Harold Hulon Saye Sr. was born November 26, 1923, delivered in the tiny town of Ball Ground, GA by his grandfather, Ball Ground’s first doctor.
He lived a simple life, built his house by hand and raised five sons with the love of his life Geneva.
He’s slowing down now, recovering from a broken hip and experiencing some cognitive challenges. But on his 95th birthday, he ate his big slice of bday cake and laughed that 95 was a whole lot of years.
(I invite you, as you read this post, to recollect your grandparents, or any elders who have gone before, paving the way, in this perpetual, eternal Circle of Life. Picture them as you read.)
Last week a beautiful funeral/memorial service took place here in Savannah for Fred Pierce, the eighty-five year old father of my daughter Amy’s fiancé Scott. You can read Mr. Pierce’s inspiring obituary here. What an active, productive life he lived!
My talented ten-year old grandson Daniel sang (beautifully, I might add!) the national anthem at the interment at our city’s much lauded Bonaventure Cemetery.
He then presented the flag to Fred’s wife Ruth.
Daniel, a Savannah child actor/singer, also sang at my mother’s funeral back in 2016. He was eight at the time.
And back in 2012, my father-in-law, the Rev. Billy Boggs, passed away. Daniel, four at that time, wanted to go into the funeral home’s visitation area to see his great-grandfather. “Abu, what’s back there?” He simply could not understand how, if Papa was supposed to be in Heaven, he could also be down that long hallway at the funeral home.
With approval from his parents, I took Daniel, in my arms, down that lively, deadly hallway toward his great-grandfather. I don’t know, you may have chosen differently. But I had been carrying D around all over the place for years. Why not here, I thought?
Here’s the story, from six years ago, from my NealEnJoy blog:
[As I mentioned in a previous post, my father-in-law passed away earlier this week. Death, of course, is difficult for anyone to cope with, but perhaps especially so for young children. Because they are still so close to birth, little beings of the morning, and because their life experience has been with newness and fresh discovery, with joy and giggles, death must seem unfathomable, foreign, outside of understanding.
But like most kids, my four-year-old grandson Daniel likes to understand: “Abu, why can’t I sit on top of your car? I could see a whole lot better.” “Abu, my teacher won’t let me bring my sword to school and fight like the blue Power Ranger. Why not?” “Why can’t I say potty words?” “Why do we have to wear clothes when it’s hot?” “Why?” “Why?” “Why?”
When his parents arrived at the funeral home north of Atlanta the other evening, they told me that Daniel had, as usual, been plying them with questions about the current subject which went beyond his grasp–his great-grandfather’s death. “But if Papa is in heaven, why will everyone be sad?” “Where IS Papa?”
I played with Daniel and his little brother Gabriel in the large kitchen area of the funeral home, where friends had brought mounds of food. Their mom and dad, Amy and Orte, walked through large white windowed doors and down a narrow hall that eventually led to a sitting room where the family received guests who came to pay their respect and offer condolences. Papa looked pre-cancerous in a striking gray suit, snow-white shirt, and brown and gray tie patterned with tiny crosses. He had been a Methodist minister in the North Georgia Conference. A large United States flag, achingly resplendent in red, white and blue liveliness, lay across the unopened lower half of the coffin. Papa was retired Air Force.
Every few minutes, Daniel ran over to tiptoe and peer through the windows of the white doors, gazing down that long hallway which twisted and turned but allowed no view of Papa. “Where are Mama and Daddy? I want to go too.” A few minutes later: “Why can’t I go in?” “Is Papa in there? Where?” “Let’s go in there, Abu.”
A while later, when we were eating lasagna in the kitchen, Daniel was still asking, asking. I made a decision, a decision you may not have made. I asked Daniel’s mom and dad if I could take him in to see Papa. They agreed, mainly (I think) because they trust me, and they know how much I love D.
I picked Daniel up and asked him if he knew what had happened to Papa. “He died,” came the quick answer. I told him that yes Papa had died. “And he’s in heaven,” Daniel added. His confusion centered on who or what was down that hall that everyone kept traversing. He wanted understanding, answers. He wanted to walk down that hall.
So we did.
The kitchen had been noisy with visitors loudly talking, eating, reminiscing, and occasionally laughing at the past. Its tiled floor amplified the clicks of my boot heels as we walked, Daniel in my arms, toward those doors, dividing doors which in my grandson’s mind led to answers. As we passed through them, my heels, like everything and everyone on that other side, grew quieter on the deep carpet.
We entered the viewing room, and walked past adults talking in hushed tones. Daniel kissed his Nana (Donna is the oldest of the four daughters of Papa), then his Great-Grandma, who sat regally next to the coffin. But his eyes were looking, searching.
Not expecting Papa to be lying down (why didn’t I think to tell him that detail?), Daniel finally found his great-grandfather.
He looked for a while, and finally asked quietly (Daniel doesn’t usually do “quiet” very well), “Is Papa sleeping?”
“No, not really sleeping. He died, remember?”
We stood there for about a minute, Daniel getting heavy in my arms.
“Are you ready to go, baby?”
Other folks waited patiently for their turn behind us. Daniel started to lean over toward the coffin, paused and looked at me for permission (and like “quiet,” D doesn’t always do “permission” well). I nodded, and Daniel touched the white satin edges of the liner and then Papa’s right arm.
Giggling just a bit, Daniel said, “It tickles.” I smiled.
“You ready now?”
We walked back through the hall, toward the kitchen. When we got to the doors, I saw through the windows my daughter Amy and Orte, waiting. I put Daniel down, and he pushed open the door. His dad asked him, “Are you okay, Daniel?”
But he was already off, running on the noisy tile, chasing his little brother. Doing “loud” once again.]
I actually love Monday (maybe in part–large part–because I am now retired).
And this Monday was special–ocean studies art day at my grandtwins’ school here in Savannah.
It was also the day grandtwin Madison lost her first tooth … at school. The teacher put the tooth in a little necklace pouch.
See the necklace? Well, lo and behold, at recess, Madison quickly lost the tooth on the playground. Of course.
WHAT ABOUT THE TOOTH FAIRY?! How will she know what to do?!
But there’s always a Plan B.
During game time at the ocean art day, the twins busily (and ultimately successfully) searched in the sand for sharks’ teeth.
Madison found one! (Well, technically so did Matthew and every other kid.) But Madison NEEDED that shark tooth. It promptly went into the necklace pouch, to be safeguarded till the pillow episode tonight.
See? There’s always a Plan B. It’s just that sometimes you have to dig around a bit to find it.
In his latest incredibly insightful book, Ageless Soul: The Lifelong Journey Toward Meaning and Joy, former monk, bestselling psychotherapist and cutting-edge modern spirituality guru Thomas Moore posits that we need to (we must!) celebrate and embrace those who have paved the road before us.
Moore explains that, “Centuries ago artists and writers had a practice of honoring a certain historical line of figures who shaped them. They referred to their own list of inspirers and muses as ‘prisca theologia’–a spiritual lineage.” We all have this gift from the past and present, don’t we? Folks who contribute to our lives, our growth, our thinking, our mental and physical development, our essence. Life benefactors.
Everybody has such a developmental legacy, a set of contributors, not perfect (or anywhere near perfection, of course) but THERE, one way or another, in our humanly sacred DNA.
My life, for example, has been/still is lifted up by a plethora of men and women who gave and continue to give me breath to live–my personal prisca theologia, my spiritual legacy.
Great-grandfather J. P. Saye was my North Georgia hometown Ball Ground’s first doctor.
I grew up with stories about his brand of doctoring. In 1963 the University of Georgia Press published a slice-of-life portrait of turn-of-the century small town Southern Americana, Yesterday in theHills, by father/son historians and co-authors Floyd and Charles Watkins. One chapter features Dr. Saye, illustrating a sample of what life was like for a country doctor who was often paid with chickens and pigs. Consider Dr. Saye’s obstetrics work, for example:
“Once Dr. Saye was delivering a baby in Andy Cockriel’s home in Lawson Town. Andy said, ‘You keep your hands off my wife. She’s mine and you nor nairy other man ain’t gonna tech her.’ Doc snapped his old black bag, rose, and countered, ‘You deliver the damn baby yourself then,” and walked out the door. Andy had to change his mind fast and beg hard before Doc Saye would return and deliver the baby.”
One of the odder pieces of family history involves my great-grandfather’s house in Ball Ground. Dr. Saye’s first wife Angie spent months at a time at Georgia’s state mental asylum in Milledgeville. During one particularly long stay, “Doc’s home burned, and he hired carpenters to build another house exactly like the first one so that she would not be disturbed when she came home” (Watkins and Watkins). Family stories suggest that great-great grandmother Angie never realized her first house had burned.
I urge you to revel in the quirkiness of your own family lore. According to Thomas Moore, “odd” simply means you have more soul in your family dynamics. (I possess an abundance of soul.) Yesterday in the Hills: “Another oddity is that no one ever knew Doc Saye’s age. How old he was remained his secret until the end, and no dates were placed on his tombstone or those of his two wives who died before him.” My great, great grandfather and I are definitely kindred spirits.
My fifth grade teacher Mrs. Ligdon gifted me with the lifelong joy of reading. We had oral reading every afternoon, either she reading to us (often, classic novels far above our grade level) or the students taking turns. I remember trying to hide my eyes in class when she read the sadder parts of Dicken’s Oliver Twist. (Seriously, Oliver was hungry–he needed more gruel.)
I could write about neighbors, teachers, friends, pastors and favorite authors who have all left their imprint on me. Where would I be if I hadn’t, in junior high, stumbled upon Chaim Potok’s The Chosen (reread time and again) and learned that books not only entertain but impact our lives. This coming-of-age novel showed me the enduring significance of both friendship and fatherhood. Much of my personal legacy can be found within the pages of books.
Today my big non-traditional family is at the heart of my spiritual legacy.
My former wife Donna taught me the meaning of enduring family love, and sticking with it, supporting it. My younger daughter Emily taught me to love gymnastics and to joyfully affirm the okay-ness of jumping up and down, twirling and spinning in life. My older daughter Amy taught me the appropriateness of meandering through the complexities of life and relationships. My grandchildren are continuing to teach me the joy of childish enthusiasm. And Robert continues to teach me the freedom and day-to-day reality of love.
The most longstanding force in my prisca theologia is my elderly dad up in North Georgia. Harold Hulon Saye Sr., my father, is …
He’ll be 95 in November, in the last season of his life. (Unlike Old Doc Saye–and me–he isn’t hesitant to reveal his age.)
Along with my late mother, my father taught me some of (most of?) my greatest life lessons, none more profound than this one I heard in various iterations over the years: “Neal, treat everybody you come in contact with as if they are the most important person in the world. Because when they are with you, they are.” My dad personifies that ambitious life strategy.
Who are the members of your own spiritual legacy, the people who made you who you are today? The models who helped you dream and even believe you could fly? Maybe take a few minutes and jot down a quick list. Can we ever thank them enough? I don’t think it’s possible.
Consider these lines from the gorgeous ballad, “Never Enough,” featured in the recent musical movie The Greatest Showman: “You set off a dream with me. Without you, all the shine of a thousand spotlights, all the stars we steal from the nightsky will never be enough for me.” I agree: without our “contributors,” we would not be us.
If you have a moment, take a listen:
“Towers of gold are still too little, these hands could hold the world, but it’ll never be enough for me … without you.”