My father grew up on a farm in Mason County, West Virginia. He was born in 1929, just a few months before the stock market crash that helped trigger the Great Depression. These were tough times, with scarce job opportunities for white folks such as my dad’s family, but especially more so for African-Americans in this pre-Civil Rights age. Thus, many blacks were employed by white families in capacities such as maids, handy-men and day laborers. My dad’s parents had such an arrangement with a World War I veteran by the name of Cliff Thompson. He did odd jobs around the house and farm for a small salary and was invited to live in a little house on their property, where he remained until the day he died. Not having a family of his own, he was essentially treated as a member of their family.
As a young boy, my dad loved to hear Cliff tell stories about his youth. Cliff had led an interesting life. He had a metal plate in his head, either from a war wound or from professional boxing in his younger days (Dad was not sure which, as Cliff had recounted both versions of this story). In an era when it was almost unheard of for whites and blacks to associate beyond being casual acquaintances, Cliff was like a brother to my grandfather and loved my dad like a son.
When Cliff died in 1955, my father mourned as if he had lost his own parent. Since Cliff had no known survivors to claim his body, Dad and some other community members made sure he received a proper burial and purchased a modest grave marker. He was laid to rest in the same cemetery as my dad’s parents, both of whom had died in the late 1940’s.
Every year on Memorial Day from the time his father died in 1948 until his own death in 2011, my father made the trek to that little cemetery in Mason County. For many years of my life, including the last ten years or so of Dad’s life, I was privileged to accompany him on his annual pilgrimage and fortunate to hear him retell stories about his childhood, including the one about Cliff which I related above. We had the same ritual every year: We would stop at Kroger on the way to the cemetery and buy six single artificial flowers, all different colors. My dad would poke holes in the ground with a screwdriver and insert one flower in front of each tombstone for his father, mother, two sisters, a favorite aunt and Cliff Thompson. Dad made me promise I would continue this tradition and also pass it on to the next generation. My youngest daughter Bethany has agreed to accept the torch, and this year will mark about the fifth straight year she has joined me on our Memorial Day expedition.
This coming Monday, Memorial Day 2016, Bethany and I, along with millions of others, will head out to various cemeteries to remember our loved ones who passed before us. We will place flowers on the graves of my parents, both sets of grandparents, my sisters, and some aunts and uncles. And of course, Cliff Thompson, who lived his life and died, probably believing he had left no lasting mark on this world. Though he died before I was born and I never got to meet him, I marvel at the impression Cliff made on my young father’s formative years. I can only hope to live my life in a way that I leave an imprint on someone such that he or she is inspired to pass on my memory to future generations.
Like Cliff Thompson, Jesus didn’t leave a legacy of money or property. Instead, He left a legacy of loving God and us sacrificially and completely. If you want to leave a lasting legacy on this earth, love someone sacrificially and completely.
“And He has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister” (1 John 4:21).