One taught me how to live . . .
The other taught me how to die.
They’ve both been gone for nearly half a century.
I was seven and ten, respectively when my paternal great grandparents died.
We called them Pa and Doten, and they were center of our family’s solar system.
They each left an enduring lesson that still reverberates in my heart.
As I pass each of these two brief stories on to you, I feel as if they’re alive again.
Their influence sure is.
Like the nighttime stars that astronomers assure us burned out millennia ago, the wisdom of our ancestors lives on.
Frank Iles, or as we called him “Pa” was a teacher. In his latter years, he taught me a lesson I’m still learning.
I was his oldest greatest grandchild.
Son of his oldest grandchild.
I was probably about seven or eight years old, playing in the front yard of our beloved Old House in Dry Creek.
Pa was on the front porch reading a Zane Grey western.
Something made me mad and I threw a fit in full view of my great-grandfather.
Most folks with a short history with me are surprised to hear I have a fierce temper.
They never saw me coach.
It’s something I’ve had to work on all of my life.
Most of all, it’s something the Lord has “worked on me.”
Or maybe He’s “worked in me.”
That long ago day in Dry Creek is when I believe the Lord began smoothing off my rough-edged temper.
As I finished my tantrum, “Pa” called me over, set down his book, and adjusted his green reading visor. “Son, I’ve been around young people all of my life. I can see you’ve got a strong temper. You’ll need to work on that or it’ll rule your life.”
That was it.
I’m sure I returned to playing.
He probably wondered if this young Iles had heard a word of it.
Pa, I’m fifty-seven now and I still remember your words.
Because you were so loved in our family, I respected anything you said.
I listened and I learned.
In fact, I’m still learning. Thank you for your enduring wisdom.
Pa’s wife, Theodosia Wagnon Iles, was known as “Doten.”
Her parents homesteaded the land our family still lives on.
Doten’s lessons were many:
Never harm a lizard. They’re our friends at this old house.
“Baby, you better get a sweater on, you’ll catch cold.”
I never understood her obsession with children getting sick until one day I stood at the old part of the cemetery and saw how nearly every adult grave was surrounded by several small graves.
“Honey, don’t play near that chimney. There might be a rattlesnake pilot** there.”
But her best lesson were her dying words. Doten had a life‑long fear of death. She never told me this, but all of my older relatives spoke of it. They said she lived with a great dread of dying for all of her eighty plus years.
Cancer runs in my family. Doten, dying of cancer, was placed in the Beauregard Baptist Hospital in DeRidder. My father, who was there on her dying day, shared two statements about her dying moment.
“All of my life I’ve dreaded this moment. And now that it’s here, it’s not that bad at all.”
A few minutes later, she tried to rise up in the bed, lifted her arms and said “I see Jesus and I can nearly touch him.”
She died soon afterwards.
Her two statements stuck in my seven-year-old mind.
Fifty plus years later, they’re still there.
Doten lived her life in fear of something we all must face… and something we need not fear when we are prepared.
When that time came, she did not face it alone but with Jesus.
Others may surmise she had a hallucination, but I simply believe she realized she was stepping over into another life.
I believe every word of the Bible about life after death. Additionally, I have the deathbed testimony of my great grandmother. I believe it too.
I’ve built my life on the words of the one she trusted. Jesus. Each time, death has brushed up against my life, I hear his words at the grave of Lazarus, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.”
Thanks Pa and Doten for all of the lessons.
I’m still learning.
Pa, thanks for reminding me that a man either controls his temper or it controls him.
Doten, thanks for cementing my view of death and everlasting life in Jesus.
You lived much of your life in fear of death, but thanks to your final earthly words, I’ve neared feared it. Thank you.
Yes, one’s great-grandparent’s best lesson was about life,
And the other’s was about death.
Lord, I thank you for my roots.
I’m in Africa: eight thousand air miles from the place of those roots.
This distance has made me fonder of that place called Dry Creek.
It’s reminded me that my deep roots are in the blood, love, and sweat of
Those folks I call my ancestors.
Lord, I want to leave those same enduring footprints on the life road
Of my children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren.
Help me Lord.
May my words be few but wise.
May I seize each opportunity to set an example
Of the things that really matter.
And as always, remind me
that those things that matter aren’t really things.
Thanks for calling me to be a storyteller.
Help me not to miss the stories and lessons I yet have to learn. Amen.
“Rattlesnake Pilot” is an archaic term for the Copperhead. It is a term I heard as a boy but haven’t read/heard it in years. It comes from the fact that the mountain (hibernation) dens of rattlesnakes often contained copperheads. Legend was that these copperhead snakes guided “or piloted” the rattlesnakes.
Old-timers feared that any sighting of a copperhead could mean a rattler is nearby.
My Louisiana ancestors, who migrated south and west from the Carolinas and Georgia, brought this mountain term with them.