The name “Granddaddy” loomed large in my family and belonged to my Great-Grandfather, a man I never met. Each of his five children took me in their confidence at one time or another to explain, “I’m the one who inherited Granddaddy’s nature.”
Word among them all was that Granddaddy was always whistling, could fix anything, never lost his temper and befriended just about everyone he met. During the Great Depression he built a radio from scratch. It was the first one in their tenement neighborhood and neighbors from all of the surrounding apartments came to their porch to listen. Every night before tucking his kids in to bed, Granddaddy made them stale bread pudding with raisins and warm milk, told them stories and offered advice. Once, when I was worried about something my Aunt Florence, Granddaddy’s youngest, told me what her father said when she was nervous. I imagine him after bread pudding, tucking her in and saying: “It takes a lot of courage to wake up and put your shoes on in the morning.” To Aunt Florence, this meant that all courage is is doing the next thing in front of you.
It seemed like every third Granddaddy tale included something funny he did after having had “a few pints”. Once while taking a walk (because he was a strong proponent of exercise before anyone else was) Granddaddy met, as his kid’s story went, “a bum” sitting at the top of the Brooklyn Bridge drinking a bottle of wine. Granddaddy sat down next to him, shared the bottle and they talked all day. When Granddaddy got home to his family, all of whom had been worried sick, he explained, “What an interesting man” he’d met.
Once, over a cup of coffee at the kitchen table with Granddaddy’s son, my Grandfather, I thought to ask where Granddaddy was buried. Granddad had no idea. After making inquiries I found that no one in either of the two generations ahead of me remembered. Finding that strange I asked my mother where Granddaddy died. She said he was in a psychiatric hospital after having a nervous breakdown. And it wasn’t the first one either.
Having this information made all of the other stories new. Granddaddy was entertaining, resourceful, kind. There was also pretty convincing evidence that he was an alcoholic who struggled with chronic depression and ultimately succumbed to it. Sometimes I imagine the nurses and doctors who cared for him at the psychiatric hospital. Did they see our Granddaddy, sainted father who learned how to meditate from the Hindu man who lived down the street and made model ships by hand from rail road ties? Or did they see just another broken, old alcoholic?
Now when facing a day I do not want to face, the motto, “It takes a lot of courage to wake up and put your shoes on in the morning” means much more than it once did. Any dark night of the soul I may have is probably still brighter than Granddaddy’s worst days. And yet the way his children and grandchildren’s eyes sparkled when they recounted stories of Granddaddy’s kind heart are to me what stars were for ancient mariners: the map that helps me steer my own ship.
Once in a while at Bible study people get disturbed by the inconsistencies to be found all over scripture while to me, uncovering them is like finding the prize in the Cracker Jack box. In Mark’s Gospel it doesn’t seem like John the Baptist has any idea who Jesus is when he comes to get baptized but in Matthew’s Gospel John exclaims, “How am I supposed to baptize YOU? You should baptize me.” (Matthew 3:14) In John’s Gospel, Jesus accepts crucifixion with supernatural composure. On the cross all afternoon, after what would be mind-breaking agony for any mere mortal, Jesus seems to decide himself when to die, announces, “It is finished” (John 19:30) and breathes his last. Meanwhile, in the Gospel according to Matthew, Jesus’ last words are those of a man utterly betrayed. Addressing the God he called "Father" through the whole story he cries out, “Why have you forsaken me?” and consumed by grief, dies.
I don’t want to even try to make any of these Bible stories fit together. Just like family stories, every one of them is true. Matthew and Mark’s disagreements are, to me, the same as when your Uncle Fred and Aunt Tilda insist on different versions of a family tale. Each of their stories will render a different treasure if you’re patient enough to sit at the table and ask to hear them again and then again.
The Bible is our family story, the movable home we can always live in no matter who dies or where we are. And it’s the place where you can sit next to Granddaddy and tie your shoes when you have no courage left of your own.