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  • shawnmariespry

Though Flesh and Heart Fail

Poetry in Motion

Poppa celebrating his second-to-last birthday with his grandchildren ~ Waterford, Michigan, February 10, 2008

Tomorrow is my father's birthday. He would have been 76. I have shared much about his loving influence in my life. A couple weeks ago, my mom, sister, children, niece and nephews shared beautiful memories and thoughts about him.

He was not perfect, but because his faith was in the Lord, he was blameless.

A Shellnut family photo ~ c. 1973

Besides general childhood tomfoolery occasionally resulting in the threat of getting "the belt", I have two distinct memories of my father being very cross with me. One was not my fault, the other I was clearly in the wrong.

We were sitting at the end of the northbound exit ramp at I-75 and M-15 in Clarkston, Michigan. I was a young teen, sitting next to him in the passenger seat of some big ole' used car we owned. He was turning right. There was a car in front of us that started to go then stopped. In the split second that car started to go, my dad quickly looked left to be sure he also had enough time to go, then he gassed it--right into the back fender of the car in front of us. I immediately got yelled at for not telling him to stop.

Of course, I now know his anger was misplaced and as a parent I've made the same mistake, reacting negatively to my children in situations that were beyond their control. Of course I forgave him.

The next memory involves Pizza Hut and toppings. This time I was definitely at fault. I was a little older, probably 15. My dad had taken my brother, sister and me out for pizza. There was a strong disagreement between us kids as to which items we wanted on the pie. I was NOT budging. Strong-willed is an understatement. My dad--whom I had NEVER heard swear--looked me straight in the eye and said loud and clear in this very public place:

"You're so damn selfish!"

OH boy. I deserved every syllable. I was so ashamed. I now figure that if my dad didn't love me so much, he wouldn't have been so blunt. His good parenting and lifelong example of selflessness made a lasting impression on me. Needless to say, Pizza Hut has never been a preferred venue for dine-in pizza.

Happier pizza days, Dad and Shawn ~ c. 1972
Bennie and Bonnie with their awkward teenagers; this was about the time of the Pizza Hut outing ~ c. 1985

My dad's funeral on January 21, 2011, was packed with family and friends. Many loved ones--his children, best friend, nephews, nieces and pastor--spoke about what Bennie Shellnut meant to them. Though I was in a fog of grief, I do recall all the eulogies were imbued with deep love and respect for my dear father.

One memory in particular makes me laugh. My cousin Deborah shared about how my dad, as he so often would do for anyone who asked, came to her home to fix something. Day or night, subzero temperatures or sick kids, Uncle Bennie was there for her. She recollects:

"We had a dog named Tyler, a real alpha that would mark his presence anytime an unfamiliar male was in our home. Uncle Bennie came over to fix my basement steps and as soon as his back was turned, Tyler peed in Uncle Bennie's toolbox!"

At this point, you need to know, that my dad had a low tolerance for foolishness. It probably helped that Deborah was a single-mom struggling to make ends meet. She continues:

"He was very calm. I laughed a little but that didn’t make him happy. I cleaned the tools and box. Uncle Bennie was a saint. Once, when I was taking my college final exams he came over and watched my sick kids. When I came home he had cleaned my entire kitchen, pulling out the stove to clean behind it!"

When's the last time any of us cleaned behind our own stove, let alone someone else's?! One time, as a young married couple, Scott and I returned from a vacation to find that my dad had scrubbed our bathtub to sparkling. It had never been so white and has never been since. Bennie Shellnut brought the meaning of "elbow grease" to a whole new level.

Besides being a wiz at cleaning, my dad was a talented woodworker, building multiple beds, bookshelves and desks for our family. My sister and I each received a beautiful cedar chest as a Christmas gift in the early 90s. We both treasure our aromatic, heirloom-worthy piece of furniture.

Whether building or cleaning, Bennie was all-business. I recently heard a family story that he nearly sent his sister Erma into a fit of tears while doing a home improvement project for her in the 1970s. She recalls:

"He was putting a tiled ceiling in my kitchen. He got two rows done and it was crooked, so he took it down and started again. He got three rows done the second time and took it down again. The third time he took it down I cried, 'Bennie! It don't have to be perfect.' He replied, 'Oh, yes, it does!'" The fourth time was a charm.

We had déjà vu with my dad and a set of steps to our deck up north. Around 2000, he graciously spent a weekend with us there helping build a deck. Scott says multiple versions of steps were built, ripped out and redone. Bennie was a perfectionist, an expert craftsman with a keen eye.

At his funeral, Deborah's brother Stephen also shared about his Uncle Bennie. Stephen wrote a poem. Stephen is a poet, that's his profession not just a hobby. Deborah read this poem since Stephen was at his home in Argentina. His evocative language transports me to the summer of 1973, 1233 East Pearl Street, Hazel Park, Michigan . . .

The Carpenter, The Fireman

In the dusty-aired attic

lit by a bulb hanging from a cord

and streaks of summer sunlight 

streaming through the slats

of a 12-inch high air vent,

I held one end of a chalk-cord

on the edge of a plywood plank.

Uncle Bennie held the other end of the cord

on his side of the plank,

and when he was sure that both ends

were on the penciled markings

he had measured carefully with the L-square

that hung from his leather tool belt,

he reached over and plucked up the middle of the cord

between his thumb and forefinger

and snapped it

down upon the plywood plank.

I released my end of the cord

and he reeled it back into

its cylindrical case,

which he promptly clipped

onto his belt.

A thin blue line marked

where he would cut

with the power saw

that he picked up from the floor

thick with a carpet of sawdust.

The saw screeched at a decibel

that rattled my back teeth,

and fattened the back of my tongue.

He slowly, excruciatingly slowly, cut the plank in half,

all the while his face set with determination.

I wore bell-bottom jeans,

a tie-dyed T-shirt,

and Chuck Taylor All Star basketball shoes.

My hair was long,

way over my ears

reaching close to my shoulders.

I sported teardrop photo-grays glasses,

and I wore a leather ring

given to me the day before

by my first real girl friend.

Uncle Bennie’s hair was military cut.

He wore a navy blue shirt

with a Hazel Park Fire Department emblem 

embroidered above the left breast pocket,

dark khaki overalls,

and leather workman boots.

Safety goggles covered reading glasses 

poised on the tip of his nose.

It was Saturday,

And I was helping Uncle Bennie

convert the attic

into a bedroom

for his third child,

flaxen-haired Heather,

born six months before.

I pictured the dark attic

as it would be,

a white crib,

a dresser dollied with flowers,

toys strewn about,

all bright with light from large windows.

We started ripping out the old insulation,

and I was thinking about my girlfriend,

how we had kissed the day before

on the last day of school,

near the water fountain

in front of the bathrooms,

the hall monitor’s seat empty,

our hall passes clutched

in our hands.

I was sweating

when I started to itch

under my shirt,

under all of my shirt.

The itch slowly changed

to the sensation of a thousand needles

pricking my torso and arms.

I yelped and jumped to my feet.

The needles-prick sensation

quickly changed to a venomous burning,

like a thousand bees had stung me.

I turned and ran down the attic stairs,

out the back door,

and ripped off my shirt

as I leaped off the back porch

into the back yard

not missing a stride as I headed for the plastic kiddy pool

that was inevitably turned over

and empty.

Screaming, I turned around

to head back toward the house,

toward the bathroom on the ground floor,

the only bathroom in the house that had a shower,

when the hard spray of tepid water hit me

from a garden hose

held by Uncle Bennie.

I spun round and round

under the water as it cooled

and became cold,

extinguishing the fire

on my skin.

I fell to my knees and laughed,

and so did Uncle Bennie,

his reading glasses askew,

hanging precariously

from his left ear.

By Stephen Page

Flaxen-haired Heather with fireman Dad
The three of us--from left, Heather, Shawn & Jeremy--playing in the pool that Stephen had so desperately hoped would be full of water on the day he worked with our father

I remember hearing this poem and feeling deeply moved--my dad, a teacher, taking his nephew alongside as apprentice-for-the-day. He did the same thing with many of my cousins, and that's saying a lot because between 17 aunts and uncles, I have 53 cousins!

After asking Stephen to send me the poem, and actually seeing it, I have discovered something that I think is really cool. The poem contains exactly 108 lines, a multiple of 18. I'm no scholar of Hebrew gematria, but have learned that the numerical value assigned to the letters in this number represents the Hebrew word chai meaning alive or living!

Though my father's body is gone, his soul lives on. Figuratively, his love and and legacy perpetuate in the lives of his family. And, literally, he lives because he prayed just as King David:

"Nevertheless, I am continually with you; you hold my right hand. You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will receive me to glory. Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever."

Bennie believed and lived for Yeshua/Jesus, who said:

“I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?”

Do YOU believe this? Learn more about this GOOD NEWS in the great message HERE. You can listen to it, read it, or both! Life's too short not to come to terms quickly.


"I love what A.W. Tozer said about faith – that the most important thing about any human being is what, deep in his heart, he believes about God." ~ Rabbi Loren Jacobs (from the above-linked message)

"God is real. There is only one God. He is three and yet one. God is good and wise and powerful. He made the universe and everything it in. He made this beautiful planet and placed the first human beings, who were made in His image, in a delightful garden. However, instead of remaining loyal to Him, Adam and Eve sinned and joined the rebellion of the fallen angels. That ruined our relationship to God. That damaged every aspect of who we are. That condemned us to death and to Hell. But God loved us and the Father sent His Son into this world to save us, since it was impossible for us to do enough to save ourselves. The Messiah lived a perfect life, died an atoning death, was raised from death and ascended to Heaven, to the right hand of the Father. Those who turn to God and His good ways, and turn from their sins, and become loyal to the Father and the Son are forgiven. They are reconciled to God. They receive the Holy Spirit of the Father and the Son. The Spirit gives them new life and a new nature. They become the sons and daughters of God who will live forever with God in a new heavens and a new Earth." ~ Rabbi Loren Jacobs (from the above-linked message)


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Mar 01, 2020

Thanks Dawn. I am eager to read more about your blessed father once I receive his book that I just ordered from amazon, “Isn’t it Glorious?: On Beholding and Becoming” by William H. Lichty, MA


Dawn Lichty
Dawn Lichty
Feb 28, 2020

A wonderful reflection, Shawn. We definitely were blessed in the dad department!

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