Wednesday, May 11, 2011

My Grandfather, The Pastor?

SBC and MRC, c. 1955

My great-grandfather (the one in the photo with me) started the family business, S.B. Craig & Co., just after the turn of the century.  The letterhead (in black, on plain white paper tablets) said something like "Hay Grain Coal Feed Water Fertilizer."  In the early years, so my grandfather said, his father took on any kind of work available.  At one point, he had a contract for the construction of county roads. One of my grandfather's first jobs as a very young man was to bail the workmen out of jail on Monday mornings after their Saturday night carousing in local bars.

S.B. died when I was small;  he walked down the street to "the office" every day into his eighties, until he finally came home for lunch one afternoon, sat down, and died. The business as I knew it as a child occupied a two-story stone building near the center of town next to the railroad tracks, with a scale in the back for weighing the deliveries of grain trucked in from a several-county area.  Roll-top oak desks, a pot-bellied stove, my grandfather and great-uncle, my father and uncle, their friendly secretary, and other men wandering in and out in overalls and rough jackets ~ that was about it.  It felt comfortable and homey to me, much moreso than the place on the outskirts of town to which they moved when I was about twelve, with its small cinderblock office building, tall silos, and massive weighing station.

The business as I knew it as an older child wasn't located in either of the "offices," however.  It was located in my grandfather's heart and mind, and in his relationships with his customers. 

When I was in maybe fourth through sixth grade, he used to take me "calling" on those long summer afternoons that were otherwise filled mostly with lying in the grass and looking at the sky.  I would hop into his Ford and we would drive further out into the country, stopping at the houses of his customers for a glass of lemonade, a piece of cake, and a long conversation.  Sometimes about crops and weather, but more often about families and weddings and deaths and community events.  

At some point, Gramps acquired a Polaroid camera, and at each visit he would head out to the fields to snap a few pictures of the farmer and his sons, usually as they stood proudly against the growing corn of mid-July or in the midst of a soybean field turning yellow-gold under the September sunshine.  He'd leave a couple of photographs and drop off a calendar, and off we'd go.

My brother worked in the business for several years in his twenties, and told me that when he first went out with Gramps to "take some orders," he came back scratching his head.  "I just didn't see any business happening," he said to one of the other men. "He didn't even talk about what was coming up, let alone write any contracts."  "Oh, your grandfather has his own ways," was the response.  "Give it some time."

And sure enough, said my brother, within a couple of weeks a man would wander in and say laconically, "I stopped by to talk about my corn."  Or perhaps several few weeks after that, another man would simply arrive with a truck full of beans and lean out the window to ask, "How much today?"

My grandfather was not one for any outward expression of personal faith.   He once mentioned to me that a certain Methodist bishop a couple of generations back in my grandmother's family was "surely the most tedious preacher I have ever encountered."  And on another occasion he reminded me that pastors were "good for marryin' and buryin' " and seemed disinclined to concede more.  

As with all of us, however, that story is a good deal more complex, and perhaps I'll tell it sometime.  Suffice it to say that among his best friends in the second half of his life were the Catholic sisters two counties over, and that one of them let out a peal of delighted laughter when I told her of my seminary plans.  "Your grandfather would be the first to encourage you, if that's what you want," she said.

My grandfather is the man from whom I learned to tell stories, and to listen to them.  I'm thinking that, surprised as he might be to hear it, he might have been the real pastor in the family.  I wish, more than almost anything, that he were here to sit on my porch with a lemonade in hand, to share those stories and to listen to mine.


  1. Your grandfather sounds like a fantastic man. Look for a glimmer just at the edge of your sight or over in a corner. He's there.

  2. Oh my. This is just breathtaking, Robin.

  3. I was here before... Didn't comment then. Needed to let this sink in a little.

    I really like this post, Robin. It's a tad different from your usual, and...well, I just like it.

  4. Thanks, Robin - your story pulled me out of this "business survival" mode I have been in and back to what I learned from him. His ability to listen and draw people out of their shells and into his world of optimism and enthusiasm made him so special to us all.

  5. It's been forever sense I really thought about Granddad, the "offices", family any of Ohio/childhood. I had forgotten so much. So lost in my world that the past had been pushed so far back that they felt like memories of someone else. Thank you for bring them back as mine. I had almost forgotten how special he really was and how much I loved him.

  6. David and Judy, it's so nice to have you both visit!