Reader Voices: To see forever

Published: Monday, May 23 2011 7:15 a.m. MDT

There were three reasons why people came to Dayton, Texas, while I was growing up in the 1980s: the highway interchange, Frank's Seafood and Steakhouse, and the T.L. Drawhorns.

From one window, Grandpa Drawhorn could see Ford Avenue and anyone who passed the ranch. Few did. Many callers came, usually Texans, the men sitting with one shiny boot crossed over a knee, their hats expertly balanced on the other or lying in their laps, brim up, so the luck wouldn't run out. These were ranchers or church acquaintances from years before, sometimes both; their accompanying wives were always primly dressed. Like my grandmother, these ladies had kept unbroken vigils with their hairdressers once a week for a wash and set and hadn't missed an appointment, come hell or high water, in years.

The window next to Grandpa's bed faced the dog yard, just inside the network of corrals surrounding the barn. For years, his prized bird dogs had yelped endlessly from the other side of the chicken wire, their blue-blooded yet flea-bitten puppies toddling out from a long, tin-roofed doghouse, sniffing the air and joining the fray until Grandpa would command their parents, "Shut up, Spot! Shut up, Lou!" By instinct or experience, the dogs respected the commands of their old master, even in his harmless dotage.

But the final view was the old man's favorite — though it stood behind him, guarding his back — the front pasture was so named because the Old Spanish Trail running through it was once the main entrance to the place. Viewed from the dirt road, it was our endless backyard. Growing wild most of the year, it was an unkempt mane of costal hay and bahia grass with wildflowers and other weeds tangled in. Still, his motley cattle herd was there, what was left of it. And each spring, the new calves bounced and butted heads as our neighbor Pete's spindly Tennessee Walking Horse foals drilled regally around the oblivious cattle herd, the bearers of a proud heritage.

Looking out this way, Grandpa could almost see forever.

Young as I was, it was hard not to remember him and wish for the way that he had been. Well into his 80s and even after his first major stroke, Thomas Laurie Drawhorn was a force unlike any other. With his Stetson set and his cane in hand, he strode to his truck every day, driving into town to stop at Bingham Feed & Seed and chew the fat or the Rice Growers Co-operative to worry over the present agricultural markets or to the stock auction to see what was on the block that week. At each stop, he'd tell a favorite joke that had become his mantra over the years: It was easy to make a small fortune in farming as long as you started out with a large one. He'd survey his fields, his grain, his cattle, his friends — some Mormon, like him, most not — watching and praying over them. That was his true calling: Grandpa was a patriarch.

Unlike other religions, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints upholds a doctrine of living, personal revelation, available to everyone who seeks it. And it's true that all church members seek to develop and maintain personal relationships with God the Father and the Savior, Jesus Christ through the Gift of the Holy Ghost. But our patriarchs — men called to this position — are priests who give special blessings to the members of the church; unlike most church callings, most patriarchs serve for life. While Latter-day Saints regard all priesthood ordinances and blessings as sacred, patriarchal blessings are especially unique as they are customarily given to worthy members once in a lifetime. When a patriarch draws on the powers of heaven, the Lord opens this special servant's eyes and lays out all that the person being blessed needs to know to succeed in life here and hereafter, including their heritage in the House of Israel and heavenly counsel tailored to the Saint being blessed.

In this way, patriarchal blessings — sacred and deeply personal — are invaluable as it reflects the recognition of an individual by the Divine. Even as a child, I felt the weight and seriousness of these implications: They meant that blessings were special and not to be taken lightly.

Understandably, this calling and its ramifications must have humbled my grandpa. True, after his baptism into the LDS Church in 1954 — seven years after my grandmother accepted the gospel — Brother Drawhorn had gone from 30 years of faithfully smoking two packs of Marlboros a day to chewing Dentyne, cold turkey, as per the church's strict membership requirements and inspired health code. As their local congregation grew, so did the Drawhorn family and Grandpa's capacity as a servant in the kingdom; he was called into the bishopric within the year after his baptism and given stewardship over the local ward members. The area brethren knew that if they needed money for a building project or volunteers for a call to service, T.L. Drawhorn could be counted on to find a way or make one; somehow, by the hand of providence, Grandpa always managed to meet the needs of those around him. Indeed, perhaps the only thing that made him hesitate to serve was his fear of speaking in public. In the early days after his baptism, Grandpa had such stage fright that he'd painstakingly pen each word he needed at the pulpit: "Brothers and Sisters, welcome to sacrament meeting. It is a pleasure to have you with us today." His jitters were punctuated by his incessant jingling of the coins in the pocket of his best slacks.

Nevertheless, once Grandpa gave blessings, his confidence was palpable and his diction was clear enough to enable Grandpa to continue to serve in his calling. After reviewing each recorded blessing Grandpa spoke into the Dictaphone, my grandmother painstakingly transcribed hundreds of singularly unique blessings, saving a copy for Grandpa's records, issuing one to the individual Saint and sending the last to LDS Church headquarters for safekeeping — practices which illustrate God's love of order and precise record keeping, she confided to me.

But as Grandpa's health went, so did his ability to keep up with his calling. Eventually, the stake presidency called and sustained another patriarch in our area to ease his burden in meeting the needs of the growing congregation of the Kingwood Texas Stake. By the time my older brothers and sisters were ready to receive their patriarchal blessings, Grandpa had virtually ceased to function in his calling; the paralytic strokes and their side effects had finally won. His personality morphed into a crustier, insecure version of the grandfather we'd known and loved, and it was heartbreaking to see with him fight my grandmother for the keys to his truck. Grudgingly, he was persuaded by the family to give up driving after a series of car accidents. Instead, he maneuvered into and out of a wheelchair for two years, then was completely bedridden for his last year. But he was always the Patriarch.

Ultimately, the timing of his death surprised all of us. On a warm spring night in 1990, Dad woke us up to tell us that Grandpa had died in his sleep. The funeral home was coming to fetch him, my father said, so if we wanted to say goodbye before everyone else in town did, now was the time. It was about three in the morning, I remember, and at 9 years old, I doubt that my memory was up to snuff at such an early hour. By the time that I made it downstairs decently, Jay, my friend's father who drove the hearse for Sterling Funeral Home, was already there. Dressed in a crumpled suit with a gurney and some sort of cover (touting the company name) to lay over Grandpa, he stood patiently waiting in the doorway while we paid our respects. I tiptoed to his bedside. Deciding that he could still be sleeping — he looked so peaceful — I said simply, "Goodbye, Grandpa."

I don't remember much about his funeral except that everyone in town and everyone in the Kingwood Texas Stake were there. I'd been to a few before, but this was the only time I could remember the ushers having to open up the overflow behind the chapel and the cultural hall, then fill both of them with chairs. People just kept coming; it was a good thing that we had reserved seats. At the graveside service, Grandpa was buried next to my grandmother's parents under a small magnolia tree in the family plot. Eighteen years later, my grandmother would finally be laid to rest beside him, worriedly wondering aloud to me, before she passed, if her faith would requisite such an exalted place.

In the years that followed, our life on the ranch slowly unraveled, prompting me to wonder if its decay had begun with Grandpa's. Without the man who'd built it up from nothing — without the hands had reined, roped, directed, repaired, blessed, served, tended, loved every part of it — the ranch lost much of its gentle charm. The bird dogs, the ancient hunting Jeep and Ford tractor, the last cutting horse all left soon after he did. Still, I could feel his presence during visits with callers, fewer now, coming to check on my grandmother and the rest of us. Or when I passed the glass door and glanced toward the outer windows where his bed was, tidily made, empty. And on Sundays, when I'd pass the coat rack in the church hallway and notice that his gray felt Stetson was missing, then remember why.

Seven years passed, and then I received my own patriarchal blessing. It came from one of the patriarchs called to serve the members in the area of Utah to which my family had relocated. Though my mind should have been pondering my covenants with God, I stopped long enough to recognize that Brother Foster here was a good man, everything you'd think a patriarch should be: humble, reverent, soft-spoken, with a quiet strength of character. Still, I wondered how my blessing might be different if Grandpa was giving it to me rather than Brother Foster, but I soon realized that my Father in Heaven knew me better than either man, and if I believed in the priesthood and modern-day revelation, then it didn't really matter: Whom God calls, he qualifies.

In the end, when the long-awaited moment came and Brother Foster placed his hands on my bowed head, his deep baritone voice began to roll forth and fill the room, then the street, pushing past the mountains and over the rolling plains until it reached the green of East Texas and reverberated off the white clapboard walls of the old place and paving roads through my past, present and future. These visions and voices are mine to keep; I reverence them.

Kate Jensen lives in Bryan, Texas.

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