Thursday, January 11, 2018

Polish ~ In Memory of William Kenneth Stewart.

Ken Stewart with my sisters,
Amy on the left and Alicia on the right.
The following post was originally written nearly a decade ago, on my old blog. It later worked its way into my book, Scribere Orare Erat. My grandfather, Ken Stewart, who I talk about in this essay, died this afternoon. He is now reunited with my grandma, Dorothy, who died this past August.... though they had long by separated in mind (though not in heart) after she developed dementia. I pray that God's love now envelopes and heals them both. I am profoundly grateful for the gift of having Ken Stewart as a grandfather, for the many things he taught me—most importantly about the love of family, the love of Church, and the love of Scripture. May he rest in peace and rise in glory. 

And if you are ever in Corunna, Michigan, take a look at the building on the corner across the street from the courthouse. He finally did sell it, and the awning now bears the name "The Ken & Dorothy Stewart Building." 

I come from a shoe family.

My mother's father's business for years and years was a shoe store. Actually, I know it as the shoe store. I believe all of his kids worked in it at one time or another. When I was a small child, my parents were probably about as well off as most parents that have kids in their early twenties (which is to say, we weren't wealthy). But I never lacked for shoes. I always had a good pair of shoes, even from the time I was just a toddler. 

My dad worked in that store, I believe it was where he discovered his knack for selling things. Around the time I was 4 or 5, he traveled across the state to West Michigan to work at a big shoe store in Grand Rapids. We came with him and my family lived in West Michigan for the rest of growing up years, right up until I moved back to south eastern Michigan to go to college in Rochester Hills. My dad moved on from shoes to cars, and my family gradually spread away from west Michigan. Except for my younger sister, who steadfastly remains in Grand Rapids. That's just the way she is, and it's one of the things I love and admire about her. 

But my grandfather, the one who owned the shoe business, never moved. It's almost as if the earth spun so fast that the rest of us slid to other places, but he remained right in Corunna, a small town outside of Flint. He closed the shoe store. I have the picture of the last day it was open somewhere. Everyone standing together in one big group as a chapter in the Stewart family life ended. Grandpa turned the place into a consignment shop for years. When I was a teenager, he'd let me sit behind the register and ring people up, paying a foolish child a couple dollars to do something I thought was great fun. I was paid almost literally by the hour and every few dollars I made I'd run down the street to the Freeway pharmacy/convenience store and buy myself something. Candy. A toy gun. That money burned a hole in my pocket and wasn't lasting long. 

He closed the consignment store too, and has tried several times to sell the whole building and be done with it. 

He's 84 now, and he shouldn't have to mess with things like that. But it's seems like a penny that's hard to lose. I don't know what's going on with the building now, but I know Grandpa is right where he's always been: next to Grandma Dorothy (he calls her "Dot"). They're at their house just a few miles from the old store. Same house. Same house that seemed so gigantic when I was a child and still looms large in my mind and in my heart. 

After my first year of seminary in west Texas, when my theological world began shifting and before I had gotten used to living a whole country away from my family, I went to see my grandparents. I'd been in Michigan for that preaching conference Rochester used to host and spent my last evening and day up at their house in Corunna. You remember the story, I wrote about it earlier. I wrote about riding on the back of my grandfather's motorcycle across the roads of Shiawassee County. 

But there's a part of that visit with Grandpa Ken and Grandma Dorothy I didn't include in that post. I had mentioned to Grandpa about how after a year in Texas I was itching to buy some cowboy boots. He said he had a pair he didn't wear anymore, and that I could have them if they fit and if I wanted them. 

Always a shoe man, he knew the first question was whether or not they fit. Not whether or not you wanted them. I tried them on and they fit perfectly. He took a look at them and said they'd need a good polish. I gave them back and we went into his office, next door to his bedroom in the house. He pulled out his old shoe polish kit. I sat on the floor and he sat on the edge of the coffee table in the office and took one of the boots. He cleaned the dirt and dust off of it first. Then, opening the can of Kiwi, he used a small round brush and started working the polish into the leather. 

I'd polished a pair of shoes before. Both my mom and my dad made sure I knew how to do that. But a boot is a bigger thing to polish. I watched my Grandpa work the polish into both boots, then use the longer brush to begin to buff them, finishing the shine with a cloth. He was careful, but not slow. You could see that his arms had done this work several times over the years. While he polished he explained to me why he preferred boots like these: Red Wings. He talked about how they last so long and were of such good quality. In fact, he said, he'd bought these particular boots in 1981, the year I was born. When he was done he set them down next to each other and they shined like brand new. 
These boots were a quarter of a century old and they shined like brand new. 

I still wear my grandpa's boots. I wore them all throughout my time in Texas and kept wearing them when I moved to Tennessee. I don't know what Bethany thought about the Michigan boy wearing boots in middle Tennessee when I met her, but she married me anyway. I wore those boots for our engagement pictures and brought them with me when we moved to the Washington, DC area. They are still my favorite footwear. After almost 30 years they're perfectly broken in. When I put them on they feel like home. 

I polished those boots this morning and thought about my Grandpa. I closed my eyes and pictured him working that polish along the boot as he explained the ways of boots and shoe polish to me. Over the years of my life, the brush of his life has slowly worked polish into my own. Life has scuffed me sometimes, but he showed me where to find God's polish: in my family and in a heart that desires God above all else. And so I still work that brown polish into my boots. I still work the polish of grace into my life. And neither my boots nor my soul have worn out yet. 

Almighty God, with whom still live the spirits of those who die in the Lord, and with whom the souls of the faithful are in joy and felicity: We give you heartfelt thanks for the good examples of all your servants, who, having finished their course in faith, now find rest and refreshment. May we, with all who have died in the true faith of your holy Name, have perfect fulfillment and bliss in your eternal and everlasting glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.