Tender Shoots

Tucked away in an old shoebox in the back corner of my parents’ closet were a handful of dog-eared, early-eighties photographs of Christmas morning scenes at my (paternal) grandparents’ Indianapolis living room – tinseled tree in the background and a floor dotted with wads of wrapping paper. In one picture I’m wearing a Lone Ranger costume that, as I later learned, my grandmother had sewn together for me. A local toy store had provided the rest – a mask, holsters, and two six-shooters. I’m looking at myself in mirror, but only with someone’s help – my grandfather’s. I don’t know how everything unfolded, but I can make a pretty good guess. I must have put the costume on as soon as it was out of the box, and when I ran to look in the hallway mirror, I realized an adult had selfishly hung it far too high for me. At some point I assume my grandmother picked up on my frustration and turned to my grandfather and said, “Help the boy have a look!” And that’s the moment we have captured on film – my grandfather holding me up so that I can catch a glimpse of myself in all my Lone Ranger glory.

Every time I’ve seen this photograph through the years, it’s always been quite clear, at least to my eye, that my grandfather and I both are terribly uncomfortable in the moment. I’m staring into the mirror in a relatively vacant manner, arms hanging limply at my sides, and he has an odd grin that seems to convey he’s willing to play the part, but it’s just that – a part to be played for a scene or two and then he’ll get back to what he’d rather be doing. The picture’s not unlike the whistle-stop snapshots you see of a politician who’s been handed some child. Both are strangers to one another, and both are doing something that will never be done again. But then I’m not so sure this is a fair photographic comparison for me to make, because most politicians do manage to look like they’ve at least held a child before. My grandfather? Not so much. And given the stories I’ve heard about my grandfather as a father, it’s altogether possible that despite his having four kids of his own, he hadn’t ever held a child. If he did, it’s clear he had never done so with any marked warmth.

In the same shoebox, I can recall seeing just one picture of my grandparents together. And there’s that forced grin again – my grandfather playing the part for however long he feels he must. They aren’t touching in any way. They are just standing there – standing there until the shutter of my father’s camera closes and opens, and they both can go their own way. And they would do just that with more finality in just a few months. If I have the timeline right, sometime soon thereafter – perhaps spring or summer – my grandfather left my grandmother for another woman.

As best I can recall, because I confess I’ve not flipped through the Polaroid prints for quite some time now, there’s never once a picture of my grandfather smiling – that is, unless you count the pained grins that are almost clown-like in their being painted-on and not genuine. Never once do I see something about him that makes me feel as though I should miss him – as though I have missed out on anything for his not having walked this earth since he died.

But then, the chill of my grandfather’s ways was completely in line with the Lowery men before him.

One day, out of the blue, my father received a phone call from some zealous man looking to unearth the history of the Lowerys. By way of a few questions here and there, they discovered they weren’t at all related – different Lowerys – but in the end, the man agreed to let my father know anything of interest that he might learn about the Lowery line my father was a part of. And sure enough, one summer day just after the end of my senior year in high school – I was mowing the lawn while my father was stripping away at the weeds that lined our old chain-link fence – and my mom called out from the back door for him to take a phone call. It was that zealous fella. In the midst of his study of his Lowery line, he had discovered at least this much about my father’s: (1) A good number of Lowery men had been hung throughout the late 1800s for stealing horses, and (2) my father was the first Lowery male in several generations not to have divorced his wife – and virtually all of the divorces had come as a result of infidelity. Having heard of amazing discoveries in the wake of genealogical research, I had hoped we would discover we were distant relatives of some president or inventor – perhaps a social justice trailblazer. What I ended up with were a bunch of adulterous men who couldn’t even manage to own horses honestly.

After the phone call and a brief conversation about what was learned, my father went back to weeding, and I went back to mowing the lawn – a task which would have included my carefully navigating the mower around an old tree stump we’d never completely dealt with years after it’d been cut down one afternoon in my early childhood. I’m certain I didn’t think of this then – I was in high school, for goodness’ sake, which meant I was probably mulling over the Bulls chances against the Sonics in the finals – but that old stump should have brought to mind the reality of what my father and I had just learned: The Lowery family tree was nothing more than a gnarled, ugly stump of a thing, and this in large part because of a long line of conniving, cheating, godless males who cared only for themselves. And if I’d been thinking along these lines, I maybe would have gotten around to thinking about my grandfather, the only other Lowery male (besides my father) that I vaguely knew anything about. And I probably would have started to think about those dog-eared pictures in that old shoebox. About how my grandfather was clearly a cold man. About how – as best I could piece together, because such things aren’t batted about over dessert at Thanksgiving – he was a cold man because he was a conniving man, a cheating man, a godless man. And if I had been thinking all of this, I might have steered the mower around that stump and thought it sure seems some family lines are nothing short of damned. I would have maybe thought all of these things in deep desperation that day, except for the exception of the man just over my shoulder – the one tearing weeds loose from the fence in an old undershirt and those ridiculous orange Chuck Taylors he insisted on wearing for yardwork.

It’s a messianic text for sure – the one in Isaiah 11 about a tender shoot from the stump of Jesse. It’s the stuff of Israel and Jesus. And I wouldn’t have it any other way. But God’s ability to tease tender shoots from gnarled, ugly, just-a-remnant-short-of-damned stumps runs a line right through Israel and into living rooms – for every family open to it (and even some who aren’t). By the constant wooing of God, my father ended up being the first male Lowery in many a generation to shun the conniving. To stay true to a wife. To love God and neighbor richly. All of this among other things, of course. All of this until his dying day – which was not death by public hanging, I might add. No, his was a death on the other side of a lifetime of dying to self. The Lowerys had never seen this before.

The last time I saw those dog-eared pictures – the pictures of my grandfather holding me, of my grandfather standing by my grandmother with one foot out the door, of my grandfather steeped in the misery of his folly – was the night before my father’s visitation. As so many families do, we were trying to pull together a collage of images that would best speak to who he was. And of course I didn’t choose any of those pictures for the collage. Because that was not who my father was. My father was not his father, in any way imaginable. I thought about this that night around the kitchen table, as we poked around in pictures. I thought about my father’s father, and simply about my father. I thought through it all as my daughter, one and a half at the time, was bouncing on my knee. As Sarah reached over and squeezed my hand as we sat at the table – six years married at the time, even on the other side of the disappointment of ministry, the pain of death, a foreclosure. As I was just five months shy of planting a church on the west side of Indianapolis, despite the terror of it all. I thought about how I knew how to hold Eden. How to stay true to my wife. How I knew God. How I knew these things because of a tender shoot. A tender Shoot.