The Story of a Life

Dad

Here’s the story of my Dad’s life that I shared at his funeral last Thursday. My brothers have their own versions of his life story, but this is mine and I’m sticking to it (smile).

To the best of my knowledge, these are the facts:

James Somerville (no middle name) was born on June 17, 1931, in Cross Hill, South Carolina.  As his father would remind him repeatedly in years to come, his birth brought on one of the hottest spells they’d ever had in those parts.  When I close my eyes I can almost picture his tiny mother, Hattie, laboring in a stifling upstairs room to bring him into the world as her husband, Walter, a Presbyterian minister, walked the floors and prayed for a cooling breeze.

Little Jimmy, as he was called, was the sixth son and the seventh child born into that family.  There aren’t many pictures of him.  In one, he is standing with his brothers and sisters wearing shoes with a single strap across the top—“girl shoes”—as we later teased him, a description he didn’t care for at all.  In another he is staring out of the frame wearing wire-rim glasses: his yearbook picture.  He looks so serious, so studious, that you almost have to look at the cartoons he drew for that yearbook before you can see the twinkle in his eye.

He went to King College in Bristol, Tennessee, where word got out that he thought Mary Rice Whiting—“Ricie” as they called her—was the prettiest freshman on campus.  He approached her as she was gathering up her music after playing the piano at a campus event to ask her to the dance.  He had broken his jaw playing football, and had his teeth wired together.  He mumbled, “You wouldn’t want to go to the dance with an old bum like me, would you?”

But she did.

Eventually he asked her to marry him, and she said yes.  But then she began to have second thoughts.  She wanted to be a missionary in China, or maybe Mexico.  She tried to break things off with him while he was away in graduate school but he got in the car to come and talk her out of it.  They went for a drive, and parked the car, and when they had made all the arguments they could it got quiet, and in that silence Ricie was fairly sure she heard God say, “There’s your mission field.”

And so they married, on August 31, 1954, at Bethesda Presbyterian Church in Camden, South Carolina.  The bride was stunning.  The groom looked slightly undernourished, with a bristly flat-top haircut and black horn-rimmed glasses, but happy to be marrying the prettiest girl in South Carolina.  They went to Decatur, Georgia, where he finished up his studies at Columbia Theological Seminary, and then on to Troy, Alabama, where their first two sons, Eddie and Scotty, were born.  From there they moved to Hayneville, Alabama, where little Jimmy was born.  But it was while they were in Hayneville that Jim was invited to say the opening prayer at a meeting of the White Citizens’ Council, formed to resist segregation following the Brown vs. Board of Education decision in 1954.  Dad was fairly sure Jesus would NOT say the opening prayer at the White Citizens’ Council, and therefore declined.  Not long after that the Ku Klux Klan burned a cross in his front yard, and his only comment when he came in from looking at the ashes was, “Sure was a little one.”  But the elders of his own church began to get nervous, and when he got a chance to make a move they encouraged him to take it.

Jim, Ricie, and their three boys moved to Wise, Virginia, where he served as pastor of the Gladeville Presbyterian Church.  It was there that Greg and Gray were born, and there that Jim began to feel called to work with the poor.  In late 1966 he resigned from the church and took his family to Blowing Rock, NC, where they spent the winter in his mother-in-law’s unheated summer cottage.  Jim would build a blazing fire in the fireplace each school day and bang on the brass fire pole, saying, “This is the day The Lord has made.”  His three school-age sons, sleeping in the loft above, were supposed to say, “Let us be glad and rejoice in it!”  But only Scott ever did, leaping out the door of the loft and squeaking down the brass fire pole in his underwear.

The family moved to West Virginia in early 1967, and Jim went to work for the West Virginia Mountain Project—an initiative of the United Presbyterian Church focused on ending poverty in Boone County, West Virginia.  He worked toward that goal for years, living at the poverty level himself and moving his family up and down the Big Coal River Valley—once because the boys accidentally burned down the rental house they were living in while building a volcano in the back yard.  The family settled in an old white farm house on a hill near Racine, West Virginia, where they spent ten mostly happy years.  It was there that Billy was born in 1976, the last of six sons.  But it was also there that Ricie began to feel the return of her missionary fervor, and asked her husband when he had last talked to someone about Jesus.

Not long after that Jim considered following a lifelong love of nature and studying forestry, but he had a vision of Jesus asking him, as he was in the library, “What are you doing here?”  And so he renewed his commitment to ministry, left his work with the poor, and became the pastor of Clothier Presbyterian Church.  Two years later, after his own father’s death, he seemed to feel free to resign not only from the church, but also from the ministry.  He ended up in Buckhannon, West Virginia, in nursing school, which he loved.  After graduation he worked as a rehab nurse in Asheville, North Carolina, and then as a pediatric home health nurse—a visiting grandpa—who made his rounds in nearby Madison County.

When he retired, he and Ricie moved to Montgomery County, Maryland, to be near their children and grandchildren, and for a while at least he was almost a full-time grandpa to the large and loving Somerville clan.  A few years later he and Ricie moved to Summerville, South Carolina (no relation), which felt like home to both of them.  But it was there, while stripping a piece of furniture in his tool shed, that Jim apparently inhaled enough toxic fumes to alter his brain chemistry, sending this robustly optimistic and enthusiastic man spiraling downward into a state of severe anxiety and depression.  He struggled with it for years, but it wore him down in mind and body until he ended up here, in Hospice care at Pendleton Manor.  But it was also here that the prayers for his peace of mind were finally answered, and when he took his last breath—just a few days ago—he took it in a state of perfect peace, with no pain at all, and his wife by his side.

Very few people die so well.

But the story of his death is not the story of his life:

  • I have seen this man roll naked in the snow, just to convince his boys that it wasn’t too cold to walk to school.
  • I have watched him fly a hang glider off a sand dune at Kitty Hawk.
  • I have seen him laugh till the tears ran down his cheeks and he slapped the table.
  • I have watched him roll the dice in a game of Monopoly and say, “Seven come eleven, baby needs a new pair of shoes!”
  • I have hiked with him on the Appalachian Trail.
  • I have floated with him down the Big Coal River.
  • I remember the smell of his Old Spice cologne, his Wildroot hair tonic, and his Kiwi shoe polish.
  • I have watched him lather up with Barbasol and puff out his cheeks to get an extra-close shave.
  • I have heard him identify nearly every plant and tree in the woods, and call out the name of every bird that sang.
  • I have heard him sing, “Life is like a Mountain Railroad,” when he headed out to do his chores, or “I’ll Fly Away,” or that Moe Bandy classic,” It Was Always so Easy to Find an Unhappy Woman.”
  • I have seen him work a team of Clydesdale horses.
  • I have heard him clap his hands and say, “OK!” when he was ready to move on to the next thing.
  • I know the sound of his snore and the sound of his sneeze.
  • I have watched him split logs, and chop firewood, and make kindling thin as a matchstick.
  • I have been pinned to the ground, helpless, as he wrestled five of his sons at the same time.
  • I have seen him hug my mother close, and kiss her on the lips.
  • I have run six miles with him on a hilly, West Virginia, road.
  • I know the smell of his sweat.
  • I have heard his voice break when he was doing the funeral of a friend.
  • I have felt the bone-breaking strength of his hug.
  • I have stood beside him in church, both of us trying to outdo the other in hymn-singing.
  • I have seen him look with wonder and love on the face of a newborn grandchild.
  • I have heard him clump up the stairs to my room and say, “It looks like a mule died up here!”
  • I have seen the look in his eye when he says, “I love you,” or “I’m proud of you.”
  • I have heard myself say the same to him.

It’s true: I love you, Dad, and I’m proud of you.

KOH2RVA: Day 281

DadYesterday was Father’s Day. Today is my dad’s birthday. He had the misfortune of being born so close to Father’s Day that when he became a father he often received one gift or card for both. “Happy Birth-Father’s-Day!” my brothers and I would write on the tags of our poorly wrapped homemade gifts. But Dad didn’t seem to mind.

He wasn’t in it for the glory.

I talked about him at last night’s vesper service at Westminster-Canterbury and read some excerpts from the little book I once put together for him: Seventy Things I Remember about My Dad (in Honor of His Seventieth Birthday). I talked about the time he rolled naked in the snow just to prove to his sons that it wasn’t too cold to walk to school; about the way his eyes used to light up when he challenged us to a game of Monopoly; about the way he taught us that when you had something hard to do it was best to just get it over with, as soon as possible.

I didn’t talk about the 25 years my dad spent trying to end poverty as a Presbyterian missionary in Boone County, West Virginia—one of the poorest counties in America—but as I sit here this morning thinking about how to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia, I can see where some of my inspiration comes from. I got a glimpse of it during last night’s introduction.

Ginna Lavender, a resident of Westminster-Canterbury and a member of First Baptist Church, told the group who had come for vespers that our church is on a year-long, every-member mission trip. She said, “Dr. Somerville tells us to look around for anything that doesn’t look like heaven and then roll up our sleeves and go to work.” It was just after that that I stood up to talk about my dad, and as I reflect on it this morning it occurs to me that that’s what my dad was doing: looking around for anything that didn’t look like heaven and then rolling up his sleeves and going to work.

John Denver sang that West Virginia is “almost heaven,” but he wasn’t singing about Boone County. The poverty there was bone-crushing. Dad once took us to Thanksgiving dinner with a family that was one generation removed from living under a rock cliff. The house they were in wasn’t much of an improvement. But Dad had seen that house as he was driving up Joe’s Creek Hollow one day—with the rusted-out hulks of old cars in the front yard and the bags and piles of trash in the back—and he had gotten out to meet the family that lived there, to talk to them, and get to know them, and see if he could do anything to help. That initial meeting turned into a friendship that lasted for years, and I would guess that Dad got as much from the Dotsons as they got from him.

It wouldn’t have happened if Dad hadn’t been “looking around for anything that doesn’t look like heaven,” but he was, and he found it, and he rolled up his sleeves and tried to make a difference. God only knows if he did, but that’s OK.

He wasn’t in it for the glory.

Happy Birthday, Dad. I love you. I’m inspired by your life and ministry. And when I go out to help bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia, today,

I’ll be thinking of you.

KOH2RVA: Day 112

snow-covered-fieldDo you know that song, “Over the river and through the woods, to grandmother’s house we go”? Yesterday that’s what I did with my family, except we went over the mountain and through the woods to grandmother’s nursing home.

On a good day it’s about a three-hour drive from Richmond to Franklin, West Virginia, and yesterday was a good day. My daughter Ellie is visiting from New York and Catherine is home for her winter break. We all piled into the car yesterday morning (along with Ellie’s two dogs) and headed for the hills.

We had plenty to talk about on the way, and as we got off the Interstate and into the country there was plenty to see. There was snow on the ground! The roads were clear but the fields on both sides were glazed like a Krispy Kreme doughnut. Ellie saw a horse-drawn Amish buggy whizzing down the road. Catherine saw a deer head hanging from a tree (yikes!). We went over Shenandoah mountain through so many hairpin curves that everybody began to feel a little queasy, but from the top the views were breathtaking.

When we finally got to Franklin we were dismayed to learn that the entire nursing home was under quarantine because of the flu, and were told at the front desk that we wouldn’t be able to visit my parents. I said, “But I called yesterday! But we just drove three hours! But my daughter has come from New York!” And while I was protesting the director of nursing happened along and said that my mother, at least, wasn’t showing any symptoms and could come to the family room for a visit.

So, that’s what we had: a two-hour visit with my mother, who entertained us the whole time. She had us laughing like a stand-up comedian. When it was time to go I asked if we could walk around to the side of the building and at least wave to my dad through the window. One of the nurses said she would go to his room and open the curtain. So, off we went, hiking around the side of the nursing home through ankle-deep snow.

As we went Christy reminded the girls of those days when they used to visit the nursing home in Wingate, North Carolina, where we lived at the time. She would take them to be “spirit lifters,” and Ellie, at least, spent a lot of time painting fingernails, which the ladies there seemed to love.

I thought about how that was one more way of bringing heaven to earth. Long before our year-long, every-member mission trip to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia, Christy and the girls were figuring out that when one person shares the love of Christ with another heaven touches down—however briefly–wherever you are.

And that’s what we had with my dad yesterday: a very brief moment.

The nurse pulled back the curtain and the four of us stood at the window to see Dad, lying in his bed, smiling up at us. Just because it seemed like the thing to do I began to sing, “We wish you a merry Christmas,” and the family joined in, and then, to our surprise, we could see Dad joining in, singing along with us. The nurse opened his window just a crack so we could hear him and he could hear us, and when we were finished singing we told him that we loved him and blew kisses and waved goodbye.

That was it.

That was all the nurse had time for but probably all my dad had strength for. He’s very weak these days. And to leave him with the image of four impromptu carolers wishing him a merry Christmas and a happy new year was probably about the best we could have done.

And so we drove back to Richmond, satisfied by the visit, having brought the Kingdom of Heaven a little closer to Franklin, West Virginia.

Today, I’m back in this city I love, wondering how I can be a “spirit lifter” here. What about you? Is there somebody whose spirit you can lift, even if you have to go over the river and through the woods to do it?

Keeping the Fifth Commandment

I’m in Frederick, Maryland, today, honoring my father and mother by taking care of them while my brother Scott and his family prepare for his daughter’s wedding at their farm in West Virginia. 

It’s been a pleasure.

This morning, for example, Dad came in to breakfast with a memory about sacking oats in his boyhood with a fellow named “Willie T.”  Dad said, “There we were, sacking oats in that little shed with the tin roof on it, on one of the hottest days in the summer, and boy, did Willie T stink!”  I had never heard that story before, and I had to look for a place to file the mental picture it created.

And then Mom spread out all her family photos on the dining room table while I was doing some reading for Sunday’s sermon.  One after another she would push them across to me and ask me if I remembered this or that event.  There they were: pictures of me and my brothers, my grandparents, some of the places we used to live.  Most of them I had seen before, but some of them were new.  Again I looked for places in my brain to store the images. 

The mental file cabinets are overflowing.

I’ve cooked meals for my folks, washed dishes, helped Dad get a shower, helped Mom find a pen—all those things they used to do for me without grumbling or complaining.  And it really is that endless stream of “little things” that flows into the pool of family love.  They did them for me, and now I get to do them for them, and the pool gets deeper and wider. 

If there were a theme for this Fifth Commandment Retreat it might be “Abundance”: an abundance of memories, an abundance of love, an abundance of care once received and now given with gratitude.  “Honor your father and mother,” God said.  Today it strikes me not so much as a command but as an offer, as a way of entering into abundant life.  But those of you who have cared for your aging parents know how it goes:

Tomorrow may be another story altogether.

Wake-Up Call

It’s 6:30 a.m. on the Tuesday after Labor Day, and all across the Greater Richmond Metropolitan Area mothers and fathers will be trying to get their children out of bed and get them off to school.  In honor of those efforts, and those parents, I’d like to tell the stories of how my own parents used to get me and my lazy brothers out of bed on a school day (as shared in last Sunday’s sermon).

When my brothers and I were boys, living in that big, old farmhouse in West Virginia, my mother would try to get us up on a school day by cooking breakfast for us, hoping that the smell of frying bacon would bring us down the stairs.  And if that didn’t work she would start calling up to us, sweetly, “Boys!  Time to wake up!  You’ve got to get ready for school!”  But if that didn’t work she would move to her measure of last resort.  She had this record called “America’s Favorite Marches.”  She would put it on the turntable, crank up the volume, and drop the needle.  And as soon as we heard that scratchy hiss coming through the speakers we would leap out of bed, come running down the stairs, and turn down the volume, because if we didn’t “Hooray for the Red, White, and Blue” would come blasting out of those speakers at something upward of 200 decibels—the equivalent of a Saturn Five rocket lifting off the launch pad. 

And then…

There was a three-month period in our life when we lived in my grandmother’s cabin in the mountains of North Carolina.  It was a summer cabin, but we were there in the winter, and it was cold.  My two older brothers and I slept in a little room under the eaves that was reached by a ladder through a door that opened out into the large main room.  Beside the ladder there was a brass fireman’s pole that my grandfather had put in, just for fun.  On those cold winter morning my dad would get up early, build a blazing fire in the fireplace, and then come over to that pole and start banging it with a wooden block.  Clang!  Clang!  Clang!  Clang!  “This is the day the Lord has made!”  Clang!  Clang!  Clang! Clang!  We were supposed to say, “Let us be glad and rejoice in it!” and then leap out of bed, slide down the pole, and run warm ourselves by the fire, but usually it was only my brother Scott who followed the script.  Ed and I would lie there and groan until my dad finally climbed the ladder, stuck his head through the door opening, and threatened us with bodily harm. 

America’s favorite marches, banging on brass poles, threats of bodily harm…sometimes you just have to do what you have to do to get your children out of bed in the morning.  Because it’s true, and maybe especially on the first day of school:

Waking up is hard to do.

My Father’s Eyes

This was the conclusion of Sunday’s sermon, which ended up being a kind of Trinity Sunday/Father’s Day message.  You can find the whole sermon on the First Baptist website at www.fbcrichmond.org, but I thought I would share this much of it with you here.  Enjoy.

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On this Father’s Day I hope you will forgive me for mentioning my own father, who turned 80 on Friday.  He hasn’t been well for some time, as many of you know, but he has always been a wonderful father, one whose steadfast love and faithfulness made it easy for me to believe in a heavenly Father.  In fact I once had a dream in which I was walking along a path through a park, and up ahead was a man sitting on a bench, looking away from me.  Because it was a dream I knew that the man sitting on the bench was God, and as I got closer I began to get apprehensive.  What would God look like?  What would he say to me?  But as I got closer he turned and made eye contact, and I felt all that apprehension leave my body in a rush.

Because his eyes were my father’s eyes,

And they were full of love and forgiveness,

Just like always.

Close Shave

I went to South Carolina early Monday morning because my brother Gray said he could use some help with Dad, who was in the hospital.  I got up at four and was on the road by five, sipping hot coffee from a travel mug and trying to stay alert.  I got to the hospital just before Noon, and spent the rest of the day and all of that night in Dad’s room, watching over him and trying to meet his every need.

I was there at 6:00 the next morning when his doctor came by, Dr. Castellone, who sat on the edge of Dad’s bed, patted his hand, and said, “The good news is you’re doing better.  Your kidneys were failing; now they’re not.  Your liver was failing; now it’s not.  Your white blood cells were failing; now they’re not.”  I’m not sure I heard anything else he said.  I’ve been around hospitals enough to know that when your liver and kidneys fail things have reached a critical stage.  Many of those patients don’t recover.  But here was my dad, doing better, and smiling as Dr. Castellone continued to pat his hand.

I spent the day with Dad on Tuesday and Wednesday, tending to his needs and visiting with Mom, who refused to leave his side.  At one point I asked him if he would like a shave and he said he would.  I spent the next thirty minutes applying hot towels to his whiskers, lathering him up, and then stroking his face as gently as possible with the safest safety razor I could find.  There was a heartbreaking kind of intimacy about it—me, talking in a soothing voice and trying not to nick my Dad as he looked up at me with me trusting eyes, not saying a word.

I suppose this is how it has always been: that the child becomes the parent becomes the child.  I must have looked up at my dad a hundred times when I was a boy with that same trusting expression.  Now here he was looking up at me.  At the time, I felt equal to the task, almost certain that I could give him a good, close shave.  But I don’t know how I will feel in days to come, when his needs become greater and greater, and my skills no longer measure up. 

I’ll just have to do the best I can, and look up at my Heavenly Father with trusting eyes.