“A Firm Handshake and a Good Name” (My Father’s Day Tribute)*
Just a little over six months ago, on December 7, 2011, my dad passed away after a 7 by-pass open heart surgery. He was 83 years young, as they say. We knew he had some heart issues, having had a couple of stints put in over the years, but considering that the week before his surgery he went hunting, spent an afternoon helping his granddaughter take her daughter to the doctor, went to watch a grandson coach at a high school basketball game, and led the singing at Wednesday night Bible study, the sudden illness came upon us unexpectedly. He was even working in a fence row when he called my sister and told her he was having chest pains. In a matter of days, he was gone, leaving behind a loving family and the legacy of a good name. He was a man whose word was his bond, given by a firm handshake. One of the many things my dad taught me was if you are going to shake someone’s hand, shake it like you mean it. To this day, I cannot abide a limp, weak handshake.
Over the last few months, I’ve thought about writing this several times but couldn’t. The tears still come much too quickly, often at the most unexpected times. Like a few weeks ago when I went home to visit my mom. As I approached their little 4 acre piece of heaven in Tennessee, I saw the spot of land that for 48 years had yielded enough fruits and vegetables to feed several families and a few neighbors during the summer and fill two deep freezes for the winter. It was untilled and barren, a little overgrown with onions and weeds, and I wept at the sight. That garden had been tended by loving hands, three in fact, but I’ll explain that a little later.
Since my dad died, I have read and re-read Justin’s diary about his grandfather here. It was comforting because of the similarities between our families. Justin mentioned that his granddad told him to “Remember who you are.” That was a pretty common phrase to hear growing up in our family. It got to the point that once we were in our teen years, my sisters and I would nod and say as we were going off to a ballgame or on a date or wherever that we’d try not to forget who we were. Another favorite was “Don’t get too close to the edge of the cliff.” Sad to say, I’ve forgotten who I was at times. Got way too close to that edge and even started to fall, but my dad was always there to reach out his hand and lift me back up. He was the kind of dad who, along with my mom, came to everything we ever did, and by “we,” I mean not only my sisters and me, but also the grandchildren and great-grandchildren. He was the kind of grandad who jumped on the bed and made a cave on his hand (not a typo here) and knees.
My dad was the youngest of 8 girls and 3 boys, raised on a farm in middle Tennessee, during that time when they walked a mile to school and two miles back, uphill both ways. They were lucky to get an apple or an orange for Christmas, but they were loved and happy. Dad was an average student, but an avid reader (mostly Louis L’Amour westerns other than the Bible). He enjoyed hunting and farming. He went away to college about a month before homesickness brought him back to the farm. He joined up and stayed in the army a little longer than did in college. No doubt he’d be considered uneducated by today’s standards, but he knew about cars and dogs and the land and being a good father. More importantly, he knew what it meant to have a firm handshake and a good name.
Just a few years after he married my mom (who, oddly enough, was the oldest of 8 girls and 3 boys raised on a farm in middle Tennessee), Dad lost his left arm just above his elbow in a hunting accident. It was surely God’s providence that he didn’t bleed to death before making it to the hospital. My older sister was a baby at the time, and my mom said she, as well as my younger sister and I when we came along, just seemed to know to hold on a little tighter when we were in his arms. All I know is it was a safe place to be. Frankly, it was always a little startling whenever some kid would eventually notice and ask “What happened to your arm? Can I see?” or “Where is your other arm?” He never hesitated to answer and raise up his sleeve to show the smooth rounded skin of the pale stump. Early on, they tried to fit him with a prosthetic, but he never got used to it and eventually put it aside. I never saw him wear it. It was in our garage for years, but I don’t even know what happened to it. In his later years, he was bothered by the pain of arthritis, but with my mom, his wife for 60 years, at his side, he never let the loss prevent him from doing what needed to be done. At least not that I ever knew. We just didn’t think about because there were so few things my dad couldn’t do. Sometimes one of us would help cut up a steak if it wasn’t tender enough, and someone had to trim his fingernails.** Lace up boots, tie a necktie, drive a 100+ mile rural mail route over 30 years. And yes, he was a one-armed wallpaper hanger (not professional but for family when we needed his help). No problem. It was a beautiful thing to watch my dad use his body and one good arm to swing his shotgun up and kill a quail in one fluid motion. And that pale stump was a stark contrast to the darkly tanned, leathered hand that he offered in a firm handshake backed up with his good name when he made a promise.
Oh, the stories I could tell you about my dad that would make you laugh, some of which his grandsons shared at his funeral. Sad as we were, we also laughed, and we sang several of the hymns he so loved. But this diary is about the kind of man he was and what he taught my family, his friends, his neighbors and even complete strangers. He enjoyed the simple pleasures in life. The rewards of hard work. The beauty of the world around him. The love of his family and friends. The wisdom he found in the Old Testament and the grace, mercy and compassion he found in the New. He was a man with a firm handshake and a good name. He was the kind of man this country needs more of.
As the mayor of my hometown said in Dad’s obituary,
“Mr. McMahan was the model of a Christian gentleman. Our community, Tennessee and the United States have lost a most noble and caring citizen. Respect among your peers has to be earned; it’s not granted or transferable. Granville McMahan earned everybody’s respect. To say he was a fine person is true but short of a complete description. He was a wonderful person, well liked and well respected by everyone who knew him.”
Around 500 people filed in and out of the funeral home to pay their respects, many of whom we knew, but some were strangers who had crossed paths with my dad somewhere along the way. Throughout the long night and the next day before his service, the common theme was folks noting that my dad was a good man who kept his word. We heard stories of how he had helped them in one way or another. Of course, my sisters and I knew that our parents were good neighbors. We knew that they had helped other family members over the years. We knew they were good people. We didn’t realize the full impact my dad had on others during his walk on earth. How many lives a man with a firm handshake and a good name can touch.
Like the boys of his friend who hired my dad after he “retired” to drive a tractor for his seed company who asked if they could call him grandpa because they didn’t have one around anymore. Or the young Hispanic men working at my sister’s business who laughed at how badly he butchered their language but loved him because he made an effort to speak their native tongue with them. I found a worn, faded index card in his old truck on which he had written two dozen Spanish to English phrases. It was not lost on me that at the top of that list was “Vio Pondius” (Go with God – his spelling), amigo (friend) and bueno (good). In fact, it was not unusual to find index cards stuck around the house or in his truck or in a pocket, all with various scriptures written on them. He even left a mark during his last hours without speaking a word. The critical care nurse who so tenderly cared for him in the hospital felt compelled to make the 1½ drive to pay her respects even though he had not regained consciousness after his surgery. Yet she saw the legacy of love and respect he left through the family and friends who sat and prayed for his recovery, but did so with the confidence that he had lived his life in a way that would be rewarded. He had a firm handshake and a good name, and it showed.
My dad was a man of faith. He lived with the goal of going to heaven and taking as many people with him as he could. One grandson led the family in prayer and the other 4 grandsons and 1 of his 2 granddaughters spoke at his funeral, along with one of his nephews, while yet another nephew led the congregational singing. One of his grandsons commented that it didn’t matter what you were talking about with dad, he would eventually get around to something spiritual. One of the scriptures read at his funeral was Psalm 127:3-4: “Behold, children are a gift of the LORD, The fruit of the womb is a reward. Like arrows in the hand of a warrior, So are the children of one’s youth.” Also, Proverbs 22:1 which says “A good name is to be more desired than great wealth, Favor is better than silver and gold,” and Ecclesiastes 7:1, we read that “A good name is better than a good ointment, And the day of one’s death is better than the day of one’s birth.” These words apply to my dad. He wasn’t perfect, but he was a man with a firm handshake and a good name.
*Thank you to redstate for allowing us to stray a little from all things political and share some of our personal thoughts along the way with our friends here.
**After I married and moved away, whenever I went home for a visit, my dad would always ask me to trim his nails. As I sat at his feet and worked on them, hardened, dirty and split from the hard work by a hand doing double duty, we always ended up discussing something Biblical, but often talked politics. He was a conservative, and it was not too long ago that he told me he was proud of what I was doing – of making the time to get involved and working to better our country.
Update: I intended to point out that after my dad lost his arm, it never occurred to him to apply for any kind of disability. He and my mom built a life and managed to raise three daughters with no government assistance, despite his disability.