May 29. It’s John F. Kennedy’s birthday. And Bob Hope’s. Both undisputedly great men in the history of our nation.
It’s also the birthday of my Dad, Kenneth Terry. He was born right here in Quay County in 1932, the youngest of Thomas Etheridge and Lenora Estelle Terry, and the only one born away from home.
I was trying to imagine this morning how it was when Granny Terry brought him home, how she probably held and nursed her new baby while she stirred something on the stove – even in her 80’s I seldom saw my Granny Terry sit still, and with a houseful of kids (in a very small house), I’m pretty sure she didn’t have a lot to time to spend sitting around admiring her new boy.
But here’s what I’m certain of – I’m sure she and my Grandpa Terry loved him. Because there’s no way my Dad came by his capacity to be so unconditionally loving unless he was first loved like that.
I write this blog, “I love New Mexico”, mostly because it’s true, because I really do love New Mexico and I want folks out there to know what it’s all about, that we’re not just a dry dusty desert destination with little character. But I also write it because I know the world needs just a bit more – more enthusisam, more encouragement to get out there and see what’s just around the corner, more optimism. And I write it because my Dad has inspired me all my life to see and believe in the better side of the world.
My Dad is the happiest and most optimistic person I’ve ever known. If you ask him how he’s doing, his standard response is, “If I were any better, I’d have to be two people.” And he means it. He truly means it. Despite years of back-breaking hard work and financial hardship, he truly believes that he has been over-abundantly blessed in his life. He knows his cup runneth over, every day. And he makes sure we all know it.
His is not a wide-eyed simple Pollyanna sort of optimism and care – he’s been to countries and seen abject poverty and the result of political abuse. In Uganda he saw outdoor classrooms of hungry children who had no books and no shoes; In India he saw beggars starving on the side streets; in the Philippines he slept in a chicken house where the cockroaches ate his cough drops because there was no room in the houses for the visiting missionary. In El Salvador he saw children suffering from a lack of medical attention, and in Chile and Bolivia he saw the results of political unrest.
But what my Daddy really saw in those places, and in the people he meets every day here in Quay County, or at Sturgis where he and my Mother spent a week talking to bikers about God, or at Mardi Gras where he slept on the floor of a New Orleans church so he could minister to people of the streets, or in Slidell, La, where he and Mom spent three weeks rebuilding after Katrina – what he really saw was that people are good and decent and deserving of love and attention and care. Before each visit was over, my Dad has made hundreds of friends just by seeing and believing in the goodness and potential of those people.
Of course that kind of optimism and belief in the human spirit doesn’t happen in a vacuum. My Dad would always say that his first love is God, and it’s his unyielding faith in the fact that someone else is in charge of his life that gives him such a determination to see the best in everyone. He knows it will all be okay in the end, and if it’s not okay, it’s not the end.
His second great love is my Mom. After 61 years of marriage, they’re still sweet and affectionate with one another, sometimes so affectionate it embarrasses their grandchildren. He leaves her notes telling her how important she is to him, and he’s quick to say, “Your Mom’s the prettiest thing in the world, isn’t she?”
And then there is the rest of his family. I have never spent an hour with my Dad in which he failed to give me a compliment, tell me how smart or beautiful or clever I am. That’s powerful stuff, folks. Hearing all your life that you’re amazing makes you pretty certain that life is good. When my friends say their parents were hard on them, when other people complain about their unhappy childhoods, I try to suppress my disbelief. Surely that’s not true – my memories are so the opposite of that.
So, I learned at the feet of the master of happiness. My Dad has always chosen to believe that life is a gift of the greatest magnitude, and that his job is to enjoy it and give himself back to it.
For a long time I’ve wanted to write a blog post about my Dad, but I’ve never felt like there were words enough to express what he is. I’ve been sure that whatever I wrote would fall short. And I still feel that way.
This evening we’ll take cake (I’m baking) and ice cream (Viola’s making) to their house and we’ll sit around the table and celebrate his birthday and he’ll tell a story or two to make us laugh, and he’ll play with his great-grandbabies, and he’ll smile at his good fortune, thinking what a blessing we all are to him. But the opposite is really the truth. He is a great blessing and a great teacher to us. I’m still learning.
JFK and Bob Hope and my Dad. It might seem pretentious to add his name to that list, but I don’t think so. He’s touched the lives of thousands of people in far-flung places all over the world. His smile and his hand on the shoulder of someone who needs a little faith and encouragement has made all the difference in hundreds of days for countless people. I’m just incredibly lucky that I’m one of them.