“My soul’s chances for expressing itself were definitely limited long before I was born. My heritage certainly did not prepare me for a life in the purple. No great fortunes or royal blood have descended to me from either side of the house. Nor has my heritage served to indicate that I have more than a remote possibility of success … in fact quite the contrary.”
My grandfather, the son and grandson of immigrant, North Dakota farmers wrote these few profound sentences just three weeks shy of his 23rd birthday. A WWII veteran and an ordained Lutheran minister, he passed away on May 24 of this year, at the age of 87. Grandpa would have turned 88 on June 13. He died on the 60th anniversary of his ordination into the Lutheran ministry. He also died, quite appropriately, the Friday before Memorial Day weekend.
These words come from an autobiography that my grandfather wrote as part of an assignment for a class he was taking at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota. The date typed on the title page of the black-covered portfolio reads, “May 25, 1948.”
I found out about my grandfather’s memoirs of his early life when I was in Atlanta for his funeral. I finally got to read them myself last month while visiting my mom and dad for a few weeks this summer. So much about this precious document, more than 60 years-old, has impacted me.
I was first impressed by what a good writer my grandfather was. He loved to read, and as a pastor, was always writing his own sermons, so I don’t know why I should have been surprised. The most valuable earthly possession of his modest life is probably his library–a collection of nearly 3,000 books. One of the things I will remember most about my grandfather is what a great storyteller he was. He had a memory for stories and jokes like nobody else I’ve known.
And he tells a striking story in this school report. The pages are filled with original descriptions, witty dialogue and heart-wrenching scenes as he describes his days growing up during the Great Depression on the Great Plains. His prose is poetic, his pacing perfect. I was captivated by his story, and I would’ve kept reading as long as he had chosen to write, but sadly he ends his memoirs at his High School graduation, just before he joined the military and headed overseas.
My grandfather, a combat veteran, fought in the U.S. Marine Corps in the South Pacific during WWII. He lost many of his comrades and saw things that troubled him until his death, speaking about his experiences more and more in his final days. The war was so bad that while quite literally in the foxhole, Grandpa promised God that if He would get him home alive, he would spend his life in service to Him.
Despite covering such a short period of my grandfather’s long life, his recollections of growing up as the oldest of nine children (one died shortly after birth) through the dreariest and driest days of North Dakota’s history are alone enough to fill a book and make one marvel at the bravery, strength and character of those, especially children, who survived such a difficult time in our nation’s history.
My grandfather, as a member of the oft-labeled “Greatest Generation,” experienced more trials, pain and challenges in one lifetime than all of his 21 grandchildren are likely to experience in our lifetimes–combined. And yet, my grandfather was one of the most content persons I know.
His calm, emotionless assessment of his expectations for his life, which begins his memoir, is astounding for its insight and maturity. My grandfather understood something at the age of 22 that I’m still struggling to accept at almost 36: that life doesn’t owe me anything.
My grandfather knew that based on his lineage, he could expect no worldly fame, success or riches. Nor would he ever have thought that he deserved it. Every time I re-read his words–My soul’s chances for expressing itself were limited long before I was born. My heritage certainly did not prepare me for a life in the purple--I search for bitterness, resentment, or disdain, but find none of it.
How can this be? How could Grandpa have been so perfectly content with his place in life at such a young age? How could I be so discontent with mine?
I realize that I didn’t know my grandfather when he was young and striving to make his own mark on this world. But in the 30 or so years that I do remember knowing him, he never seemed happier than when he was surrounded by his wife, his children and his grandchildren.
Every time the love of his life Edith, his wife of nearly 63 years, would walk into the room, his eyes would sparkle. If a grandchild was within his arm’s reach, he would beckon him or her to his side saying, “Granddaughter, come here,” or “Grandson, come see me.” Then, he would tell us how much he loved us, or he would tell us a joke, or he would tell us some other secret that was on his heart at that moment.
Grandpa also loved family mealtimes. As my grandmother would hustle around the house preparing her fresh homebaked rolls or the spiral ham or her special-recipe Sloppy Joe’s, my grandfather would try to slow her down. “Edith, Edith,” he would say, patting the place on the couch or chair next to him. “Come here. Sit with us.” Grandma would usually just smile, roll her eyes and keep working.
I think one of the reasons Grandpa enjoyed mealtimes so much was because it was then that he had the opportunity to pray over his family. We would sing a Lutheran table prayer before dinner, and when our visit would be over, Grandpa would sing, “God be with you till we meet again.”
Now, my grandfather is with God. We won’t meet again until I’m with God, too. While not many people on this earth may have known his name, L. James Brooks, it is certainly well-known in Heaven. My grandfather’s significance was not temporal–it was eternal. He knew that. He was proud of that.
His legacy lives on in the souls of the dearly departed whom he taught about Christ. His legacy lives on in the souls of those still living whom he impacted for the Kingdom. His legacy lives on through his five children and their families, through his 21 grandchildren and their families, and through his 21 (soon-to-be-24) great-grandchildren and their future families.
Grandpa may not have been destined for the purple here on earth. But in Heaven, as a redeemed and adopted heir to the throne of the King of the Ages, he is certainly wearing it now.
“For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being may boast in the presence of God.” (1 Corinthians 1: 26-29)