Though Flesh and Heart Fail
Poetry in Motion
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.
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.
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,
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
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,
from his left ear.
By Stephen Page
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?”
"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)