Goodbye, Jim

For as long as I can remember, there has been a place in this world that contained great mystery, a place that combined two seemingly contradictory characteristics.  On Uncle Jim’s farm everything was large and, especially as a little kid, I was amazed and fascinated by this – by cows that towered over me, by tractors that roared and machines that clanked, by the old barn which held an immense treasure of fragrant hay, by the broad horizon that stood so much further off than it did in town, where I lived.  There was something wild and free and dangerous about this place.

On the other hand, this wild kingdom was ruled by a strong but peaceful man who always seemed glad to see me (though I must have been a terrible pest).  When dad would bring us to visit, the work of the farm went on and Jim would allow me to tag along, to the barn, to the fields, even to ride with him on the fender of his tractors as we bumped along over the crops or sailed down old gravel roads with the wind in our face, to the music of the engine’s roar and the whine of its wheels.

When we would visit in the winter I was always struck by this contrast…we would walk across the yard, shoulders hunched against the bitter cold, and stumble into the soft light of the barn, full of the strange (and mostly sweet) smell of the cows, the sound of their chewing, the warmth of their breathing.  I would find Uncle Jim somewhere in the process of milking and – however busy or weary or distracted he might have been – he would look up and smile and say “Good morning, Sunshine!”, with a twinkle in his eye, as if it were a private joke between us.

As I grew older he took me on to live and work on the farm for several summers.  I watched him work and rest and eat and all of the normal things that people do.  I watched him wrestle with the hard realities of business.  Over those years, I learned to operate the equipment on the farm and even grew taller than Jim, but the impression that was formed when I was a little kid never changed.  Jim was a giant.  He solved every problem (including quite a few that I created), he endured every hardship.  He was faithful and peaceful and he did not complain.  Every morning, I would stumble late into the barn.  Every morning, he would look up and smile and say, “Good morning, Sunshine!”.

Many years have gone by since I worked on the farm, though in some ways I never left.  We had lost many, and now we have lost every one of the remarkable people in this generation of the Ostrander family.  It seems impossible to me, but even Jim grew old and frail.

The last few weeks have reminded me of a story in the Bible, where the young Elisha is told that his mentor will soon be leaving him.  “I know”, he replied, “but do not speak of it”.  I feel the same way.  I was not ready for this.  Even now, that every member of my father’s generation has passed from our sight, I am still not ready.  I wish we did not have to speak of these things.

Before his master left, Elisha asked him for an inheritance.  “Let me have a double portion of your spirit”, he said.  That is the inheritance that I want from Jim.  I want to be like him.  He never told me how to live but he spent years showing me how to live.  Time will tell if I learned from him.
He showed me how to respect children, to welcome them and spend time with them and teach them what is important.

He showed me how to be faithful in love, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health; a lesson also demonstrated in the way that, for many years, my aunt Freda cared for her disabled husband Willard, in the way that, for many years, my aunt Caroline cared for her disabled husband Pat, in the way that my dad Charley cared for his disabled wife Julie.  I think we have learned that lesson, as our family, and especially Sheila, cared so well for my aunt Flora and has now, especially Kelly, cared beautifully for Jim.

Last week we buried not only a great man, but the last survivor of a great generation: Jim and Flora, Virginia and Newton, Freda and Willard, Caroline and Pat, Chuck and Julie…these tough, faithful, quiet people who showed us how to work and showed us how to love.

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