I suspect if my father were with us today, witnessing these goings-on, he’d get a little vertical crease in his brow, lean in a bit, and ask, earnestly, in a stern tone of voice...
“Why all the fuss?”
Owing to my career choices and other circumstances, during the last three years, I’ve been very fortunate to be able to spend some quality time with my father. He shared with me much about his life of which I was simply unaware.
Things that helped fill in the mosaic of his life and helped a son get a much deeper and more meaningful sense, not only of his father, the human being... but of the things that transcend the generations of a family.
The good and the bad. The happy and the tragic.
In many ways, my father’s was an improbable life.
His mother was a 19-year old Catholic farm girl from Minnesota, eager for some adventure. His father was a motorcycle-riding troublemaker eager to provide adventure.
Pop was conceived in the autumn of 1931 on a houseboat honeymoon voyage down the Mississippi River from St. Paul to New Orleans.
When his parents got to New Orleans at Christmas, they sold the houseboat, bought a motorcycle with a sidecar and struck out across the western United States, bound for Spokane, Washington, where my father’s father’s parents lived.
Pop’s grandfather was a doctor, and the idea was to make it to Spokane by the springtime, so they could invoke the family plan and his grandfather could deliver the baby.
They didn’t quite make it to Spokane. My father made his first appearance in Walla Walla.
His early childhood years were on the move. All over the western United States.
In addition to being a troublemaker, his father was a land surveyor, who found work in massive Great Depression-era reclamation projects: Grand Coulee Dam near Spokane, Shasta Dam in northern California, military airfields near Anchorage, Alaska.
It was an itinerate existence. They lived in tents. It was great for my father, a little kid who loved the outdoors. It was like camping – all the time.
At age nine, in the winter of 1942, just weeks after Pearl Harbor, with a genuine fear of a Japanese invasion of Alaska, the wives and children of the men working on the airfields boarded a transport ship for evacuation back to Seattle.
It was to be a key moment in my father’s life. It was the end of his parents’ marriage and it would mark the last time he would ever see his father.
Back in Washington state, his mother found her own way into some trouble. Her next ten years featured a lot of alcohol and what my Pop and I would come to describe as a revolving door of husbands. So my father learned independence at a very early age. His frame of reference growing up was that if he was going to survive – he would have to make his own way.
From his limited experience and worldview at the time, he thought he could count on no one else. This childhood left him bereft of three pretty important values: Structure, trust and love.
He would find structure in the U.S. Navy. He would find trust in his father-in-law, and I think we all know where he found love. More on that in just a minute.
One of the last of my father’s mother’s husbands was from Plainville, Kansas and that’s what brought him to the middle of the country – as a sophomore in high school in the fall of 1948.
That’s also where Dad met my mother – and her father, Victor Ordway.
A story my father told me about his father-in-law: Pop is a senior in high school in Plainville, actually living by himself because his mother had taken off again.
He’s dating my mom. She and some girlfriends are going to Phillipsburg for a church function on a Sunday afternoon and Pop volunteers to drive them. About 40 miles north. But before he can make the trip he has car trouble. So he walks to the church Sunday morning, waits for Mom and her family until after services, so he can break the news that there’ll be no trip to Phillipsburg.
Mom’s Dad, Victor Ordway, takes all this in, reaches into his pocket, pulls out his keys and says to my father, “Why don’t you take my car?”
In relaying this story, Pop would tell me, at age 17, he could not get his head and heart around why this man would trust him with something so important. It was to be the first of many kindnesses shown to my father by Victor Ordway – the individual my father credits with having the single most positive influence on his life.
My father never lost his independent streak – his do-it-yourself tendencies. Those were at his core. They defined him. But along the way, he found structure, he learned how to trust and he found the true meaning of love.
He wasn’t much for reflection, if it’s done, it’s done. Let’s move on.
But in the last three years, as he was sharing some of these moments of his life with me, a couple of times, when it was just him and me, he’d reflect a bit, then ask, “Why do you think it turned out this way?”
It may have been a rhetorical question, but since I was the only one in the room with him, I volunteered my thoughts.
“Pop, I think God had a plan for you.”
I think when that transport ship pulled out of Anchorage in the winter of 1942, God said, OK this kid’s now fatherless and his Mom’s a basket case.
We’ll put some obstacles in his life to overcome, some experiences to help shape him, some people who can help him learn about things like structure, trust and love.
You see, it’s not until you recognize that you don’t know how to value things, that you really begin to develop a good value system.
Why did his mother – despite all her emotional flaws and defects – have just enough character to do everything she could with what she had... to remain connected with her son?
When Victor Ordway first sized up this lanky, bespectacled teenager from the west, interested in his teenage daughter – this kid from a broken home, living alone as a senior in high school on the wrong side of town – why did he befriend him and take him under his wing, rather than give him the stiff-arm?
When my father’s marriage to Viki, David and my mother ended, and now he was a basket case, rudderless, adrift. Why did he meet Glenna Lee Bloom?
These things don’t just happen.
We can’t choose where we come from – but we can choose where we go.
And when we drill into those choices, it’s then that we really discover the course of our days and nights on terra firma is being guided and directed by a loving God.
We’re like a fly on a log, making its way down the river. The river twists and bends, the log is carried along by the swift current. But that fly thinks he’s steering. There were many times when my father thought he was that fly.
Those of us who loved him will miss him terribly. Our hearts are broken. James E. Matson’s gone from us, but he’s still here.
I look at my nephew, Jeremiah, and I see my father. Perseverance, hanging in, overcoming obstacles.
I see him in my niece, Jacinda, who now inherits the mantle of leadership for the uniquely cutting-edge phenomenon that is the Matson sense of humor.
I cast my eyes on my son, Scott, who shares my father’s intellect and curiosity. Question everything.
I see my father in my brother, David. I mean literally. Mannerisms, appearance, but also in a well-honed knack to cut through the clutter to reach the goal.
I see him in my sister, Viki, who, by any meaningful definition, is following in her father’s footsteps by helping mold and train young hearts and minds.
And finally, I see him in his bride, Glenna, who simply by showing up, living her life, by doing what comes so naturally to her, taught my father what love really means.
Glenna not only softened up my father’s rough edges, she brought him, sometimes kicking and screaming, into the mainstream of life – and made him the man he was for the last thirty years of his life.
Without Glenna, that man would not have existed. With Glenna, my father evolved into a man who transcended his difficult childhood and its aftermath and built a life on this Earth that was worthy.
The last few months, Pop was in pain and had begun to lose interest in many of the things that brought him joy earlier in his life.
Today, my father’s free of pain. Free of all the Earthly, man-made stuff that we tend to let get in our way. That’s all gone now for James E. Matson.
Life everlasting. The promise. The great reward. I don’t know how it works. I cannot begin to comprehend. I’m not supposed to know.
The mystery of faith.
So Pop, that’s why all the fuss.