One Christmas, snow fell in perfect, fat flakes outside of our home in the mountains, painting the world in white. My children played with their toys as the magical spirit of harmony descended on my boys. A fire crackled in our fireplace and would later warm us to the point of napping.
I set the table with my rarely used wedding china and laid the table with roast chicken, bowls brimming with vegetables, baskets of rolls, crystal glasses filled with sweet tea. My grandpa stood at the table, his hands holding the back of the dining room chair. He looked over the scene, the table, the food, and in his quiet way said that he had never seen a more beautiful table.
His words stayed with me when he died, too soon after that perfect day. I thought of my Grandpa, his body healed of cancer, sitting at a beautiful table in the presence of Christ.
My Grandpa, John Henry Kilby, was one of the greatest men I have ever known, but it is hard for me to describe his greatness. He grew up in a family of eight children, all the warmest, funniest characters you’ll ever meet. (For example, my Great Aunt Arlee is a former missionary to Cuba and has a cat who prays–I bear witness to this). They were all raised in a house that could fit into my house several times over.
He came from humble beginnings and built a humble life. He was a veteran. He met my Grandma at Sunday School. He married her in the living room of the Justice of the Peace at Christmastime. He was shockingly handsome. He reminded me of Johnny Cash, but better looking.
He was part of that generation of men who could do anything with their hands: fix things, build things, figure things out. He built a pink rocking chair for me when I was a preschooler that now needs some care, and coordinates with nothing in my house, but I cannot bear to throw it out because it was crafted with his hands. He had three sons who all think he hung the moon and four grandchildren who agree.
I spent a week each summer of my childhood with my Grandpa and Grandma Kilby in the little town of Millers Creek, just before you climb the mountain into Boone, NC. I splashed in the creek with my brother and cousins and swung on the tire swing. We rolled down the hill in front of the house, giggling with a dizzy-drunkenness.
Grandpa liked to tickle us awake and set us on his lap and laugh with us. He took us fishing, where we spent many magical hours catching absolutely nothing. He took us for ice cream in a building shaped like an igloo. We drank cool, delicious water from his spring.
He told me stories and I hung on every word. His mother once took him to an old man in the country who talked the fire out of a burn on Grandpa’s hand. His hand stopped burning immediately. Grandpa asked him what he said to it to make it stop hurting. The man refused to tell him, said it was a sacred secret. When Grandpa asked him again, the old man whispered, “Get out, damn fire!” It was the first time I ever heard my Grandpa say a bad word, and even that was magical.
My Grandpa taught me so much in my life that has made an impact on me as a mother, a minister, and a human being. When he learned I was cautious about allowing my children to have junk food, he made sure there were always Pop Tarts when my children came to visit. This earned him the name “Paw Paw Pop Tart,” a title he held proudly.
He taught me to lighten up and enjoy life.
I talked with him once about calling and how I was beginning to preach in the church I served as Children’s Minister. There are always going to be people who disagree with the idea of women preachers and I wasn’t really sure about where he stood.
He listened to me and stated in his humble, plain-spoken way that he couldn’t see what the big deal was. If I felt God was asking me to preach, I should probably do it. His attitude was so perfect on this issue, he made it a non-issue. He taught me to walk more humbly with God.
After he died and I met people who had known him in a variety of ways, a common theme began to emerge. Everyone seemed to think my Grandpa regarded them as special. It occurred to me that he made people feel important and heard when they were with them. It wasn’t just me. It was everyone he came in contact with. People liked him and liked being around him.It was an indefinable thing that I believe Jesus had too.
And all that fishing we did? He confessed later that he never really liked fishing, he just did it because he knew us grandkids liked it. I would’ve never known if he hadn’t told me, because he did everything with such easygoing contentment.
I guess most of us leave this world as ordinary saints. We don’t have newspaper articles published about our great faith or have the President ask us to the National Prayer Breakfast.
If we live our lives well, even we ordinary saints are extraordinary to someone. That is who my Grandpa Kilby was to me.
Rev. Melanie Kilby Storie lives in Shelby, NC with her pastor husband, Matt, and her two sons, Aidan and Owen. She is currently writing a novel set in the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina about a girl who can talk the fire out of a burn.