I’ve been spending considerable time traveling in the land of memory in the past few days. It was prompted by looking at some old photos of the best man I have ever know, my mother’s father, a man named Ernest Cleek, once a publicist for a major resort hotel and then editor of a small weekly country newspaper in an impossibly rural county in the Virginia mountains.
He was not a perfect man. He liked to argue politics, and he was fond of quoting from the Bible and the classical Greeks and Romans, but retelling the stories in his own way. Towards the end of his life he had a quite painful bone cancer. The newspaper was operated out of an small old bank building, and he kept a fifth of whisky in the old vault. One swig seemed to contain the pain for an afternoon. He never complained.
He was honest in everything. He had compassion. More than once he bought shoes for kids too poor to afford them, so they could go to school. We’d stop by chain gangs and he’d give them and the deputies cigarettes for a break from the hot Virginia summer sun. He was endlessly patient with children. He’d married a girl from a rich family and though he was poor, loved her with a ferocity I have not seen often. She was a Southern lady, and when she cried in frustration at his stubbornness, she’d go in the bathroom and turn on the water so no one could hear.
He had a sense of humor that could find something to laugh at in the bleakest of times. He did not laugh at people, he had a gentle sense of humor that could make most people smile, poking fun at human pretensions and hubris. He had a temper, but controlled it and rarely spoke in anger. He did not have enemies; he saw people as people, who he sometimes disagreed with. I wish I had that temperate way.
Once when I was small, the grocer gave me a dime too much change. I bragged about it and he promptly drove us back and I walked in and gave the grocer the dime. My grandfather said it wasn’t my dime and that in time I’d understand what he meant. Now, I do.
But there’s more. While he was in some ways a loving almost Old Testament patriarch, for him a family was an anchor in this world. Family was family—but someone being family was not an excuse to forgive contemptable behavior like cowardice or taking advantage. For him, marriage was a partnership, not a dictatorship. His wife was his partner, not his possession. He did not physically discipline his children—his disapproval was enough to stop them in their tracks. He thought a man who raised a hand against his children or partner was a poor excuse for a human being.
So here it is, in another century. We inhabit a real world, not a house of memory. What I’m left with is a definition of what makes a good man. A good man is honest and has compassion. A good man has the imagination to be able to walk in another person’s shoes. A good man treats his partner as a partner, fully equal in all ways. A good man understands that success and prosperity does not make him better than someone else. A good man loves his country and yet criticizes it when he thinks it can do better.
A good man loves this blue world and accepts that life is a gift to be cherished. A good man accepts that love is a mystery and is a gift to be cherished.
Deep knowledge,and happy reading.
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