Thursday, August 28, 2008

"Old Man Can't" Just Died

I have been reading a book which I gave to my father for his 80th birthday, Clarence Thomas’ “My Grandfather’s Son.” My father liked it so much that he mailed it back to me to read so we could talk about it. Thomas was nominated and confirmed as an associate justice to the Supreme Court in 1991, the culmination of an extraordinary journey from hard-scrabble roots in rural Georgia. His father left the family when he was two, and his mother gave him and his brother to her father to raise when he was seven. Thomas’ grandfather, Myers Anderson, whom Thomas lovingly and respectfully refers to as “Daddy,” was a tough, proud, self-reliant, no-nonsense, hard-working black man with a 3rd grade education who ran his own fuel oil business and did other work on the side to provide for his family and live as independently as possible during the racist Jim Crow era of the Deep South.

Thomas tells how, upon moving in with Daddy, he and his brother were told “the party is over.” Thomas couldn’t figure out which party Daddy was referring to, since he had been living in poverty and virtual squalor with his mother. But Daddy was referring to the kind of aimless living that included skipping school, wandering the neighborhood, and playing in the dirt streets. The new routine would include rising before dawn, helping deliver fuel oil, doing chores, going to school, doing more chores after school, playing a little outside, and then working on homework until bedtime. “Never let the sun catch you in bed,” Daddy said. And never give excuses. “ ‘Old Man Can’t’ just died, and I killed him,” Daddy would say. Don’t tell me why you can’t do something; figure out a way to do it. This is a great country. Never think of yourself as a victim. Stand up for your values. Daddy sent Thomas to private religious schools to give him the best education possible in that area. Later, when Thomas helped his grandparents with some tax accounting, he couldn’t believe they never made more than $7,000 a year and still managed to fund his private education.

As you might imagine, Thomas eventually rebelled against this kind of upbringing. He went off to college, “broadened his mind” and determined that Daddy was hopelessly naïve about the state of the world. They butted heads continuously. When he had moved in, Daddy told him, “The door swings both ways.” Eventually the door swung outwards when Daddy kicked him out. But over the course of the next twenty years Thomas came to a renewed appreciation and respect for his grandfather’s character and convictions, and the Supreme Court justice whose circles include the Best, Brightest and Most Accomplished People in the world will tell you that Daddy was the greatest man he has ever known.

Labor Day was created as a tribute to the contributions workers have made to the prosperity and well-being of our country. Thomas’ tribute to his grandfather is, among other things, a grateful tribute to the work ethic Daddy modeled and instilled in him and to the salutary effects of good, honest hard work. Work is biblical: God created us to “till and keep” the garden and to have dominion over the earth (Genesis 2:15).

As we rest from our labor this weekend may we appreciate anew the blessing of work. Sun up or sun down.


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