Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Ordinary Man, Extraordinary God: A Tribute to My Grandfather, Elmer Forrest Bender

Today (February 29) marks 20 years since my maternal grandfather, Elmer Bender, passed away at age 79. I was 18 when he died, so I remember him well. But I never knew much about the first 60 years of his life. His wife Geraldine (my Granny) is still alive—97 years young, and as beautiful as ever. She consented to my writing a tribute to Papaw here on the blog. This is the fruit of our long conversation about his life, and what shaped him into the man he was. I loved my Papaw Bender dearly, and I hope this post will help you understand why he was so special to everyone who knew him.

Born to William and Dolly Burton Bender on November 27, 1913, Papaw grew up with his pant legs rolled to the knee and dirt between his toes. From the time he was old enough to walk, he explored the sycamore-lined stream that meandered along Bonser Run. In his 79 years of life, his eyes knew little more than that wild, wooded holler in the heart of rural southern Ohio.

The avid outdoorsman, 1934.
His lifelong love for the wilderness took root early on, in the company of his three siblings: Ada, Dorothy, and Sam—and Geraldine, a neighbor girl down the lane. With each briar that grabbed at his trousers, nature took hold of his heart. It became the place he most loved to be—hunting, fishing and sitting silently for hours on end, even into his latter years in my memory. I think that’s where he felt closest to God.

When he was a boy, Papaw walked many miles to and from school in the humid heat, the pouring rain, and the driving snow. In that time and place, Money was tight and truancy laws were loose. So at 16, he dropped out of school to try to find work. He picked up odd jobs when he wasn’t plastering houses with his dad.

At 18, a traveling evangelist came to the area to hold a week of tent meetings. On one of those nights, Papaw saw Geraldine, the neighbor girl, across the way. He asked her if he could walk her home. That night marked the beginning of their 5-year courtship. They got married in 1936. He was 23, and she was 21.

Papaw cleaning his gun, 1940s.
Papaw and Granny had 2 daughters—Dottie was born the week after Christmas in 1940, and Diane (my mother) was born the week of Thanksgiving in 1948.

But a quarter century later, one moment in Papaw's life would be so defining, so devastating that it would just tear his heart in two.

It happened in 1971, when he was 57 years old. He was working at the State Highway garage at the time, driving salt trucks and repairing roads, depending on the season. One sweltering July evening after work, he had a hankering to enjoy an ice cold beer when he got home. He decided to take a different route home to pick up a case from a local carryout, when an unthinkable tragedy struck.

After he left the carryout, he headed up over Woods Ridge, which to this day is a road known for its steep inclines and hairpin curves, on one of the area's many Appalachian foothills.

As he was negotiating one of the ridge's many twists, a pickup truck sped around a blind curve on a steep incline, its left front fender just over in Papaws lane. He knew who it was. It was the Baker family. Mrs. Baker was one of Papaw’s distant relatives.

Target shooting with a muzzle loader he made himself, 1943.
Several children were lounging in the bed of the truck. One more little boy was standing in the middle of the bench seat of the cab, between two adults. They had just come from a birthday party, and were high on life.

Papaw drove as far over into the weeds as he could to avoid the truck. His cars fender barely brazed the truck, but it was enough of an impact to eject the little boy from the seat of the truck cab, right into the road.

After the impact, the Mr. Baker must have panicked. The truck started rolling backwards, and ran right over the young boy. Miraculously, all of the other children in the bed of the truck were OK. But the boy died at the scene.

Granny and Papaw sitting on their back stoop, 1957.
That moment in Papaw’s life—the sound of the collision, the image of the little boy’s lifeless body—would stay with him forever.

The Bakers didn't press charges, but nothing would ease the stinging pain of that calamity. And the looming fear of a delayed law suit was a recurring nightmare that haunted him hundreds of nights.

Papaw never drove faster than about 40 miles an hour after that day, even when he was on the highway. He lost his ability to sleep, and was prescribed Valium to help his insomnia. Valium would be a constant friend from that point on.

Granny describes Papaw as a kind, gentle, “moral” man. That’s how I remember him, too. During most of his life, he reckoned he didn’t need Jesus because grace was for the lawless, the thief, the murderer. Even after the accident, he continued to suppress God and the gospel.

But it was clear that his heart was full of turmoil. Granny recounted that on the Sunday she was baptized, Papaw lay on their bed and wept with conviction the entire afternoon. He would not finally surrender his life to Christ for many more years.

Me with Granny and Papaw, sometime around 1980.
Papaw’s glorious conversion in 1980 didn’t erase the pain of that horrible accident. But the experience of it gave him a deeper gratitude for grace. In hindsight, his sorrow was a merciful stepping-stone that led him to realize his need for a Savior. Jesus finally freed him to live above the burden of that day, despite its long, foreboding shadow. He never grew numb to the pain. In fact, he was one of the most teary men I knew. But he drew nearer to Jesus because of it.

Perhaps the one thing I remember most about Papaw was the way he would pray before a meal. You had to really listen hard to hear his prayers, because they were just one notch above a whisper. But hearing his low, quivering, and often tearful prayers always gave me a tangible sense that God was right there with us at the table. Papaw clearly knew and loved the Lord.

In 1986, Papaw started a downward spiral into dementia, which finally took him on February 29, 1992. He wasn’t really himself for those last 6 years. But we don’t dwell on the dementia-ravaged man who was forgetful, unstable, depressed and distant. We knew his better nature too well, and choose to remember who he really was. We remember his laugh, his love of nature and the outdoors, and his gentle way with friends and family that made him so easy to love.

Elmer Bender was an ordinary man who lived an ordinary life. He didn’t have a commanding presence, or eloquent speech. He didn’t make millions. He didn’t make the history books. He endured unimaginable sorrow, and was familiar with grief. But my last memories of Papaw Bender are of a man with a deep, stilled reverence for God. It’s a reverence that continues to sing in his grandson when I think of him, and when I think of his extraordinary God.

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