|© 2005 Daily News-Record|
In Memory of Papa
Today though I am not physically with you, I am connected with you through the Spirit of our creative, liberating God who inspires us to live as Papa did, with integrity, gratitude, courage and love. I am writing to you from San Francisco, a city where a young Roy Roberts spent time long before any of us knew him selling ice cream to the people who built the Golden Gate Bridge. Every time I look at the Bridge I think of Papa --- I try to imagine what this city must have been like when he was here and how much fun it would have been to walk up one of our large hills with him. My earliest memories of Papa involve walking, walking on walls, visiting Jesse’s Hot Dogs and the Library around Harrisonburg. Early on Papa taught me to appreciate the unique qualities of neighborhoods, parks, trees, sculpture, and architecture --- I often remember him pausing and pointing at things, small and large that were beautiful unique and wondrous. When we would walk into the old library --- I was set free in the children’s section up stairs where I would often watch a film strip of the Wizard of Oz and Papa would put on his reading glasses and sit in the periodicals section downstairs. When I was 5 years old Papa and Nana were my best friends. Spending time with them at their house was heaven to me. There seemed to be infinite freedom and love --- always something yummy to eat, something beautiful to look at or listen to, and always a comforting lap to sit in and hand to hold.
The last time I saw Papa, a few months ago, I remember taking some time to have a conversation one I now believe we both knew would be our last on this side of the grave. Looking into one another’s eyes, I was able to tell him just how much he and Nana meant to me, how so much of what I have been able to do in life --- study, travel, and discovering a vocation caring for others --- I know was due in large part to their steadfast love, their commitment to my education and nurture. Papa gave us all an appreciation for nature, beauty, art, learning (he was always reading something --- philosophy, history) and music (who can forget him learning to play the piano when he was well into his 70s?). I think of him every time I hear “what a friend we have in Jesus” or “Tennessee Waltz” I imagine he must have learned to play “Over the Rainbow” for me.
Papa’s life was full of pain as well as joy. Though there’s the story involving a pet duck, which is humorous but also quite sad too especially if that was his most memorable childhood friend. Perhaps Papa was a bit like St. Francis -- connecting with nature in a unique and deep way. We all know stories about how his father abandoned his family early in life, how he had to go to work quite young before finishing high school. As my mother told me when I was little, Papa was a kind of hobo before he found a stable job in Washington. Hitch hiking across the United States, riding the rails, and working in CCC camps --- young Roy Roberts must have been wise, strong, and courageous. On my last visit to Virginia, Papa shared with me how he learned to dance in San Francisco --- watching a dance class through a window on Market Street. I love to dance, and love imagining Papa practicing his dance moves on a side walk in San Francisco. When I look into the eyes of the homeless and poor people I meet in the Tenderloin, a rough neighborhood in San Francisco near the cathedral where I work I think of Papa and I think of his son Ben too. I remember their challenging relationship and the struggles of people with mental illness. I also remember their difficult but I believe real reconciliation --- and the ways in which especially toward the end of Ben’s life there was a kind of peace in what I can only imagine was a very painful and complicated relationship.
Papa was a man of adventure --- I don’t know how he could have spent so many years working at the Pentagon. When I lived near it in Arlington and passed by it everyday on my way to work in McLean I loved imagining Papa dashing out of that cold, dark place, and finding his easel hidden under a highway bridge and painting the beautiful skyline of Washington, the Potomac River, and the monuments in the distance.
Though Papa was not a religious man, I know he was a man of faith. In the Hebrew Bible, the word faith is best translated as trust. Papa trusted that with God’s help people could overcome any obstacle, that even in the midst of great pain --- there was the possibility of beauty, hope and love. Had Papa been introduced to meditation or contemplative prayer earlier in life I think he would have found a religious practice nurturing of his deep, wise, and thoughtful personality. A few years ago Papa shared with me that he heard the famous Amy Semple McPherson founder of the Four Square Gospel Church preach once when he was in California over loudspeakers in a crowded street and that he had found nourishment at one of the soup kitchens her ministry inspired. Religious or not, I will always cherish memories of our family gathered together around Thanksgiving or Christmas Dinner lovingly and creatively prepared by Nana and Papa leading us in a gentle prayer beginning with the words, “dear heavenly father.”
Papa taught me how to ride a bike. Of all the things that I can say about Papa this is to me the most significant, more because of its symbolism than its actuality. Learning to ride a bike is challenging and painful, one falls down a lot. He insisted that I not use training wheels but instead he would hold up the seat running along behind me --- there’s a kind of gift in that --- a bond established….I remember often looking behind me to see if he was still holding on to me…and discovering gratefully him waving and smiling at me as I rode away and then of course quickly falling down and skinning my knee. Papa was always quick to comfort though, he’d blow on the scrape and if duct tape were present I’m sure he’d have covered it with that too.
I always felt free to be myself with Papa, he never questioned my love for and commitment to Matt and always asked how he was doing. We all have profound stories about Papa --- about how his amazing life and personality touched us, inspired and nurtured us. I know my Dad has one involving homemade diapers made out of paint rags, a plastic bread bag and held together with duct tape but I’ll let him tell you that story.
Papa -- Roy Charles Roberts --- was an ingenious artist --- who created amazing works of art --- and most of all he created an incredibly inspiring life --- may our lives be filled with adventures, beautiful vistas, stunning artwork, unique people, trust that with God’s help any obstacle can be overcome, reconciliation with those we love, and the courage to be ourselves wherever we may be.
With love for all of you, and anticipation of seeing you in San Francisco in October --- may we remember Papa as we together gaze upon the Golden Gate Bridge and eat ice cream.