14 June 2002

The Red Chair

Subject: The Red Chair
From: MichaelRyerson-3
Date: Jun 14 2002 7:54AM

My grandfather was a Methodist minister for nearly sixty years. He was a tall, thin, handsome man with a shock of white hair and a quiet bearing which seemed to put people at ease. He had an uncanny ability to remember names and stories and every year sent out nearly five hundred Christmas cards, each with a brief handwritten note sharing some special memory or specific event. I grew up convinced I was his favorite grandson. Later, I found out nearly all of my cousins and my own little brother, felt the same way. When he died, seven of his sons, including my father, gathered at a memorial service in southern California. Three of my uncles delivered eulogies, the Philadelphia Street pastor spoke briefly and then we filed by the open casket. I clearly remember his hands, quiet finally but tanned and strong. Following the service and a short cortege to the train station, he would go back home to Kansas. He would be reunited with his other boys. And with gentle Anna, one final time. They would lie side by side in the country of their youth, where they met, where he was ordained and where they had raised this huge, vibrant collection of sons.

After the service, my father gave me the keys to my grandfather's house. Each of the children was invited to stop by and find some small memento. Several of my cousins had already visited and I was encouraged to stop by in the afternoon. I could take someone with me or go alone but I was to pass the keys on to someone else when I was done. I watched the cars recede in the sharp afternoon sun. I had never seen my father cry.

I decided to go alone.


My grandfather's faith turned on two events. The first was a consequence of his premature birth in a 'Soddy' on the plains of eastern Kansas. The midwife was startled by his small size. The doctor arrived the next morning and gently observed that there was very little chance he would survive. His mother, my great-grandmother, sat quietly in a big, overstuffed red chair near a pot-bellied stove and sang softly to him and read her bible. She stroked his head and prayed. And prayed some more. After two days, the doctor could find no earthly reason why he had survived and again gave no hope for a successful infancy. She prayed some more. Her songs began to get a little response. She added a hymn or two. She read her bible aloud. She began to read Mary Baker Eddy. She prayed harder. His chest started to move a bit more. He began to sleep just a little more quietly. He cried out loud for the first time and the doctor admitted there was a chance. His eyes began to follow his mother's face. When she would leave for chore work, she would bundle him into that big, red chair and bank the stove with hardwood. He thrived. The family became Christian Scientists.

He grew up surrounded by women. His father died when he was two, so he was raised by his mother and his three older sisters.

The second event happened when he was fifteen. He found his mother face down in a corral with a broken hip. A mule had kicked her as she removed a harness at the end of the day. He managed to carry her into the house and turned to ride for a doctor when a deacon appeared in the doorway. No doctor would be fetched, they would kneel and pray and if her faith was strong enough, she would heal. It took three days for her to slip away. In his desolation, he searched for an answer, for a way to survive this despair. He found John Wesley and Methodism. He found his calling. He was ordained in 1903.

He started out as a circuit rider in eastern Kansas, ministering to eight or nine small towns throughout the week. He rode a horse and camped out along the way. He shot rabbits and cooked over an open fire. He took meals with church families. He spoke in barns and town halls. He performed weddings and baptisms and delivered the Word at funerals. He was regularly paid in ears of corn, live chickens or salted pork. Sometimes, he was paid with a handshake and a 'thank you.' He preached in the open air of camp meetings and in the sweltering heat of the Chautauqua tents. It was a solitary life but not a lonely one. He viewed the Bible as an inexhaustible mine from which riches could be trusted to appear. He found lessons in the people he met, in the books he read and in the life he had chosen. He once lost his way in a blizzard and took shelter in a barn. The next morning he awoke to find three men saddling horses in the barn to go out and look for the preacher. Smiling sheepishly, he stood up and everybody laughed! It became the subject of his sermon. His voice was rich and deep. He learned to use it to be heard over the prairie wind and to keep his parishioners awake. He found his way over narrow trails in failing light and then, as he liked to say, when the good Lord decided he was ready, he found Anna.

They had eleven boys. My father was number six. As the boys approached adolescence, their father would give each a bible quotation by chapter and verse. It might appear as early as ten or eleven or as late as fifteen or sixteen. Each one was unique. Sometimes it would be included on a birthday card, other times it might be discovered written in the margin of their bible. Peter found his on the top of his birthday cake. When my father was fourteen, as he sat fidgeting in the family pew during Sunday services, he began thumbing through his bible. He found his father's handwriting in the margin about halfway back, it said, 'Lyle, James 1:4'. Quickly, he turned to James and found the fourth verse of the first chapter. It read, 'Let patience have its perfect work, that ye may be perfect and entire, wanting nothing.' He looked up and found his father looking down from the pulpit directly at him and smiling.

When the Dustbowl and the Depression fractured the Midwest and the Second World War separated loved ones, much of the family was drawn down Route 66 to Southern California. Topeka, Parsons and Emporia gave way to Claremont, Pomona and Los Angeles. Muscular railroad towns and dusty farm roads gave way to long ribbons of concrete and asphalt and to sleepy suburbs. Dry Kansas wheat for California orange blossoms.

My grandfather's address was 246 Green Street. When I first learned it, I delighted in it, the obvious progression of twos speaking to a four-year old's desire for order in the world. The house was a study in modesty. A small, white stucco and wood box, plain, unadorned, and unpretentious. It sat on a quiet street facing a large, fallow field in which a dilapidated barn stood leaning amid the fireweed and alphalfa. On the northern edge of that field, hidden behind the unharvested and neglected crops ran the rails of the Southern Pacific. Twice a day, once in the early morning and once in the late afternoon, the Super Chief would thunder by, a great, primordial silver snake, right to left in the morning, arriving from Chicago to deposit folks at Union Station in Los Angeles and left to right in the evening, returning to the upper Midwest three days away. Now I didn't know these things, of course, only that when the far-off horn moaned its warning, I could run and stand in the bay window and watch as this wonder flashed by on its mysterious business. Sometimes my grandmother, sweet and quiet, would come and stand with her hand on my shoulder and watch with me. I know now, that she'd seen this train a thousand times but with me in her bay window, she would enjoy it as though it had never happened before. 'Quicksilver' she would sometimes murmur and give me a hug.

When I was four or five, I went through my 'whirling-dervish' stage. I seemed to touch everything or worse, put everything in my mouth. I would 'taste' anything within reach and tried to use chairs or kitchen stools to extend my reach. I was noisy and singularly disagreeable. My younger brother, of course, always needed an afternoon nap so one Sunday, late in the day I went for a walk with my father and grandfather. Walking between them, I reached up on each side and held their hands. Every few steps I could pull up and lift my feet and swing. We walked slowly down to the corner and back to the front of the house but instead of turning right into the yard, we swung left and crossed the street and entered the edge of the field! This was great! I was never allowed across the street and certainly never into the field. We walked slowly up the dirt road toward the old barn. We passed an old, crooked handled water pump. We stopped and inspected some old chicken coops, which had fallen in the weeds. I picked up some rocks and gave them a fling. In the evening shadows, I found a bottle cap and two empty shells from a .22. I pushed them deep into my pocket and hurried to catch up with my Dad.

We emerged from the field on the edge of the right-of-way. I looked up at my grandfather, he was staring intently toward the eucalyptus and ridgeline shadows, "Not yet", he said. In the dusky twilight the rails shone silver gray running into the shadows of the foothills. "Go and listen to the tracks," my father said and I scrambled up the low bank of the gravel roadbed and bent down, placing my ear against the near rail. The steel was warm and dry. I could hear nothing. I raised my head but my father called out, "No Mick, try it again." I leaned back down and this time there was a slight rumble, I giggled and lifted my head and then listened again, more rumble, deeper. I scrambled down and ran to stand between them, my heart racing.

Far off, a white shaft of light swept across the tracks and swept across again. Loud bells began clanging in panic at the grade crossings. And then came the warning as a breathless, plaintive horn sounded once, twice, three times! A great silver and red Cyclops stood menacing against the twilight! It rose up as on clawed feet unseen and rushed forward, closing the distance with breathtaking speed! I started to pull back but my father bent low, his face close to my ear, 'Stand still, Mick, I have you.' I stood transfixed, my feet rooted, my eyes unblinking! I felt my grandfather's hand close tightly over mine. And in a flash it was on us, the air pocket hitting us at eighty miles an hour! The hair on the back of my neck stood straight up! My heart tried to jump out through my chest! A wall of bright silver ribs thundering by, punctuated with the quaking earth! And then as quickly as it had come, it was gone, the boat tail observation car receding with the startling view of a man in a business suit calmly reading a newspaper in the warm yellow light, getting smaller. I swallowed hard, blinked once and shivered. I felt an immediate sense of being included in something special, something not for little kids. We walked back through the field but this time I stayed right between my father and my grandfather. Somehow, I didn't want to run around.


Indian Hill Boulevard runs up from the dusty flatlands through boulder-strewn empty riverbeds toward the rocky foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains. This landscape is a glacial remnant tending toward coarse sand, scrub oak and sagebrush. The porous soil supports orchards and grape growers but defies most grasses. I unrolled the windows and let the dry afternoon breeze fill the car.

I had come up this road hundreds of times. I watched for the big irrigation well on the left and then counted two more blocks and turned right onto Green Street. Some new houses had been built on part of the field and the old barn had finally fallen down. Far down the street, a stray dog was trotting in the gutter, head down, sniffing for something or someone familiar. I pulled over and coasted up to the curb at number 246. I sat for a moment. The shades were drawn. I marveled at the lack of decoration. Not a scallop nor a curly cue nor the silhouette of a rooster.

Gladiolas, calla lilies and iris near the house, roses on the right, a white concrete walkway dividing a closely trimmed lawn. Dining room windows on the left, bay window on the right. On the left edge of the lawn, a narrow strip of bare earth hosted a row of short wooden stakes upon which small seed envelopes had been stapled, each package indicating what might be expected in that part of the garden. I decided to walk up the right side and admire the chest-high roses. As always, they were magnificent. Reds, pinks and whites but mostly yellow, my grandmother's favorite and although she had been gone many years, the yellow still dominated the garden. I heard a squeak and a screen door slam and looked up to find the neighbor lady coming across her lawn in her Sunday clothes. I took a deep breath. I'm not well suited for these things. We exchanged greetings and she shared her sorrow and expressed her condolences, I smiled and nodded. She wondered about the roses and I assured her that she would be welcome to take a bouquet now and then. My grandfather liked them in the garden but he liked them better in the house. They should be enjoyed. There was an awkward moment. With the roses between us, I felt I was safe but she clearly wanted to hug me. She smiled as she wrestled with this problem and I took the opportunity to say goodbye and retreated toward the house. Behind me, I heard her screen door close.

Near the house, just to the right of the walkway, someone had left a floral wreath on the lawn and several small bouquets. Two yellow rosebuds were draped on the mailbox. On the porch, leaning against the screen door, a child's doll sat with an envelope pinned to her dress. I picked her up and unlocked the door.


When I stepped into the dim interior, I immediately looked for Buddy. His 'favorite' place was under the lamp table, opposite the door, his cold amber eyes locked on the door and on any stranger who might dare to enter. But under the table only a deep impression in the carpet remained. For a moment, I worried that he had left with someone else but then I turned and saw him staring from the dining room table! He made me smile. I stepped through the archway and lifted him up. I was always surprised at how heavy he was. He had been carved out of solid hardwood and with his dark glass eyes, was the closest a little kid was going to get to a toy in this house. I put him back under the lamp table, where he belonged. I straightened up and turned on the light.

Next to the lamp table, behind the sofa is a long, narrow table displaying eleven small pictures, nine in wooden frames and two in silver. Rosewood, oak, ash and simple pine, I reached out and picked up the one in oak. A lanky, young man in a baggy baseball uniform, my father. I thought about him in that black car with his brothers. I replaced the picture and bent down. Career military, teachers, athletes, tradesmen, a doctor, one silver frame holding the picture of an child lost to a disease long since defeated, another holding a young man lost at twenty-one to an accident. Tears and laughter, a typical family.

It was getting late in the day. I wanted the house to be bright this one last evening, so I began turning on the lights. I flipped on the porch light and the lamp on my grandfather's desk. I went into the dining room. My grandmother had a specific way she liked the shades. So I reached over the side chairs and lifted the front blinds about six inches, exposing the first wooden slat in the window. I turned on the little chandelier over the table. I played with the switches in the service porch until the outside light over the garage door went on. I walked back through the house and stepped out onto the front porch. I could smell the pepper tree and the night blooming jasmine. I crossed the street and started up the dirt road, raising a talcum-fine cloud of dust. Three generations of men in my family have set their time by the railroad. I glanced down at my watch.

Near the tracks, I looked for a familiar place to stand. The roadbed seemed lower now, not so imposing. In the distance, I could hear the grade crossings starting to ring their bells. A bright white light swept across the tracks and I took a deep breath. I thought about the anticipation of a five year old standing here, of how big my grandfather's hand had seemed and how strong. Of hiding behind my father's thigh and wishing I were brave. The engine rose up bigger and bigger, the air horn and the thundering wheels and the bells ringing. I looked up and could see the engineer smiling and then the windows with people reading or eating or sleeping. The ground shook, the wind blowing my hair back, my eyes watering. And in the observation car, a small group of men in dark suits leaned and looked out the side windows across the field toward my grandfather's house and then the man with the red hair stepped back and looked out the rear window directly at me and raised his hand. I slowly raised my hand and he got smaller and smaller as the train pulled him inexorably away. They would be in Kansas tomorrow afternoon.

I walked back through the field, the little dirt road hard to see in the gathering darkness. The house sat like a bright jewel in the twilight. It was easy to hear the voices and the giggling children.

After I had turned off the lights and locked the door, I sat for a long time in my car. I thought about Buddy sitting faithfully in the dark, glaring at the door, about the wax banana with the child's teeth marks in the bowl by the table. And I thought about that old, red chair sitting in the bay window. I hadn't taken anything.

But as I drove away, I knew I had taken it all.


Six years later, we lost my father to lung cancer. He was 53.

michaelryerson, michael ryerson

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