He was also a husband, father, church elder, past president of his HOA and head church bulletin assembler who brought his own industrial floor-pedal stapler.
But at heart, my Dad’s life was about seeing people. Really seeing them. Helping them feel wanted and in the circle, versus outside and alone. On the day he died, my Dad was 91, and his “desk” — the workbench in the garage — held two neat piles of 3×5 index cards.
One stack was his collection of favorite jokes, quotes and one-liners — these being essential tools for the Southside Optimists Club’s official “Philosopher” whose job it was to open and set the tone at the weekly 6:30AM meetings.
Each 3×5 held a personal favorite in Dad’s loopy, arthritic writing, and always showed the date he last told the line. Dad’s material was always fresh. No one really knew about the second stack of 3x5s. I only know because I watched when he didn’t know it.
Each Sunday morning, Dad would carefully tuck these cards in the inside pocket of his jacket. As hungry worshipers downed donuts and coffee in the church basement, Dad scanned his cards, willing the details of last week”s visitors” lives to be top of mind.
If he had time, he”d scan the Polaroids on the “Meet Our Visitors” wall. Then, he’d cross the church basement, arriving just in time to greet the couple wearing uneasy “it’s not too late — we can still leave” -expressions as they stepped into the loud, laughter-filled room. “Tom, Terri — I”m happy to see you,” he’d smile like he’d know them forever and shake Tom’s hand while touching him on the shoulder with the other. I see you. You belong here.
He’d speak quietly, words meant just for them. Whatever he said, the result was usually visible relief. Nervousness evaporated as the couple realized this man remembered them and is glad to see them again. If Tom and Terri had kids, Dad greeted them by name; If Tom had shared his fear about not finding a job, Dad would ask if there’d been progress, and tell Tom that he’d been praying about this.
Every once in a while, Dad could help solve a pressing problem — like helping Tom find a job. But, with or without a solution to offer, my Dad saw the whole person and kept his 3X5s up to date so that he’d be the first to welcome you, to show you that we may not know each other well yet but we are not that different and to make sure you got the message that you are wanted here.
I understand that the Zulu folk saying, “Umuntu ngumuntu nagabantu” translates as:
“A person is a person because of other people.”
Through my father’s life, I was shown the value of seeing others. Really seeing them. At his side, I learned that a fully acknowledged and unconditionally welcomed human being often lets go of fear and apprehension.