Wednesday, April 11, 2012


Yesterday was the anniversary of the 1905 birth of this man--Hugh Donald Thompson, which would make him 107, if he'd managed to live so long (he died December 6, 1972). When he was 16, he left high school, home, mother and younger sisters (his older brothers were grown and gone college or working men by then). He tossed a napsack over his pack, put on this uniform and went sailing on the seven seas.  Before he retired from the navy, about thirty years later, he'd seen just about every one of those seas, I think. He'd crossed the equator more than once, and celebrated with his shipmates in the time-honored tradition each time (for those of you unfamiliar--such a party involves men in costumes (mostly made of bed-sheets), a tableau and great merriment (libation, of course).  Just so you know, though, when he left home, he not only told his mother, but also changed his name to Hugh O'Hara Thompson--to honor her, because her maiden name was O'Hara (and no, her first name wasn't Scarlett). His dad had long since abandoned the family for different pastures (or a desert, in his case) but that's a whole other story!

Tommy, as Hugh was called in the years when this picture was taken, learned about boredom during the empty days of sailing during the '20s when the world had been declared safe from the 'war to end all wars' and life was calm and there was nothing to see but water and sky. During those years, he saw a whole lot of the world, was a mean hand with poker cards, and smoked cigarettes with great abandon, even in the closed-in quarters of a ship's radio room, where he worked as he rose in the ranks from a mere radio man toward his final rank--still years ahead--of Chief Warrant Officer.

In the middle of the 20s, during a short leave in Los Angeles,  he'd met a young woman from Kansas (who was on her first trip anywhere visiting a girlfirend),  fell instantly in love with her, and by the time that leave ended, he was writing her such sweet love letters that they still have the power to move romantic hearts. A year later, they met again during another of his three-day leaves, and when they parted, they were husband and wife.

The rest of the story, of course, is history. My history depends on theirs. You probably have guessed that this man is my mother's father, the man we always called Chief. The story of him actually being my grandfather is such an improbable one, though. It doesn't end with what some might call a fortuitous meeting of the Kansas farm-girl on her first trip away from home and the sailor who had traveled the world. You see, my grandmother was pregnant five times during her marriage. Only one resulted in a living child--my mother.

I think about that, think about the person my mother was, how she was formed with the odds stacked against her and the absence of her father, how she moved from seaport to seaport, following a father who was almost never in those ports. Not only that these people met, but that they lived as they did, that they parented as they did, that she became who she did has profound meaning because her dad, after his long absences and naval discipline would swoop in, try to parent her with the firm hand of a man at sea, and it was bewildering and painful for her, when she wanted and needed her Daddy's love. And I think about how all these things join together to allow for the possibility of our family--my siblings, our children, the next generation--and make sense of the confusing mixture that was my mother's nature.

Chief, as we always called him, was not a firm hand with us. He was gruff but was a push-over for his grandchildren. Spoiled us, to tell you the truth. I clearly remember him giving me a taste of beer the summer we took the train out from Michigan (which likely accounts for why I can't stand the taste to this day)--I was about 6, I think.  And I remember the day he was in charge of me when I was very sick with what seemed to be the stomach flu. He took me to the doctor but I was 12 and didn't want him to go into the examination room with me. So it was left to my sick ears to remember what the doctor said. By that night, I was in the hospital, having my appendix out. Chief was so horrified that 'on his watch', he'd allowed me to grow more and more sick through that day, that he got shingles from it.

It's an odd  to know that our lives are built on this person having a chance meeting with that person, and an only child surviving to adulthood. Odd that is, unless one believes that God is in it all. God. My grandparents' story is as good a place as any to get how clearly God intends us to be. How determined He is that each of us is alive right this very moment. That--to use the theological word--He is Sovereign. He is in charge of every moment we have on this earth, and uses every situation to form us into who He intends us to be.  There are no accidents. Sperms hitting eggs aren't a matter of chance but of God's hand guiding them. I am confident of this. It's this truth that makes me believe in LIFE. Every step of the way. From conception to His calling us home.

(And yes, I find it slightly amazing how much my face reminds me of his...just saying)

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