Saturday, we celebrated.
For the first time since his funeral, Big Granddad’s clan came together. Not everyone was present because that is how life works. His five children were there – Freda Jo, Linda Kay, Nelda Jean, Dollie Ann, and William Troy. They hosted the celebration and welcomed as many of their brood as could make it to east Texas.
The occasion of the gathering was the 100th birthday of William Austin Henager, the man I called Big Granddad. If he had lived, tomorrow, February 15th, would have been his 100th birthday. Because he does lives, not here but in the Sweet Forever, we celebrated his legacy of faith, family, and good, old-fashioned hard work.
Dollie, the youngest of his daughters, put together a book of stories contributed by his children and some of his grandchildren. They ranged from heartwarming to hilarious.
BG (as I shall acronymize Big Granddad for my own benefit) was as much man as any man I have known.
Troy, his only son, did not write this in the book but told a small group of us the story of when he had been instructed by BG to do something or other. One of the men of the church who was there said, “Bill (that was what folks who weren’t his children or grandchildren called him), I believe you are trying to make a preacher out of that boy.
Granddad replied, “No. I am trying to make a man of him. It is God’s business if he wants to make a preacher of him.”
To my knowledge, Granddad never said a word he did not mean. For a preacher, he was a man of few words. At any gathering, whether with family, at church, attending a preacher’s fellowship, or over morning coffee with friends, you can bet he would say the least. But if he did speak, it was almost always poignant.
BG was a fundamentalist Baptist and he could be prickly if the topic was biblical “standards.” He did not think men should wear long hair and didn’t like women wearing pants. As insane as it sounds to admit that in a public forum, he had Scriptures to support his beliefs and he was in line with the other preachers in his affiliation.
So, when Cousin Eddy (a good man with a great family and more silver hair than I have despite my nearly decade of age on him) wrote about being in the car when BG sneezed so hard his false teeth flew onto the dash and his hair, which BG wore slicked back, fell into his face, you can feel the shock Eddy felt as a kid.
“Granddad! You have long hair!”
Some remember Granddad as almost graceless. He was so committed to his rules. Inflexible. He could be hard-edged and ornery about it. He could be scathing in his rebuke.
I remember him differently, though. I remember him as the first person to illustrate to me the value and the meaning of grace and unconditional love.
This is my contribution to the BG book:
It was a Wednesday in 1973 (or ‘74). When I was 12 or 13 and already obsessed with females and all that that entails, probably because of the taboo way sex as handled in our little corner of society.
Dad’s business, D&F Battery & Electric, was, at the time, located between the two one-ways that cut through the heart of Mineral Wells.
It was down the street from the Safeway, where Mom sent me to buy a loaf of bread or something like that, so she could prepare lunch.
In the store, a display of paperback novels caught my eye. One of them was clearly sensual in nature. I wanted it but knew I couldn’t just buy it. For one thing, I only had the money Mom gave me. For another, it would be really weird and embarrassing. So, I took the book to the back of the store and stuffed it in my pants, pulling my shirt over it.
I checked out and reached the front doors, where freedom to read my stolen treasure waited.
I thought I was scot-free but just before I exited the store, the manager grabbed me by the arm. He took me to his office and called the police.
When the officer arrived, a menace in mirror sunglasses sporting a holstered pistol, night stick, and handcuffs, I was duly concerned.
The first thing the Buford Pusser lookalike asked me was my name.
“Eugene Strother, sir,” I says, reluctantly.
“Strother?!!” He retorts. “You David Strother’s boy?”
I nodded. “Yes sir.”
Dad had the contract with the city. He did all of the electrical work on their vehicles, batteries and starters and such. I guess that is how our friend “Buford” he knew my dad.
“Come on!” he snapped.
He put me in the back seat of the intimidating police car with its meshed steel separating us criminal elements from the officer, turned on the dadgum siren and his flashing lights, and, with all of this unnecessary bluster and fanfare, drove me exactly one block to Dad’s shop.
You can bet I caught leather belt Hell for my transgression. Dad was embarrassed, upset, and spitting-nails-mad.
Dad told Mom to take me home after he had given me my due. About an hour later, Big Granddad called the house. Mom told me he wanted to talk to me. God, I dreaded getting on that phone. I could just imagine the coals he would rake me over, especially since I had already self-identified as a God-called preacher boy. I had even preached more than a dozen sermons by then, maybe way more.
“You are going to preach tonight,” he told me. (Remember, it was Wednesday, so the midweek service was that very evening.)
Granddad didn’t mention knowing about my sin at all. I guess he figured the Devil might have won a round, but he would not win the fight. Satan couldn’t have his grandson, not if Bill Henager could help it. This was, I believe, his way of reminding me who I was. In all the years since, Granddad never mentioned a word to me about that day, never told me how shameful my action was or what a disappointment. He had gently pointed me to the Cross, to my calling. That was enough.
This was the first object lesson on grace and God’s unconditional love I ever had.
This rugged man who, when he was younger and a cotton farmer, once slugged a horse in the jaw and buckled the beast’s knees because the horse bit his young daughter, was rawhide-tough, horseshoe-solid, and mule-strong. He was also tender, loving, and never above shedding tears publicly. He was a man of grace.
God bless his memory and may we ever honor his legacy.