all “tov me’od,” or “waaayy good.” God’s creation, including platypuses and pachyderms, spiny echidnas, and your high school cafeteria lady, is totes good. And so are you, no matter what body parts you have.

The hard thing about our question is that it assumes we can actually figure out something about God that God apparently isn’t interested in letting us in on. If only we knew whether God was male or female, then, depending on God’s gender, we could decide that women are manipulating she-devils or that men are full of toxically masculine demonic rage. And whichever one doesn’t match God can go back to hell where Satan’s spawn belong.

But our Bible passage this morning gives us some hope. In 1 Corinthians, St. Paul assumes we’re going to ask all kinds of questions that want to get at something about God’s essential nature. Stuff like, “Why did God let my cousin die so young?” and “If I prayed so hard for a homecoming date, why am I sitting at home with Ben and Jerry as my companions?” For Paul, no matter what our questions, when we try to get beyond the veil, all we’re going to find is ourselves. “For now, we see in a mirror dimly.” When we ask a question like ours, the only answer will be a reflection of ourselves. It’s all part of the limits of our thinking that God established in the Garden of Eden when Adam and Eve were told not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. We ask questions, and God will answer with silence.

But there’s hope in our verse. We look into that mirror and get a faint echo of God’s being. That means that we can learn something about God from human characteristics, even the most grievously stereotypical attributes we slap on the genders. We can learn about God from muscle-bound dudes and sentimental, weepy guys. We can learn about God from care-taking women and take-charge women. And those aren’t the only places we can learn about what God’s like. The opening litany we prayed today gives us a mighty list of things God has done that open up a vision of who God is. It’s admittedly a dim vision, but they’re clues nonetheless. It’s as if God were wearing many and various masks in this creation that show just as many and varied facets of who God is.

When we get no response to our question, maybe God is silent because God wants us to look elsewhere. It’s a dangerous thing to get behind the veil and see God’s full power and might (and maybe even God’s gender). When Moses asked to see God up on Mount Sinai, he only got to see God’s rear end and, because of it, was so changed that the Israelites forced Moses to wear a veil over his face. He was just too scary. So God sends you to encounter God where you can come to know God’s fullness in a way that God wants to be known: in the person of Jesus. There you have God made flesh and bone, with all the requisite and specific body parts real human beings have. Which isn’t to say that the almighty God is male, but only that God showed up in this one, Jesus. And because he was male in that patriarchal society, he suffered humiliation and degradation on the cross in a way that it wasn’t possible to experience for a woman.

But maybe I’ve misunderstood the question today. Maybe the question is really about whether we can use language other than male terms to address God. If so, we have Jesus’ example. Certainly, he taught us to pray, “Our Father who art in heaven.” But Jesus also gave us the image of a hen bringing her chicks under her wings as a way to understand God’s great care for us. And we have the Old Testament witness of Proverbs that speaks about God as wisdom. In Hebrew, that word is “sophia.” Have you ever heard of a guy named Sophia? The point is that God doesn’t much care about our little pronouns and divisions of the creation according gender. God cares about whether you send your prayers God-ward at all.

Find a way to talk to God, all the while knowing that your words and images are a dim reflection of who God really is. If you don’t like calling God “Father” because your dad is a jerk, then know that God’s definition of father is so much greater than a fallible sperm donor. Know that a hen and her chicks is just one aspect of who God is. God is also a rooster crowing his delight at the sunrise and the rising of Jesus on Easter. The possibilities are endless. But the beginning comes only when you speak to God. And there you have an entire Bible to use as your source.

You can address God by pointing to what God has done. “Almighty God, who answered King David’s confession of adultery and murder with mercy, grant me forgiveness as well.” “Gracious Lord God who stayed faithful to the Israelites in exile, even when they thought you’d forgotten them, help me to trust that you remember me.” “Holy Spirit who drove Jesus to be tempted in the wilderness, I’m out of control and ask you to take the wheel and drive me, too.” “Divine One, who came to Moses in the burning bush, my life is pretty dark, and I need you to burn a little brighter for me, so I can hang on.” “Good Shepherd, I’m a stupid sheep who’s gotten lost. Please find me.”

See how it works?  You have resources for prayer and an utterly human brain with all its limitations. But God delights in hearing you. If neither heights nor depths, nor principalities, nor angels can separate you from God’s love in Christ Jesus, then your human language is a mighty small hurdle for God. However you speak, it’s enough. Give it a go. Just connect. Amen. And A-women.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

The Office of Preaching and the Church Today


This is a link to the lecture I presented to the Augustana District of Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ (LCMC) at its annual convention on May 5, 2018, in Hutchinson, Minnesota. It follows up on LCMC's discussion of qualifications for ministry at its gathering last fall.

Click on this link

Saturday, April 7, 2018

A Beloved Aunt, a Grave, and the Two-Lazy-J Ranch,

My Uncle Arlen Rounds asked me to speak at my dear Aunt Ida Mae's funeral today. 

This afternoon Aunt Ida will take one last trip in this world, to Red Owl of all the little ignominious places in this big wide world. There she'll be laid down near my grandpa Buster and grandma Luberta in a fenced off section of West River pasture land on a day as wintery cold as the one twenty-odd years ago when we committed Grandpa to the earth — ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Come spring (yes, that's almost a prayer right now), come spring the snow will be a dim memory, and you'll be able to cast your eyes west and see thunderheads growing over the Hills to stretch over the vast blue sky. And around that fenced-in plot, for as far as you can see the yellow and white clover, the alfalfa, and the purple coneflowers will delight with color and wafting sweetness.

It's fitting for Aunt Ida to come full circle and await the resurrection in the land of central Meade County that so shaped her, as it did to so many of us. When you drive north and a little west of Red Owl, past Cammack's place and the intersection with the Stoneville school and what was the store and post office, you'll head around the curve at Stoneville Hill, and finally see the specific little ranch that shaped Ida, the 2-Lazy J Ranch nestled down on a creek bed. A ranch house that began as a pioneer dugout in the side of a hill. The garage. A couple granaries. The cabin, bum lamb shed, outhouse, barn. And north of all the buildings, the prairie dog mounds and bone pile.

In my college office in Iowa, up on the top shelf of too many books, I have a calf skull that came from that boneyard. Every time I glance its way, it nearly nods back, as if to say, "You, old man, come from the dirt and manure of the Jones ranch. You come from the warm morning stove in the ranch house. You come from summers baling hay and winters breaking ice in cattle troughs. Your epigenetic processes are shaped by opening gates so Uncle Bobby can drive the pickup through and by the struggle to get that blamed thing closed again. Your intestinal biome is fed by home canning and milk straight from an actual cow. Your sleep patterns were established up those steep steps in an antiques bed with a chamber pot under it at the ready. You may think you're at home in the world, but you won't be until you drive up that lane, get out of your car, and stand there just above the rusting cans and junk of the trash dump, next to the sandstone face Grandpa carved, creek in front of you and windbreak behind. You will breath in air as it should be and settle in to who you really are." I think you all need your own office skull to remind you of these things.

None of us ever understands how deeply we're shaped by place. When you take in the ranch you can see what made Aunt Ida. Joneses have always had to ride low to the ground. Ranch life ain't easy. So Aunt Ida became practical and resilient, happy with small pleasures. You don't survive for long in ranch country without the bonds created with those around you, like the Lees, the Vigs, the Orths, Youngs, and more from Red Owl to Fairpoint and Union Center to Opal. Ida knew the importance of those bonds of family and friendship. She carried it out everywhere she lived, in her college days at BH, in Custer, Ogden, Elko, Sitka, and Laramie. You could see her deep dependence on and joy in others in her connections in Does and Eastern Star and her love of the folks at that little congregation in Medicine Bow.

Last night as so many of us gathered under Dee's gracious roof, I recognized these same grounded, landed, and practical qualities of character around the room. Uncle Bobby's doesn't have much strength for story-telling, and since my dad died, I've depended on Ida Mae's storehouse of prairie family lore. This is, perhaps the one of the last times we'll gather all of us as the product of that land. But Aunt Ida will have been one of the homely channels that made us these people.

There's another cemetery up Boulder Canyon on a hill above Deadwood, and there's another gravestone marked with the name Ida. She was my Aunt Ida's grandmother, grandpa's mother Ida Cale. This is our other family plot, for baby Jimmy is buried there, too. Today we stand with arms stretched from plot to plot Ida to Ida. Thankful, yes. Sorrowful, certainly. But for me I'm mostly eager to see once again my beloved aunt. She, one of the last who had known me my whole life. Aunt Ida with the ready grin. Ida with Buster's twinkly eye. Ida who knew my parents' feet of clay and showed me how to loved them. Ida on whom the shadow of Grandma's own darkness and that of a passel of alcoholic blue-talking uncles sometimes descended. Ida of the embroidery, the bookkeeping, the following of a tall Forest Service man with eyes twinklier than her dad's, of the scrolling handwriting. Ida of the strong love for her children and now grandchildren, who could only speak that love with a squeeze of a hand, even when she couldn't move the fingers that once played Great Grandma Mamie's Price & Teeple upright piano in the living room at the ranch.

Oh, we've been loved by her. We give her back, hardly wanting to release our grip. Thank God we can do it by placing her back in the bosom of that land that, even now, holds us all and waits to unfold what has belonged to it all along. Goodbye, Aunt Ida Mae. We'll see you on the Youngest Day, when this good gumbo earth bears its final fruit. 

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Gine's flamingo feather

It's been a couple weeks now since my sister Gine's funeral. I hadn't wanted to speak at it, but my brother-in-law Joe demanded it. This is what I came up with in our hotel room that morning.

In my sister Gine and Joe's magnificent teal and turquoise bathroom, there's a picture frame hanging on the wall. What it contains she found on a trip to visit Mary and me and has deep meaning for me.

Gine had twisted Joe's arm enough that he consented to take time away from his other marriage to RCS and drive the 12 hours across the state through Sioux Falls, where months later she would be gifted with a competent, listening oncologist, an incomparable nurse navigator, and other staff who regarded her as a complete person worthy of their best efforts.

But that would be months away. On this trip they drove past the signs for Avera Health and continued down toward Omaha on I-29 and east halfway across Iowa. They came for our annual Palm Sunday shrimp boil: andouille sausages, onions, shrimp, and corn on the cob boiled together and dumped in the middle of the table. Around that table were our pastor and his wife, along with their three little girls, still another a couple recovering from addiction and expecting a baby, and, by phone, my brother Troy. Our sister Lynne arrived from Gettysburg a day later. Afterward we engaged in a little Cards Against Humanity and delighted in the laughter that arose at a pastor's wife being forced to say those things.

You'd think that would have been the utter highlight of the trip. But there's no photo of of us all enjoying ourselves in that frame a few blocks west of here in their house. It contains no family pic or vacation shot but instead holds something just as precious to my sister: one solitary sherbet orange and pink flamingo feather.

She picked up that feather from the ground at the Blank Park Zoo in Des Moines that week as she and Joe played tourist at places we never think of visiting: the botanical center (think Gine's greenhouse but way bigger), Zombie Burger + Drink Lab, the state Capitol, and Blank Park Zoo. The flamingo feather lay on the ground and her sharp eye spotted it, something she regarded as a singular thing of beauty and a rare find for a kid from happily unrefined West River country. 

That she took a feather that probably had lain there next to a gob of decidedly non-pink flamingo poop and back at home turned it into an object of art and pride and joy, and that she placed it in a frame to be honored and valued says something profound about Gine.

There were easily any number of times in her life where you could have found her down low, waiting and hoping to be picked up, revered, valued. When it didn't happen she built a space around herself with small objects of beauty or created and crafted the beauty herself. The trinkets and tchotchkes invariably connected to places she felt happy or to people who had noticed the feather she was. The crafted cards were sent to those same people.

My sister Gine loved deeply, starting with that Christmas Eve baby in Manhattan, Kansas, with such an unwieldy name: Brandon Augustus Jones. She was central operator on the line, staying connected with us siblings, Troy, Lynne and me. When her dogs Kramer and Suie died her, grief was a great as the unconditional acceptance she got from them. And when our Papa died just over a year ago, she was inconsolable. Everything around her was something that promised her love, joy, and value.

And then along came my brother-in-law Joe. He was the third of those things, and I didn't expect much out of such a misogynistic, mullet-wearing Wisconsinite. But what I'm so grateful to come to know is that Joe Mack is the most righteous upstanding husband I'd ever want for her, a man who himself spots flamingo feathers, picks them up, and places them in a frame of honor. My sister's last years with Joe were years of being valued, of Joe walking in the door and catching his breath because of the beautiful woman he saw waiting for him.

They made quite a pair of feather finders. I thank you Joe for these last months when Gine couldn't bear to look in the mirror because of the ravages of this vile disease but could take your loving gaze. Thank you for putting her in a place of honor in your heart.

And Brandon, the recipient of 36 years of love, you, too, hold a delicate feather in your palm, for she gave herself to you and lived as best she could to take you into the full, gracious, thoughtful manhood you now present to the world. You know there were lots of opportunities it could have gone crap-wise. If it had, she would have loved you even then.

We're sure going to miss her laughter, so often aimed at herself, her birthday cards, her garden, her secret place in the back yard, her piles of rock treasures found in the Hills, her retirement job as number one Rapid City Rush fan. Our dear daughter, mother, sister, aunt, cousin, friend, and quirky loyal companion. To day, hold your hand up, and imagine a flamingo feather in your palm. Our Gine. Regine. Gina. Regina. Gine Dean. And now blow gently and let her float away into the utter grace and acceptance where God collects such precious things.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

My first best friend


My sister Regine died last night. Gine. Ginchen. Gina. Gina Dean. She was my first best friend. My playmate. My boon companion. My teacher. The lens through which I came to see the world.

She came into the world sixty years ago in uneasy circumstances, the daughter of an unwed refugee mother, but loved deeply by my mom, who provided all she could. For months she lived in an orphanage. When my dad came into the picture, a GI stationed in Germany and falling for this German waitress, he adopted her. Gine celebrated that day every year as the day of being wanted.

The only others who've known me my entire life are a dwindling number, all well into their eighties. For my first seven years, until a preemie brother arrived, and for another decade beyond, my life and Gine's were inextricably bound. The thick of it we gobbled eagerly and with joy. And the thin of bitter cumbersome family insecurity we swallowed down, each knowing the other stood alongside.



Much of those hardest times is stuck in some safe irretrievable quarter of my brain that I'm loath to access. But not Gine, who's lodged in my heart. It's not a place I could use to shield her from the darkest quiddities of her life — and certainly not from those fucking lung cancer cells or finally from from death stepping in to say, "Now." But as she grew weaker and smaller and her breaths became shallower, my heart expanded to see my nephew Brandon step up as caregiver and her husband Joe fight relentlessly for her and unexpectedly become my friend.

My faith starts with the color plates in my mom's German Bible before I could read. But Gine comes next and had even greater influence. She went to kindergarten at our church where they learned and sang hymns rather than kid's ditties like "London Bridge." It was a trickle-down hymnological economy that actually worked. I gained the language of faith from her. Like a tow-headed Paul who handed on what had first been given her. "My faith looks up to thee, thou lamb of Calvary, savior deevine." "Beau-tee-ful savior, king of creation." "Thine is the glory, ris'n conqu'ring son. Endless is the victory thou or death hast won." This was the playlist in the way-back of our light blue 1963 Ford Fairlane station wagon as we drove to our grandparent's ranch for Easter or home with two sides of beef after butchering in November. We sang the words that now have become my stock in trade, my syllabi, my lifeblood.


When I was six or so, Gine and I were running through the sprinkler of a blue-skied summer morning alongside our eight-wide trailer house. When she said we should play school under the Chinese elm in the corner of the yard, I demurred. I knew who got to be teacher, and it wasn't me. So I headed in for a glass of Kool-Aid. Coming around the front of the trailer, I grabbed the hitch, and a jolt of electricity discovered my body was the shortest way into the ground. Gripped by literal power greater the myself, I couldn't free myself. All my understanding and efforts, my wits and wrenching were useless. My voice was so weak Gine couldn't hear me yelling. But she came nonetheless. She sauntered over in her leather sandals, safe from the electrical demon. She casually grabbed my arm and pulled me free from death's grip. And she was singing. "I know that my redeemer lives."

Two weekends ago Mary and I heard our son Sam's professional choir perform Handel's Messiah with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. When we finally got to the soprano aria with that same text, "I know that my redeemer liveth," I was in tears. I recognized again the enormity of what Gine had done. Oh, she would never say it was anything at all. But I'm alive today because of her. And it's a life steeped in hope and resurrection.

I know how our Lord works. I know that my sister liveth. My Beloved Ginchen, co-traveler through pine forests and Dakota prairies, enchanted by the delicate and beautiful, creator of her own beauty, lover of snow. She and I are perishable indeed. Yet the perishable will put on the imperishable. And the dead will be raised. In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye. I know twinkling, for those were her eyes.