Saturday, January 25, 2014

Rest In Peace, Dear Papa, Rev. Wilbur Hardin

When I was a young child, my Papa loomed large in my life.

His deep voice, tinged with an edge of raspy gravel, would boom from the pulpit, where he preached every Sunday at the little Methodist churches where he was the pastor.  When his sermon involved consequences for bad acts, the entire congregation would tremble under the weight of it, but he would always bring things back to making better choices, doing better works, redeeming yourself by being the person you ought to be in the end.

Papa was a believer in living your faith by doing good in the world, not just mouthing the words as a way to look good to others.  He tried to live that example for his congregations every single day, with everything he and my Mama did together to make their community a better place.

He also stood out as an example of discipline and hard work ethic as I watched him work at his job as a steel mill pattern maker, cutting and shaping beautiful tools and things from the basest of materials, hour after hour.  Then, he would come home, exhausted, say grace, eat some dinner, chat with the family a bit, and then steal away to his study to craft his sermons into the wee hours.

The summer that I was three, my mom went back to school to get her masters' degree and my dad was working a really irregular shift at the plant where he worked, so I was lucky enough to spend it with my Mama and Papa.   There was always time for a story for me -- Papa passed along his love of books to me, and it has been a gift that has followed me always.

Mama came up with reasons for us to have to bake cookies every day -- usually half the batch went out to some parishioner in the community that needed a hand -- and I got to help with the mixer and then got to lick the bowl.  It was heaven.   She and Papa would talk about who needed help the most, a brightened day or a meal, and then he would go off to work while we set about whatever needed to get going in the kitchen, and then when he got home we would go out for delivery.

This was all done quietly and without a need for fanfare or public recognition, but simply because it was the right thing to do to help someone else in need.  It was such a wonderful example to see as a child. 

Papa taught me all sorts of useful things, too:  like scratching their dog's belly just right (Lance was a beautiful scottie dog who loved a good belly scratch); how to time my jokes for when people weren't quite expecting them, especially if I needed to lighten the mood in the room; and how to soften your edge when you are having a tough day, so that you aren't taking it out on the people you love, and to channel that energy into helping someone else.  Papa did not have a lot of patience for fools or people who continually made bad decisions, and I remember him telling me that you needed to take care with how you lived your life every single day, that every decision about what you did made you who you were -- inside you, outside to others, and in the sight of the Lord -- and that taking care to make the right decision in the first place was always the best way to go.

My Papa was the living embodiment of the Golden Rule - "do unto others as you would have them do unto you" - it was a piece of scripture that he quoted often enough to me as a child that when I read it now, I still hear it in his voice.

But he didn't just say it.

He and my Mama lived it together, helping anyone and everyone who had a need.  Whenever they found someone that could use a hand, they found a way to reach out.  If they found someone who was down or hungry, they found a way to lift them up, even with what little they had along the way.  Preachers don't get paid enormous salaries, but they make up for it with the size of their hearts, and my Papa and Mama had enormous hearts.

I am so lucky, because my grandparents were truly the best people I have ever known.  My Mama and Papa (my dad's parents) and my Granny (my mom's parent) were all incredible people who worked hard, loved fiercely and without hesitation, protected their family and taught us all by being the best example possible how to be a truly decent and loving person, how to overcome adversity with grace, and how to reach out and lift up others because it is always, always the better choice to be decent and caring and kind.

My Granny's was a tragic love story that really ought to be a book because it is so tumultuous, but my Mama and Papa were a love match for the ages, with a depth and constancy that was an inspiration -- they cared for each other in little ways and big ones, always, right up to the end.

They met when they were young.  Papa once told me that he fell in love with my Mama almost on sight, that she was the prettiest little thing he had ever seen.  Mama told me that she liked Papa, but was worried about his considerable ornery streak -- but he somehow coaxed her around with his constancy and potential.  They went together in everything, his stint in the Army air corps during WWII, and then his call to the ministry was all something they did together as a whole unit.  Once they got married, it was a long and faithful union of more than 70 years, and along the way they had a family that loves them so deeply that the ache of their losses cuts almost to the bone.

We lost Mama last year and Papa just yesterday, almost a year to the day later.  It has been a tough year for him, as he had become increasingly frail and spent way too much time going in and out of the hospital.  He had an inner strength that carried him through the worst of everything and a faith that it would be alright in the end, but we all knew after losing Mama, that he was really biding time until he could be with his Jeannie once more.  

Papa had a quick smile when he found something funny, and a knack for playing a practical joke that you often wouldn't see coming from someone who was a country preacher.  He loved to laugh, and it would ring out after a joke hit him just the right way.  If you got him together with my Uncle Dick (his brother and partner in ornery crime when they were younger), the laughter would fly fast and furious, as the stories would pour out of them both regarding what trouble they had gotten into as young boys.

When I was little, I loved to just sit and listen, soaking all of this in as I tried to piece together the scamp that my Papa had been in his youth and his more steadied demeanor later in life.  The twinkle in his eye when he laughed always gave that ornery streak away. 

He will be missed.  But knowing that he has gone to be with my Mama -- to find his heart once more -- is such a comfort.  Love you, Papa.

(Photo by Christy Hardin Smith.)


Peggy said...

Sincere condolences, Christy. May your memories of your dear Papa be a blessing.

Christy Hardin Smith said...

Thanks, Peggy. The funeral service was lovely. Every single member of the church choir showed up to sing for his service, coming out in a bitter cold to pay their respects with a perfect song choice. (They performed Well Done, My Good And Faithful Servant by Cindy Berry. Just a beautiful choral piece. This is not the church choir, but it is another choir singing the song: It was so perfect.