“Above all things have fervent love for one another, for love will cover a multitude of sins” (I Peter 4:8).
“Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21).
My dad was an enigma. From his youth, he was clearly someone special, otherwise my teenage mama-to-be would never have been drawn to him and her daddy, a shrewd judge of character, would not have consented for her to marry him.
The eldest of what would eventually be an even dozen children, Carl McKeever was intelligent, possessed with excellent common sense, strong in body, and handsome in appearance. But he had a temper which he could not always control and developed a fondness for drink. His mouth was foul, particularly when with his friends, and he had a mean streak in him.
And yet, people were drawn to him.
We still have the hand-scribbled note on a piece of brown paper torn off from a grocery bag apparently, where Grandpa Virge Kilgore consented for Carl J. McKeever, age 21, to marry Lois Jane Kilgore, 17.
So, they must have seen something there.
The youthful Carl J. McKeever could be harsh and mean and unloving. Even with a growing family, he would sometimes squander his pay shooting craps with fellow coal miners. More than once he got into serious fights when they all became drunk, landing himself in the calaboose in our little community of Nauvoo, Alabama. Dad could be a mean drunk.
He carried facial scars for the rest of his life from one of those fights.
And yet, he was the dearest man.
Here is something from those years that I find perplexing.
This took place in the late 1940’s. We lived in a mining camp six miles out from Beckley, West Virginia. The six children (of us) ranged in age from about five to fourteen.
I was about 9 and my sister Carolyn 7. From time to time, at night after supper as he sat in his green “easy chair” by the radio, we would give dad a pedicure. He seemed to go to sleep while we worked at clipping his nails and scissoring the hair on his toes and ankles. No, we did not know the term ‘pedicure.’ We were just loving on our father in a most unusual, but tangible way.”
Dad’s feet showed the signs of his harsh working environment. The skin was often dry and cracked, and his toes were sharp from being squeezed into shoes too tight for his feet.
No one remembers how Carolyn and I got started with this strange little ritual. But we did it several times in the space of a couple of years, and loved every minute of it.
Even now, we remember every detail of Dad’s feet.
But here’s the thing.
This same father whom we adored with all our hearts could administer whippings that set standards for harshness and hurt and cruelty.
To this day, my heart aches at the memories of those whippings, not just the ones I received but those meted out to my siblings.
My older brothers used to speak of the bad whippings dad’s mother, our precious Grandma Bessie, could administer. She never gave me one, but I’m confident they know whereof they speak. Ron and Glenn always seemed to be getting into trouble of one kind or the other. As the fourth child, bracketed by two sisters, I was the good kid, I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit. (smiley-face here please)
So, dad learned to whip children from his mom? That might seem to be the case, although it explains nothing.
What is it, we wonder, about “corporal punishment?” How did it happen that these wonderful people thought they were doing well by treating their children so cruelly? Was it a sign of their stress, their frustration, an indication they were feeling overwhelmed by life?
I have no idea. The very concept is so foreign to our way of thinking today.
How does a loving parent pull out a mining belt four inches wide and a half-inch thick and beat a child until large red welts appear on their back and legs? How does a wonderful father beat a child until his daughters’ legs are so bloody they have to wear jeans to school?
I am at a loss.
But something happened to my dad. And that’s the reason for this little piece. (I’ve not asked my siblings about writing it. If they are uncomfortable with it, I’ll take it down. Our dad died in 2007, and left a major hole in our hearts. He loved us dearly as we did him.)
Over the years Dad became gentle and precious and in a hundred ways, the essence of kindness.
We never asked him about those whippings. Better to leave those bad memories alone. We did say sometimes, however, in a somewhat light-hearted way, that these days he could be arrested for the punishment he gave his children. I do not recall his reactions, and doubt if he said anything in response.
Did we need an apology? No. I’m confident we did not. God changed him into a loving and gracious man whom we were able to enjoy for over four decades after his retirement.
What changed my dad, I’m certain, was love.
The love of his wife, our wonderful mama, and the love of his children.
Gradually Dad learned that in spite of those glaring character defects of his our love was going to be consistent. Nothing he could do would stop our love.
(As we say, Dad was a puzzle, an enigma. He worked hard in the coal mines to provide for us, sometimes even doubling back and putting in a second straight eight-hour shift inside the deep West Virginia mines. So, no single description of Dad as all good or all bad works. He was a mixture. Like the rest of us, I expect.)
We loved the dad who did these things to us.
And eventually love won.
Exactly how and when that happened, I cannot pinpoint. But perhaps this was the turning point….
At the age of 49, dad had a heart attack and almost died. The doctor made him retire from the mines and go on disability. When that happened, two of my siblings went into action and built houses across the road from the family farmhouse and relocated their families there from the city. (I was in college at the time.)
For the rest of their lives, our parents were cared for and nurtured by all of their six children, but in particular those who lived nearby.
Our Mama was always the loving, nurturing one. But in those earlier years, she had suffered in silence, living for the Lord, keeping the six children in Sunday School and church every Sunday. (Mom was brought up in a Christian family that was in church every Sunday. No matter where we lived, she had us ready for church on Saturday night and in the pews on Sunday. God gave her two preacher-boys, Ron and Joe, who have now logged more than a full century of proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ.)
In time, Carl McKeever grew into a center of great love in the family.
–He told our mom every day how much he loved her. She would smile and beam and eat it up. The last decades of their lives, they were so in love it was amazing.
–Now, he never came right out and told us “I love you” or anything. I’d say, “I love you, Dad,” and he would say, “Well, all right,” and change the subject. I smile at the memory. Or he might say, “I know that.” And he did. Just as we knew he loved us.
–Dad would send us money. Now, as a coal miner, the most he ever made was $7,500 a year. Eventually in retirement he was receiving income from three different sources (Social Security, a pension from the union, and a special allowance voted by Congress in the 1970s for victims of black lung) and was able to build up a nice bank account. If one of the six children needed a little financial help, Dad sent an equal amount to the other five. On occasions, I received an unexpected $1,000 from him, and once a check for $5,000.
–He adored his six children equally but played no favorites. And he loved his many grandchildren, although he quickly gave up on remembering names and would call each one “Shorty.” The children loved him.
One day, when Dad was almost 90 years old, we were sitting on the front porch, he in the swing and I in a lawn chair ten feet away. We were quiet, then I said, “Dad, I’m so glad I’ve had the privilege of seeing you grow old.”
I said, “You are a far better man today than you were years ago.”
Silence. Then he said, “Well, you hope you grow.”
That’s all he said.
No man in our family was ever accused of being introspective, and Dad wasn’t. I doubt if he knew why the change had come about in him, transforming him from a temperamental and harsh enigma made up of a thousand contradictions into a loving and gentle patriarch of a devoted clan.
But I have no doubt what it was. Love won out.
“The love of God has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us” (Romans 5:5).
The message of the gospel of Jesus Christ is just that. Hatred sent the Savior to the cross. Hatred jeered and spat and cursed. Harshness laughed and scoffed and spat.
But love prevailed. “Father, forgive them. They do not know what they are doing,” He said.
My little children, let us not love in word or in tongue only, but in deed and in truth.
I John 3:18.
Amen. Thank you, Father, for redeeming love.