Monday, January 31, 2011


Janice’s grandfather, Grover Cleveland Riley, was known affectionately in the family as Papa. When I came into the family, Papa was in his eighties and had already survived two World Wars, the Depression, continuing tough times on his farm in Mississippi and the turbulence of the sixties civil rights struggles; in addition, he had outlasted two wives. He was, at the time, “breaking-in” (his words) yet a third wife. Somewhere in storage we still have (I hope) super 8 motion picture images of the aged but strong Papa, walking barefoot behind a mule, plowing his field in the cold of winter!

A few years after I married Janice, Papa’s once robust health began to fail. I remember one time, in the last hospital confinement before his death in the early ‘70’s, when my father was visiting with Papa in his room. Back when hospitals limited the number and times of visitors for patients, long days alone in his room were only occasionally broken by visits from family members and new friends, such as my father. On that day, my father would later recount to us that Papa looked directly at him and said: “Newell, there’s lots of wasted space in this room!” With much time to himself, the bed-ridden Papa must have been staring for hours from his bed, up into the ceiling and walls of his hospital room. With that limitation of the social world that often characterizes the elderly and, most especially, those confined to a hospital room, Papa sought to make conversation out of the imminent realities of his current situation.

Although Papa has been gone from us for many years now, so much of his life remains. Janice remembers how he always had orange slices candy for her; we recall the warmth (if not, oppressive heat) of those small heaters that burned in winter in the bedroom of his small, un-insulated, frame house. When Papa wanted to tell me that an idea or a project was not worth his while, he would say, “Son, there just ain’t no percentage in it!” To this day, when I tell Janice that I do not choose to become involved in a particular undertaking, I’ll borrow this well chosen syntax from Papa. Among our top remembrances of Papa, however, is, ironically, always his notice that “There’s lots of wasted space in this room.”

I suppose it is natural that, when one’s life begins to slow down and when one is faced with the reality that his days are numbered, one begins to reflect on inefficiency and waste. I take Papa’s statement to my father as reflecting on more than simply the construction design parameters of a hospital room from years ago. In a much larger sense, Papa was evidencing what I and others feel who have lived a few years and who, daily now, must acknowledge the reality that this life of ours is precious and fleeting.

With the perspective of some years, we are discovering that some projects must be abandoned because “there just ain’t no percentage” in them. And, with the benefit of maturity and a more keen concern for overall efficiency, we bemoan the sad reality of life’s abundant waste.

Oh God, show us how to so invest ourselves and our lives in such a careful manner that there can be an expectation of profound percentage of return and help us to join You in ridding this inefficient old world of its many costly and hurtful wastes!

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