A few weeks ago, I found myself in the little town of Lebanon, Oregon with a couple of hours to kill while I waited for a friend. On a whim, I started up the car and headed south to the even smaller town of Sweet Home, where my dad had spent much of his childhood and where I knew my paternal grandmother was buried. It can’t be too tough to find the cemetery, I thought. Well, little did I know …
For the record, there are six – yes, I said SIX – repositories of restful repose in Sweet Home, Oregon, a town of maybe 8,000 folks. And I burned through a quarter tank of gas trying to find every one of them. While driving, I passed an old church building that’s now a community center. I recall visiting there with my parents on a Sunday evening when I was five or six. We must have been returning from a visit to my grandpa’s house when Dad turned to my mom and said, “Waddya think? Wanna stop?”
“Let’s just slip in quietly and sit in the back,” Mom replied.
R-i-i-i-i-ght. Sunday evening service in a small town Pentecostal church and the place was packed … there was no “slippin’ in quietly” for us, no sirree. This was the little church my dad had grown up in, where he often sang and accompanied himself on the guitar, where my grandparents had been Prayer Warriors and pillars, where Grandma had brought her famous potato salad and bread ‘n butter pickles to every church potluck, and where my dad had been the Young Man with a Calling. These were the people who had laid hands on my dad in fervent, earnest prayer and sent him off to bible college in the hopes that he’d return home to be their preacher. Nope, no slippin’ in quietly for us.
We were ushered up to a wooden pew near the front and Dad gave my brother and me the Behave Yourself- I Mean It Look. We sang and clapped our hands through ALL THE VERSES of Bringing in the Sheaves and were fussed over by the church ladies during the Greet Your Neighbor and Tell ‘em Jesus Saves intermission. Dad slipped us some quarters to drop in the offering and we fidgeted through a fire and brimstone sermon, and then the pastor announced that there was a Special Guest in our midst. I remember popping my head up to sneak a peek, wondering who it could be. “Brother Brent,” said the preacher as he motioned to my dad. “Would you come on up to the pulpit and bless us with The Word in song?”
Now, I don’t remember what my dad sang, but I do recall the hush that fell upon the folks of that little country church as he walked up to the front and spoke a few words to the lady in a hat behind the piano. I remember Mom pulling a hankie out of her purse as Dad began to sing and an elderly woman behind me whispering “Thank-ya Lord, Thank-ya Lord, Thank-ya Lord.” Later, as we headed towards the back of the church, a gentleman stopped my dad to shake hands. “When are you going to come back to the ministry where you belong, David?” he asked.
“Just as soon as the Lord calls me,” Dad said quietly. “Just as soon as He calls me.”
Funny, the things that stick in your head …
I was two when Grandma Brent passed away. I don’t remember meeting her or sitting on her lap in the rocking chair. But my parents spoke of her often, sharing stories about her life and personality, and keeping her memory present in our home throughout my childhood so that I grew up with a strong sense of her presence and her influence in my life. I think my mom was especially intent on honoring her memory and making sure I grew up “knowing” the grandma who now lived in heaven. I’m really grateful for that. My uncle also helped to fill in the blanks – he was 28 when Dad was born and his memories where understandably different, but his stories gave me a better picture of who she was as a young woman and some of the hardships she overcame.
My grandmother was born in 1887 to a Nez Perce mother and a German father in Huron, Kansas. There’s a lot of heartache and suffering in the history of the U.S. government’s treatment of the Nez Perce in the 20+ years before her birth, and it’s hard to know how much family lore is fact or fiction. But I do know that while many were “relocated” to the Coleville Reservation in Idaho, my ancestors refused to go and Grandma was born into what looked like a typical Victorian-era “American” family. Her first husband abandoned her and my uncle when he was a toddler, leaving in the middle of the night and emptying out Uncle Lovel’s piggy bank before he fled. She was an amateur actress as a young woman, but was forced to farm my uncle out to live with relatives while she worked as a cook in mill camps to support them. It was a harsh and difficult life, and the old photos of her clearly show the toll of her struggles, but she was beautiful when she was young.
At some point, probably at a camp meeting, she got “saved” and from that point on Buelah Belle held tight to the promises she found in the King James version of that Old Time Religion. She never wavered in her faith and committed herself to doing the Lord’s Work with whatever resources were at her disposal.
My grandfather had immigrated to the States in the late 1920s and was working in a Seattle ice house when Uncle Lovel invited him home for supper. Grandpa soon took up with the cook, they married, and Grandma gave birth to my dad when she was 48. She named him David, after the Old Testament patriarch …. “a man after God’s own heart,” and she was determined that he would become a preacher. Throughout his childhood, she schooled him in scripture memorization and elocutionary skills, encouraging him to memorize entire chapters and recite them “with feeling” for company. In fact, Dad was a gifted speaker and communicator, and I know much of the credit for that was due to Grandma’s intentional efforts to mold him into a first-rate evangelist.
As I child, I loved to hear stories about my grandma, and every time Grandpa came for a visit I heard a new one. She was a country woman and much admired for her expertise in the kitchen, so much of what I know of her in some way or another is connected to food. Throughout her life, Grandma used her skills and meager resources to make sure that nobody in the neighborhood went hungry. She generously fed every homeless hobo on the roadside, and every visiting evangelist and missionary home on furlough at her kitchen table. My grandparents were poor, but theirs was a table of plenty.
By all accounts Grandma Brent had a simple but stalwart faith in the Almighty. I don’t believe she had much education beyond the basics, but she read her bible ‘til the pages fell out, and she prayed with conviction and expectancy.
One afternoon, when Dad was home for a visit from bible college, two young men knocked at the door and asked for some food. Dad’s roommate, Ron Hittenberger, was there visiting as well, and Grandma invited them in and set two more places at the table. Dad said this wasn’t unusual, as Grandma was known for taking folks in and welcoming strangers. She sent those fellas into the washroom to clean up, then they all sat down and ate. After dinner, the young men thanked Grandma for her hospitality and headed on down the road.
An hour or so later, Ron came out of the washroom and mentioned that his watch was missing. He’d set it on the sink before lunch and had forgotten to put it back on. The watch had been a special gift and meant a great deal to Ron, so he was understandably upset. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out who the culprits were.
“You boys get in the car,” said Grandma. “We’re gonna get that watch!”
Dad said it wasn’t long before they found those two fellas. They’d stopped to take a nap under a tree, and when Grandma roared up in that car they were dumbfounded.
“Now boys,” said Grandma. “Ron here is missing his watch. I know you two took it, and I want you to give it back. No questions asked, you just hand it right over, and we’ll be on our way.”
Those two young men swore up and down they didn’t know what she was talking about, they’d never seen a watch, no ma’am, they never saw nothin’.
“Boys,” said Grandma, “you and I both know that’s not true. Now here’s what I’m gonna do. I’m gonna pray, boys, right now, and I’m gonna ask the Lord to tell me where that watch is. And boys, He’s gonna tell me.”
Right then and there, my Pentecostal Grandma knelt down in the dirt and started praying … outloud, fervently, the way I heard folks pray at church when I was a kid. As Uncle Lovel used to say, she knew how to do “bizness” with the Lord. Then she said “amen”, got up and walked to the other side of the tree, brushed aside some leaves and debris, and picked up Ron Hittenberger’s watch and handed it back to him.
I know of at least five lives that were impacted by what happened that day, including two would-be thieves who got themselves a Sunday School lesson, and two young men in their first year of seminary. Not long after, my dad came to the difficult realization that the vocation he’d been prepared for his whole life was not his calling after all. His best friend Ron went on to become an evangelist and missionary in Haiti and is now the regional director for the Caribbean for Global University at Assemblies of God World Missions. Dad enjoyed a successful career in real estate investments, and my parents supported the Hittenbergers’ mission work for over 40 years. I’ve never met him, but Rev. Hittenberger sent me a personal and encouraging letter when I graduated from high school 30+ years ago, which I took to heart and have never forgotten.
And the fifth person? Well, that would be me.
Funny, the stories we hear as a child that take root in our memory and shape the way we think, and the way we live …
After making a third pass by that old church, I knew I was lost, so I stopped in at a little coffee shop for sustenance and a hopeful chat with some locals. Excuse me, can anyone help me find a cemetery on a hill?
“Ask Marilyn,” said the waitress, pointing to a booth. “She’s been here forever.”
Indeed, Marilyn was a fount of information. “Just get back on that road and keep headin’ straight,” she said. “You can’t miss it.”
Ten minutes later, I found it, but the office was closed and I didn’t have a clue where to start. Fortuitously, a maintenance worker drove up in an old pick-up and asked if he could help me. “
“I’m looking for my grandmother’s grave,” I told him.
“Know her name and when she died?” he asked.
Yes, I did. He motioned me to follow him into the office and for the next 15 minutes, we sifted through shoeboxes of hand-written index cards in search of Buelah Belle Brent. Brandt … Branson … Brown … Brumwell … Buckwald … Busse … nope, no Brent.
“Hmmm,” he scratched his head. “I seem to remember mowin’ over a Buelah Brent the other day. If she was buried in Sixty-Three, she’s gotta be over on that little hill. Why don’t you head over to that neck of the woods and see if you can find her.”
“Over there” were rows upon rows of tombstones and gravemarkers, but I set off in the direction he’d pointed and started to search. A few minutes later, he pulled up in his truck, got out and called to another worker.
“Howard! Get off that mower and start going up and down these rows! We gotta help this lady find Her People!”
It didn’t take long before Howard let out a whoop – “Found her!”
I often wonder how much of me comes from my “people” … what personality traits survived through the generations and how much of what I think and how I act has been influenced by the ones who went before me. I wonder how many ideas in my head are the result of thoughts planted long ago, shaped by years of hardship, loved ones lost to war, gains and losses, births and deaths, and failed crops in the field. The beliefs that my grandparents held so closely were passed to my father, who tried and tested their merit and worth, all the while instilling a revised version in my malleable mind. These are the things I ponder when I listen to my own bright, articulate, and independent-minded daughter and wonder, “Where did that come from?” I think about the thousands of people who have walked through the doors of my shop these last 15 years, most of them strangers, many of them travellers, a few of them in need of a warm place to dry out and a meal that they can’t pay for, and I wonder how many seeds I have sown over the years that have taken root and will surface in generations to come. Hospitality, kindness, a warm welcome, good food, and an extended family when there is none of their own …
How much of me is you? I whispered as I knelt down to kiss the grave marker of a woman I don’t remember but have known all my life.
Be not forgetful to entertain strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares. Hebrews 13:2