January 7, 2014

I Loved My Daddy, I Love Him Still

Elton R. seated ft., left.
Last month I read a Facebook update posted by my cousin Craig's wife, Jodi. She was writing about a weekend get-away to celebrate Craig's birthday on the 9th of December. My cousin, Craig Bond, was born in Orange, Texas, on my daddy's birthday. Jodi's Facebook update made me think about Daddy all week. I couldn't stop thinking about what it would be like if he were still around today or at least had been with us longer. Even though December 9th holds no special significance for anyone except people like Craig whose birthdays share that date, I think of December 9th as if it were a national memorial day to Elton Lavorn "Jiggs" Ritchey, my Daddy.

Daddy was born Elton Lavorn Ritchey on December 9, 1918 in Oklahoma. It has always been a bit of a controversial question as to how his middle name is spelled. His mother spelled it one way and it was different on other documents. Dad insisted it was not Lavern, but could have been Lavorn. Only my grandmother knows for sure and she has been gone decades. On Monday, December 9, 2013, he would have been 95 years old.

Long before I was even born, Daddy was working hard for my mom
and his infant son, Johnny Elton Ritchey. Mom and Dad were married Christmas Eve of 1942 and Mom gave birth to their first son on January 24, 1943 in the shadow of World War II. Dad was an Air Force airplane mechanic during the war stationed in Belgium for the better part of his time in the service of his country. My brother was 3 months old before Daddy got to met his son for the first time. My mother used to tell me the story about boarding a train alone with Johnny, in Oklahoma, to travel to Nebraska where Daddy was on leave before shipping out overseas. I often requested Mama tell her story about that trip. My child's mind would conjure up images like I'd seen on old black and white movies of the bustling crowds of people around train depots during that time period. I pictured my mom walking bumping into other travelers trying to board the train. She was struggling to manage holding the baby and her luggage when a black railroad employee known as "Red Caps" carried her bags and made sure they got on the train safely. Mom always mentioned how kind the Red Cap was to her and how much she appreciated his help. I've read old letters Daddy wrote to my grandmother while overseas. My grandparents helped look after baby Johnny and my mom while Dad was gone. The words Daddy wrote were kind, expressing thankful gratitude to his in-laws for taking care of his family in his absence. Those letters always make me sad to read as I imagined Daddy so far away from home and missing his wife and baby boy.

One of the nicest men I ever knew, my daddy had a big heart for other people in need. He did carpentry work for widow ladies around our neighborhood. He was often seen with a hammer or a paintbrush in his hand, high up on a ladder or roofing on top of someone's house. He seemed to always have a side job going somewhere. Daddy's full time job was as a shift worker at Union Oil Refinery in Nederland, TX. As a shift worker, his daily schedule often changed. When his shift allowed it, he could work during the day on other projects he hired out to do at people's houses. I can still picture him up on a ladder in his white painter's overalls painting a neighbor's house. A couple of summers Daddy worked for an elderly couple who owned a beach house on Gilchrist Beach not far from Beaumont. They vacationed there every summer with their invalid son. Daddy would go down to the beach for a week prior to the couple's arrival with their son. His week at the beach was to repair anything that might have broken during the year or needed painting. The couple's neighbor in Beaumont where they lived, also owned a beach house nearby on the same beach. My parents, brother and I got to stay in her beach house while Daddy worked on the other house in exchange for a little maintenance work on her place, too. I remember those weeks playing in the Gulf, listening to ocean waves crashing in the night and watching the shrimp boats every evening.

Daddy was my champion when it came to helping me learn new skills. Learning to read was hard for me and even after I mastered the concepts, I was not in love with reading. Daddy stuck with me even when I was crying and didn't want to read some boring book my teacher had assigned for my home reading. I remember one time in fourth grade, I had to read a take-home reader named, "Dessert Animals". I just could not make it through hardly a chapter of that awful book. I slumped down the wall of our dining room crying that I couldn't read it. Daddy patiently slipped down beside me and suggested that he read a page and I read the next page. So, that is what we did, and together "Dessert Animals" was conquered.

Playing Kyle's toy guitar
He taught me other things too, like how to tie my shoes, ride a bike, swim, memorize the Old Testament books of the Bible and how to play a guitar. Daddy played country-western guitar and sang the old country songs. We watched a lot of Porter Wagner on TV in my house. Every morning when I'd wander into the kitchen for breakfast, country-western music would be playing on the radio. He taught me to sing harmony and we'd sing together as he accompanied us on his guitar. Like most people who are related, our voices blended well together. So, when we sang "The Yellow Rose of Texas", he'd break off in harmony on the bridge and we'd sound pretty good.

Daddy was very handy with his tools fixing almost anything in our house that needed repair. He was
Daddy working his garden
our plumber, painter, carpenter, gardener and car mechanic as well as my personal crafting expert. There was never a swing set in our yard to play on, but I had a swing hanging from a tree. Daddy crafted a plank of wood for the seat of my swing and hung it from a strong tree limb in the backyard with heavy rope. I loved to swing and spend sunny afternoons happily singing and swinging in my custom made swing. When I went off to Abilene Christian College, Daddy designed and built a small collapsible bookshelf for me so it could easily move from one semester to the next. Earlier this year, that little bookshelf, a little worse for wear, got a make-over when I decided it was time to repaint it. I was reminded of Dad's eye for detail as I painted over his handwritten assembly letters on the backs of the shelf pieces. My second year of teaching was here in Baytown schools where I taught kindergarten. I told my dad that I needed a small kid-sized hat tree for the classroom home center and asked if he could make one. By the next time we saw each other, I had a cute little hat tree standing at the perfect height for my students. Today that hat tree has been repainted and is holding hats in a playroom for our grandchildren here in our home.

Daddy working on our 1st house.
On several occasions Daddy would drive over from Port Neches to Baytown and repair, paint or lend his carpentry skills to our home projects. When it was time to fix up and sell our first house, Daddy spent the weekend with us paneling inside walls, painting the house exterior and repairing worn out screens. One day while living in our second home, our middle son, Kyle, a toddler at the time, decided that instead of taking a nap, he'd swing from his curtains like Tarzan. When the curtain brackets ripped from the wall damaging the drywall, Daddy came over and repaired it like a professional. I was thankful that my dad was able and willing to lend us a helping hand. 

When I was a little girl and Daddy worked the graveyard shift at the oil refinery, I got to sleep with my mom. If he worked all night on New Year's Eve, I remember lying next to Mama in her bed listening to the refinery whistles at midnight as they blew in the New Year. Mama recognized the refinery whistles and would comment on which one she thought was Union Oil. My daddy was likely ringing in the new year with a buddy out at the plant over a cup of coffee. Often he would work an extra shift on holidays because it meant extra pay. Those guys working extra shifts also got a bonus of a meal compliments of Union Oil.
Mom & Dad

Daddy was an elder at the Church of Christ in Port Neches. I remember when the new church building was constructed back in about 1960. My daddy spent many days there helping work on the building getting it ready for our congregation to worship. He spent many hours of personal Bible study and taught Bible classes. On occasion, he even stepped in the pulpit when our preacher was absent. One such Sunday, Daddy was preaching when I decided to be baptized. It is a special memory to me that my daddy was the one who baptized me that Sunday in 1964.

Even though Elton Ritchey was in his late 70's when he passed away, it was still too soon to lose my daddy. In his mid to late 60's he began to develop signs of Alzheimer's disease. By the time my mother passed away from cancer, my brothers and I realized how far Dad's mind had deteriorated. It was a sad, sad time to watch Daddy's health decline. Before he was put in a nursing home, my two brothers and I took turns spending a weekend with Dad so his weekday sitter could return to her home. He often didn't know who I was when I visited with him, but I tried to act like everything was normal and was careful not to ask questions. On those weekends, we sometimes sat in the backyard glider looking up at the giant oak trees. He enjoyed watching the birds and squirrels working to build their nests in the trees. Before Alzheimer's set in, another of my dad's side jobs was with H & R Block preparing taxes. He was diligent at keeping good home accounting records and prepared other people's taxes as if they were his own. Even though his day job was at a refinery, he had a sharp mind for accounting. I always thought he looked nice in his suit when he went to the H & R office to work. Daddy had been accustomed to working and staying busy around the house. On the weekends I spent with him, I'd observe him "working" in his dresser drawers arranging and rearranging medicine bottles of coins, greeting cards and other meaningless items around his socks and t-shirts. I'd drive him to church and he'd comment to me that another woman had come to visit him and also drove him to church. He was talking about me. I was the only woman who ever drove him to church.

It was hard to watch Dad lose his memory forget who I was. After Daddy's death, it took me a while to picture my daddy as he was while I was growing up. Looking at old photographs of him in happier times made that process easier. The event pictured would bring to mind a story about Daddy's kind, fun personality and caring attitude toward everyone. I loved my daddy, I love him still. For even now after living 61 years, I reminisce about Daddy and feel like his little girl again.
My wedding day. 12/21/74

December 30, 2013

An Evolving Christian

While spending a week at the family lake cabin on Lake Sam Rayburn, the book I chose to read was Evolving in Monkey Town, by Rachel Held Evans. I had heard of this book and had the sample read on my Kindle. A couple of years ago I heard Evans speak at the ACU (Abilene Christian University) Summit Lectureship. So, I was somewhat familiar with who Rachel Held Evans was as a speaker and author. I then, made the decision to download her whole book and give it a read. Best decision thus far this trip.

This post is not meant to be a review of Rachel Held Evans’ book, but a sorting out of the impact her book, which chronicles her doubts about her beliefs, had on me. I was glad to learn the book was not really about monkeys or even evolution of man, but instead, an evolution of Evan’s doubts about God and her journey to find answers to some tough questions. It is encouraging that even though I’m 31 years her senior, that a 20-something year old woman expressed so well with profound meaning what has been churning in my mind for many years now.

All of my life I have believed in God, Jesus as my Savior and the divine truth of scripture. My prayers to God have turned into personal requests for help with doubts lately. Similar to Rachel Held Evans, my childhood routines revolved around church activities and weekly worship services. Church attendance, Bible reading, Sunday School have been part of my life since birth. As a preteen/teenager, I didn’t attend dances, drink alcohol or wear short shorts. I attended church services literally every time the doors were opened, church camp every summer from the time I was old enough, monthly youth devotionals as a teen and summer Vacation Bible Schools since the beginning of time. My dad was a deacon in our church, then an elder and on occasion stepped for the preacher when he was out of town. I knew all of my home congregation’s preachers personally. State universities were not even on my radar when I chose a Christian university to attend after high school. In my mind, attending a Christian college meant I’d finally be around more people who thought like me. The boys I’d date would all be Christians, or so I thought. Even today, some 40+ years later, I need to know my doubts and questions are not uncommon. Rachel Held Evans’ written words resonated with some of the same “why” questions I’ve had about God.

September 3, 2013

A Mother's Memory

All day long, the young teacher anxiously went about her duties collecting milk money, setting out paper and crayons as she introduced a new group of kindergarten students to all that was before them in the coming school year. However, the teacher’s mind was elsewhere, a short drive away with her 7-month-old baby boy at a babysitter’s house for his first day. That morning the young teacher/mom had reluctantly left her son with a seasoned babysitter with whom she trusted. However, the teacher’s mind returned to her son all day long with questions: Would he be okay, would he take his nap, will he cry, would the babysitter pay enough attention to him while also watching four pre-k children? The young mother resisted the urge to phone the babysitter to see how their day was going.  As an occasional lump came to her chest and she thought about her son, she fought back tears throughout her day. The teacher realized 22 five-year-old students had been left by their parents and also required her full attention. “I will just have to trust that Jason is okay and make it through this day”, she thought. 

In 1977, I was a 24-year old mother and kindergarten teacher. My husband, Kim, was a high school theater arts teacher. Our plan had been for me to stay home with Jason and not teach that year. The strain of paying bills led me to return to work. Leaving Jason that first anxious day of school so I could return to work made for a stressful day. At the end of the day, I rushed back to Baytown from Highland as fast as I could.  As I approached a traffic light and yellow turned red, I proceeded down the road and a policeman pulled me over to discuss running red lights. I began to cry and attempted to explain that I had left my 7-month old baby boy with a new baby sitter for the first time and was anxious to get back to him.  I guess the policemen had pity on this new mom because he let me off with a warning to drive safely.

Soon after I left the police encounter, all my fears were squelched as I saw Jason in the capable hands of Aunt BeBe, as her “kids” affectionately knew her. She gave me a glowing report of his day while he happily smiled at me. We really loved Aunt BeBe and could see her apparent love for all the kids in her care. Our second son, Kyle, would also stay with Aunt BeBe up until the year Jason was 5 years old. After which we found another lady to watch our brood of little boys who grew in number with the birth of son number three, Ryan, and Jason entered kindergarten.

Now, thirty-six years later, Dr. Jason Kelly Martin began this school year as the Clinical Director of the Community Life Center, and Assistant Professor of Counseling at the University of Mary-Hardin Baylor in Belton. My interest about whether he is having a good day or what he is doing still pops into my thoughts, but of course I trust he is doing fine. Accomplished in his field of study alongside being a wonderful husband and dad, Jason makes my heart swell with love and pride to be his parent.

All of my sons make me proud. It has and continues to be a fun ride with the boys, so my motto remains as always, There is never a dull moment. Wherever their lives take them, I am more than willing to be part of the journey.
Jason, Ryan, Kyle about 1984

Ryan, Kyle, Jason, summer 2013