Our Presence Counts.
I thought about my Grandpa Jim this morning. I always do when I cut firewood.
Jim was an old-world man. He grew up in Weston, Missouri, living on a tobacco farm. I never got to know much about Jim's family, mostly because he was a step-grandpa, and sometimes step-family lives a little out on the edge. But he shared many stories about his childhood and how things were "back in the day ." He cut tobacco as soon as he was strong enough to swing the knife. He wasn't paid or given a truck or college education. Like most farm kids, he was part of the lifestyle of keeping things going. I'll never forget him talking about playing high-school baseball and how the baseball players were the ones who mowed the ball field. It was part of earning one's keep. Going off to war during WWII, Jim was a cook on a troop transport in the Navy. I learned this standing in the kitchen, cutting potatoes for beans and ham soup. He described mountains of potatoes in ship holds with such clarity it feels like a memory of my own. Jim talked about how his dad bought a "gasoline mule" (a tractor) because all three boys were off to war. He had spent his childhood behind a mule team, hustling a plow, cultivator, or tobacco wagon. I was standing in the realm of fading history.
Another memory about my grandpa Jim was all our time spent around machines. He worked on small engines in his garage, making extra money repairing lawnmowers, chainsaws, and string trimmers. He had a shop full of devices that sharpened hand saws, chain saws, and circular saw blades. If grandpa Jim handed you a kitchen knife he had sharpened, caution was vital.
The thing I inherited the most from Jim was cutting firewood for heat. I spent a lot of time cutting trees with my Grandpa Jim. I bought my first wood-burning stove when I was twenty-three, and I've been falling, cutting, and splitting wood since. Jim and I would cut trees on his property for almost any reason. If a tree stood dead, we'd cut it down. Too close to the garden? Timber! Just felt like getting out in the snow and firing up a saw? We'd drop a tree.
One time when he had a brand new truck, he told me to quit carrying the firewood to the truck and setting it in. Just toss it in, he said, and with that, pitched a log onto the side of the truck to get the first dent out of the way. A couple of winters later, I tossed firewood into the back of the truck with such abandon that I threw a log right through the back window of the cab. I felt stupid and apologized, but he walked over and pulled a brand-new rear window from behind a shelf when we returned to the shop. He explained that I wasn't the first to throw a log through the back window while we replaced the one I had just broken. Steady, quiet, and without judgment.
Like some of you, now that I'm nearly sixty years old and watching my kids and nephews surfing the net, it's easy to tell myself I don't have anything to offer. Young generations can look up anything on YouTube and learn from others who are better at it than we are. But while education may be available on a smartphone, our presence isn't. Our presence counts. Certain magic occurs when one generation passes its experience on to the next. Our voices, our company, and the act of passing tools, potatoes, canning jars, sewing needles, and other earthly belongings from one hand to the next validates the thread of life. Even if we do so, watching a smartphone's tiny screen together, sharing space, and accomplishing an important task builds community and confidence.
My wife reminds me of this sometimes when my grown sons call and ask for help, and I don't understand why when I know they can look it up and get better information on the world wide web. She reminds me that they don't want the data; they want my presence, assurance, and experience. And while we toil away on a project interesting to them, and I chatter about the days when carburetors were king, encyclopedias held vast knowledge, and no one wore bike helmets, the past feels quaint, and I know our time together will never be forgotten. Just ask Granpa Jim.