I’m sitting in my truck with the heat on. It’s nearly ten o’clock in the morning and the frost is still laying hard in the shady spots around the farm. Max is laying on his bed in the back floorboard with that look on his face.
“What are we doing just sitting here? Why aren’t we moving?” I may not be reading him right, but the way he shifts his eyes around, he always looks like he’s got more questions than answers.
I drove up to the top of the hill where the cell signal is better because I’m about to go live on an interview with Matt Jolly at Georgia Radio. A friend of a friend gave Matt a copy of my book. He took a liking to it and called me last week to ask if I would be willing to come on his show as a guest.
I still have a few minutes before he calls. I’m worried about how this will go. Not really fretting over it but thinking about how many times I will say “uh” each time I start a sentence and how often I’ll twang my vowels.
“Morning Paul. Tell us about your new book.” His voice will sound like the perfect baritone with clear and perfect annunciation.
He waits. Dead space. Dead space on radio is like death. “Uhhh. I, uhhh. I thank this book is purdy special to me. Uhh. I did me some writt’n and a few of my friends says to me that I oughta put my stories in a book. So, I did.”
When I was in college and I thought God was calling me to be preacher, I took a class called homiletics. This is where young boys without a clue stand up in front of a classroom full of peers to practice their preaching. The professor sits and makes copious notes about each presentation. Each boy preaches a five-minute sermon so he can be evaluated; so, he can be critiqued about all of his shortcomings.
This is where I learned that my pronunciation of the English language was somewhat tainted by my southern upbringing. I had a complete repertoire of unapproved conjunctions and colorful metaphors in my vocabulary, some of which might not have been appropriate for the pulpit. My professor reminded me that “David slew Goliath, he did not beat the snot out of him.”
Though I have worked at cleaning up my twang over the years, the idea of being on the radio still intimidates me a little. I have no idea what he’s going to ask. I have no idea what I’m going to say. This is about as cold turkey as it gets.
Matt is a very talented radio guy. This is not his first rodeo. He guides me through the interview with well-crafted questions, designed to draw me into the conversation. We talk about tree farming for a bit. Light chit-chat. We talk about the book. He asks specific questions about some of the stories. I start most every sentence with “uh” just like I was afraid I would do. But all in all, I thought my 25 minutes of radio went okay.
He asked me one question that really got me to thinking. “Is there any one theme that you keep going back to that defines your stories best?”
“Uhh. Let me see? Well, uhh.”
I had never thought about a particular theme. Each story is a little bit different. There’s no real connection from one story to the next. The only thing I could think of was Mom and Dad.
I have written a lot about them. I guess mostly because they define who I am more than about any other influence in my life. I have written about them because it’s one of the ways my kids can get to know them better and the only way my grandkids can get to know them at all.
There was the fire in 1953. One of the first stories I ever wrote about. It was the one story my Dad told so many times that it got stuck in my head. It became to me a compass guiding me through some of the worst moments of my life. It helped me learn what it means to forgive myself for a thousand mistakes. It taught me to see God’s hand in the middle of tragedy. To find the good in life when things seem to fall apart.
I don’t know if you had the kind of parents I did, or not. Maybe you had an uncle. Maybe a teacher. It could have been a coach or a neighbor. But I’m pretty sure you had someone in life that taught you the things of real value that have stuck with you over the years. The things we all keep going back to when we find ourselves reaching for advice, looking for guidance, wishing we could sit for a spell and run something past them.
I wrote about the time my mama lost her sister, Hazel. She was shot and killed by her husband. Just 26 years old. Mama carried that loss and that pain with her for her entire life and never let that darken her outlook on life. I didn’t know it then, but I know now that her resolve has given me courage for my own loss. That kind of strength is not something you forget.
I know we tend to romanticize the past. It’s always easy to think that what used to be is better than what is. We are a little fearful for what our children and grandchildren will face. I think every generation, since Adam and Eve lost their boy at the hands of his brother, has worried about what the future might hold.
So, here’s what I see. Whatever you think of your parents or teachers or coaches; the people you look up to, you are that person now to someone. Someone out there is building their life and making their decisions based on you and your life. You are the one they learn from. You are the one they look up to for guidance about how they are going to face whatever is ahead of them.
You might be a thirty something year-old parent or aunt or coach. Or you might be the guy burning the last little bit of the candle at the end of your life. But you have a responsibility to honor the ones who have gone before you and who lived well. Who finished well. Who showed you how to face life and carry on with it.
So, yeah, there is a theme in my stories. I hope it comes through. I’m trying to find a way to tell folks like you that life is worth living no matter the troubles you face. There is good in every situation. There is hope in every life. You and I just have to show those around us where to find it.
Thanks, Matt, for having me on the show. Thanks to all of you for letting me be a small part of your life.