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The opportunities that death gives us to rethink what matters

Yesterday, my late father -- another Bill Tammeus, though his real first name was Wilber and mine's William -- would have turned 114 years old. I still miss him, of course, though he died almost 32 years ago. His kid brother, however, is still with us. And, inshallah, will turn 102 in late March.

WHTammeus-50sHaving just passed All Saints Day a week ago, I've been continuing now to ponder the brevity of life and, in the words of an author whose book I recently reviewed here, have been trying to make sure that the way I live my finite life is "worthy of my finitude."

I think Dad accomplished that, though he was not, shall we say, bent toward philosophical or religious dialogue, even though he was a man of faith as a Presbyterian elder (as am I).

He grew up on a farm in central Illinois -- the farm that today is still the home address of his brother and sister-in-law, my Uncle Lawrence and Aunt Velma. Recently, however, they moved to a nearby nursing home as they recuperate from some health issues. And it's unclear to me whether they'll ever get back to the farm. Sigh.

My father saw astonishing changes in his life, which began with his birth in an old house (later moved) on the family farm that his grandparents, German immigrants, had purchased in the early 1880s. Here's how he once described it to me in an oral history I did with him:

"Well, things were quite primitive, really, in those days. The grass grew tall in the yard and the door yard flowerbeds had lots of tall weeds in them and the garden never seemed very well cared for. My Dad just couldn't be bothered and Mother couldn't hack it, raising all four of us kids. She really had nothing very much to work with. She did most of her own canning, picked her own vegetables and fruits and went about it as best she could."

After high school, he managed to be admitted to the University of Illinois College of Agriculture and -- after taking off a few years in the middle of that to earn money punching cattle in Nebraska -- got his degree and began his career as an extension agent, or farm advisor.

It was, he thought (and I agree), important work during and after the Great Depression to help feed the nation even as the U.S. industrialized and fewer and fewer family farms operated. But when he had an opportunity to move with Mom and, by then, four children to India in the 1950s to help that country become food self-sufficient, he took it and we lived there for two years.

For Dad, making sure that what he was doing was worth his finitude always seemed to mean a nice combination of enjoying the work he was paid to do and making sure that work was benefitting people who needed help. After returning from India, he became an agent with an investment firm now called Ameriprise, and he helped many of his farmer friends in our area of northern Illinois learn how to make safe and wise use of whatever money they had so they, too,  could enjoy their work and feed people in need.

In all of this, he was supported, encouraged (sometimes aggressively) and loved by my mother, whose life also began on an Illinois farm and who also found ways to enjoy her work and to respond to a religious motivation to lift up the downtrodden.

WDT-WHT-Tammy-1958So I began life with good models for making sure that my life was worthy of my finitude, but, of course, I'm not the only one who gets to say whether, at least so far, I've managed to accomplish that. (By the way, the picture at right shows Dad and me and our collie Tammy in our back yard when I was about 15 or so -- and apparently half-starved to death.)

But because death is not optional, it's never too late to do an audit of one's life to make sure that we're not frittering it away with mindless consumerism or soul-killing entertainment or simple inattention. (That doesn't mean we don't need recreation, especially the kind that is re-creative and it doesn't mean we don't need time just to be -- as opposed to just doing.)

I think that in some ways, birthdays and All Saints days and such commemorations exist as a chance to measure whether our lives matter. If, after such an examination, you aren't sure whether you've wasted a bunch of your time in life, you can be pretty sure that you almost certainly have. But just know that you don't need to do that anymore. Starting today.

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ANOTHER BOY FINDS A GENERATIVE PATH

Although I never quite thought of my father as my only role model -- we had different approaches to doing life but many of the same core values -- I nevertheless continue to feel his solid, unpretentious presence in my life. Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin, who writes about Judaism for Religion News Service, says in this column that one of his role models starting in his teen years was a rabbi who died recently, Dannel Schwartz. "For me, the enduring lesson of Dannel Schwartz’s life was the influence that he had on me, and countless other young people," Salkin writes.

Salkin has wished that for others. Then, as he writes, "several years ago, my friend and teacher, Rabbi Donniel Hartman of the Shalom Hartman Institute, gave a lecture on God at my congregation in West Palm Beach. One of our religious school kids — a very talented, charismatic kid of 14 — came to hear Rabbi Hartman. Rabbi Hartman and this kid made eye contact, and the kid smiled and nodded. 

"I know the drill. The kid fell in love. With Rabbi Hartman and/or with Judaism. After Rabbi Hartman’s lecture, I took that kid aside, and I said to him: 'I want you to remember this evening for the rest of your life. Whatever else happens to you in your life, I want you to remember this evening as the evening when something passed between Rabbi Hartman and your soul. Whatever you want to do with it, that’s up to you. But, it happened.'"

That's the kind of influence-for-good each of us can have on others.

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P.S.: My latest book review for The National Catholic Reporter -- about 52 Masses, by Daniel Markham -- now is online here.

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