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Ancestors

by davesandel on July 21st, 2020

Tuesday, July 21, 2020                       (today’s lectionary)

Ancestors

I had two books to mail at media rate, so my brother John took me to the Lincoln post office.

“Watch yourself, going up those steps,” he said. I looked at him. Why?

Inside Lynda, wearing her mask, was quick with repetitive cautions about firearms and nuclear weapons in the boxes. I ticked the NO boxes and paid my $6.13.

Down the stairs I went. Carefully.

“Grandpa had three heart attacks on those steps,” John said. I took a deep breath and thanked my lucky stars I’d got back to the car.

“They put up an extra railing after the third one.” John was laughing, but I think it must have been true. And I have to admit the extra railing was helpful to me. My own Grandpa Sandel. Affecting the local architecture for generations to come.

Threads of Sandel history stream through Lincoln and Logan County. Lately I’ve been reading They Came Like Swallows by William Maxwell. For decades he was the renowned fiction editor of The New Yorker, but Maxwell was born in Lincoln and never totally left. Most of his novels and short stories cover and re-cover his family life here. Swallows is his account of the 1918 Spanish flu and the devastation it wrought upon his personal family.

As Faulkner does in As I Lay Dying, Maxwell tells the story from the perspectives of several family members, two young boys and their dad. But the broader place and all its people capture Maxwell as his family merges with them. He wrote the last chapter of Swallows “with wonder clinging to him” and titled it, “Upon a Compass Point.”

Shepherd your people with your staff,

We are the  flock of your inheritance

And dwell apart, we live

In the midst of a land of plenty

You feed us now as in the days of old

And You show us wonderful signs.

In his book Ancestors Mr. Maxwell wrote, “I wonder that so small a place as Lincoln, Illinois could hold so much character.” My grandpa certainly contributed his. He bought twelve farms and sold all but one. Born in 1897 he farmed through the Industrial Revolution, so to speak, finally saying farewell to the horses he loved and buying a tractor. (In this 1917 picture of the four Sandel siblings, Grandpa (William) is on the right. His kid brother Bud – third from right – was always a favorite of mine, because Uncle Bud loved to fish and talk about it. He talked about everything, and laughed all the time. He smoked a pipe, which smelled wonderful. Florence and Walter made up the team.)

Grandpa Bill and Grandma Dora also had four kids, two boys and two girls. The boys farmed and the girls became nurses. Grandma played the piano by ear and named her children Roland, Merlin, Vera and Eugenia. Not the biblical names you might expect! I’m not sure Grandma was cut out to be a farmer’s wife.

The family didn’t often go to town, but on a very special day every three years, Grandpa traded for a new car. They lived in New Holland, Mt. Pulaski, Beason, and Lincoln. The family settled on the one farm Grandpa kept, on Rte. 10, two miles west of Lincoln Christian College. When Grandma died in 1971, Grandpa had a house built in Lincoln while my parents added on to the “home place” and moved there in 1976.

Grandpa was the oldest son in 1897, my dad Roland (he’s the baby on Grandpa’s left knee in the picture) was the oldest son in 1922, and I was oldest too, in 1949. His presence carried great weight in my life, even if his affectionate knuckle rubs in my short hair set me off a bit. No doubt much was expected of each of us.I left to go my own way, but now I feel a little … incomplete … like something remains unfinished, when I return to Lincoln.

My brother John has lived a good life there. Yesterday we drove to the ASCS farm office from the post office. The parking lot was nearly empty because of COVID restrictions, but John and the only other person there were friends. John knows everybody, actually. When I got some batteries for Mom’s watch, the technician joked about John. When we go out to eat, someone says hello. Just as Grandpa and Dad contributed their character to the country, John contributes every day.

I think each generation of every family is responsible for finding ways to improve things. What of our own familial sins, mostly of anger and greed? Along with the classic American sins of going our own way, taking little time for prayer, even disdaining divine guidance.

God, you remove our guilt

You pardon the sin for the remnants of your inheritance

You delight in clemency, Lord

And cast into the depths of the sea

All our sins.

In the instance of the ongoing Sandel family, I know God has moved us toward himself, and we often find ourselves on our knees. Dad learned from many others how to pray. He turned away from selfishness more times than I can count. For many years he spent Saturday morning with other farmers, singing and praying and reading the Bible. Often I went with him, seeking God in my own peripatetic way. Mary Kay follows her Lutheran roots to church every Sunday. Her husband is a retired Episcopal rector. John and his family have been mainstays in local churches for decades.

You will show faithfulness to us

And grace to our children

As you have sworn to our fathers from days of old.

So these days it is a good and pleasant thing to visit the town where I was born, especially when I can spend time with Mary Kay and John. Mom is isolated as she recovers, at age 98, from hip surgery, but Mary Kay spends hours and hours helping her, mostly from a distance. And Mary Kay made it possible for all of us to see her yesterday, to have a bit of lunch with Mom outside her home as she sat in the car, and to feel together the family heritage flowing through our veins.

You have favored us in our land, Lord

Now restore us, O God

You have not prolonged your anger to all generations

But instead you give us life

After Mary Kay took Mom back to St. Clara’s Manor, the three of us had lunch at Imo’s. The food came while we were in the midst of conversation. John stopped us, like Dad used to do, and asked gently for a table prayer. “Come Lord Jesus, be our guest.” Our own prayer was casual, not liturgical, but no matter. We are learning, however slowly, to turn toward God and wait for wisdom, wait for guidance, rather than disdaining it.

Whoever loves me will keep my word

We will come to you, Lord

Alleluia.

Jesus insists that we value the spiritual above our natural bloodline.

Whoever does the will of my heavenly Father

Is my brother and sister and mother.

Yes.

Yesterday in Lincoln we felt those streams come together, and we were happy.

(Micah 7, Psalm 85, John 14, Matthew 12)

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2 Comments
  1. Susan Jakoby permalink

    This did my heart good. I think it is a great blessing to have a type of faith with roots in people and place. I’m filled up with gratitude and prayer for your family and mine. You have unlocked the grace I need to call my mother-in-law today. Thank you, as always.

  2. John permalink

    I don’t think I’ve ever seen grandpas brothers and sisters picture before. The smiles on Uncle Bud and Uncle ED’s faces brought back memories. I remember when either Grandpa or Grandma died, Uncle Ed came to the funeral, just before it started and his smile and happy demeanor, just lit up the room. One of my precious memories.

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