Two weeks ago Garry Leindecker died. He died of complications from the lung cancer, diagnosed not quite a year ago.
Garry Leindecker was my father-in-law. I'm pretty confident that we shared sentiments about one another. Very grateful about many things in each other. Very perplexed by others. Frequently amused. Occasionally admiring. Once in a while, vigorous anger. Our life stories are twisted together mostly because of our shared love for one woman, but my life is definitely better (though not always easier) for having Garry in it.
One of the first memories that I made of Garry, one that feels essential and archtypal, happened the first weekend I met him. Lynn took fifteen college friends home to her parents hog farm. We were loud and expressive and sure that the weekend and our emerging relationships had changed everything about us and our future. Lynn's family played a mostly supportive role, cooking for us, building a shelter to camp in and a fire to sit around. Halfway through the weekend, Garry took us up the mountain to his favorite local non-profit a little air-training facility called MMS.
I rode in a crapped-out old car that Garry drove up country road curves at speeds that could only hold certain death. Someone in the car commented on his driving style. Said it was worse than some of our daredevil friends (Brendon). Garry said something like - he never planned on gett'n old so why drive like an old fart?
Reckless speed. No patience. Gut honesty. Living by proverbs. Sayin' the thing no one else will. Sayin' it in an unforgettable way. The urge to go & get there fast. Never met a stranger. You never wonder what he's thinkin'.
The day that I had decided to ask my in-laws for their blessing before I asked Lynn to marry me was a logistical nightmare. I was visiting the farm for a brief two days carved out of the two factory jobs that Lynn and I worked to pay for college (Garry had driven me all the way here and would drive me all the way back to Michigan - an 8 hour drive for many 6 or 7 hours if he was driving). The asking-for-the-blessing was complicated by the fact that Lynn and I were spending every spare minute together, but I couldn't possibly sneak the question in when she was going to the bathroom or in the other room.
The moment arrived unexpectedly when she drove over to Uncle Larry's to pick something up. I tried to seem calm when I asked Helen if I could talk to she and Garry. Her radar was keen. She wasn't calm at all: "Garry! Get out here! He wants to ask us something!"
I don't know if Garry was changing clothes or in the bathroom, I just know that he was unfortunately just wearing his overalls ("Bibbers", he called them) and his round hairy 300 pound belly falling out everywhere. I asked the question and the answer was yes -- followed by one of only three hugs Garry initiated in the twenty years I knew him. I could have done without the Bibbers, but the hug was pure Garry. What you see is what you get. Gut honesty. His lack of patience and his passion for whatever was before him were two sides of the same coin. Both could work in your favor. Both could work against you.
How do you sort through the hundreds of indelible memories that define a person after they're gone and you want to understand what just happened? Who it was that just left you? How do you ensure that those memories that feel so indelible and permanent don't disappear too?
My favorite day with Garry was years after I was married into the family and I rode in his truck on a weekday as we did errands.
I'm honestly not sure what we accomplished that day. I think we dropped off a coon trap (maybe with a coon in it?) and picked up a repaired mower, but at the end of that day I understood Garry and his world in a completely different way.
When we brought the coon (or the trap?) to a neighbor up County Road 10, we got out and walked around his farm a bit. Baying beagles everywhere, the farm was a maze of trucks, tractors, outbuildings and muddy paths between them. This hobby farming friend bred beagles and used coons to train the beagles how to hunt. He and Garry talked about nothing and everything: repair projects for various machinery, plans to help each other finish repairing a door or rebuilding a wagon, who moved in to the old Ohlinger place up the way, and the latest news from the grain elevator. They laughed and talked and looked over half-finished ditches and half-witted machinery. I nodded, smiled and listened. I felt awed by what I was seeing: economics at their most basic level. People living close to the land and each other. Choosing to be interdependent with lives embedded in thick deep local knowledge.
Garry was an expert at this. Whether it was his dependable forthrightness, his hearty work-ethic or his joking irreverent disposition, people all wanted to be around him, and people knew they could depend upon him.
At the mower repair garage up 751, just next to the Amish Mennonite church, Garry and the old-timer with a garage overflowing with motors chatted for half an hour. I understood very little of the mechanical jargon, but I did understand that the two of them were involved in a pretty collaborative, storied way of thinking about mowers. By sharing the particular ways that they had tried to fix other mowers and machinery, and by weaving these anecdotes into the experience of the friends and neighbors they knew, they were collecting a vast, collective field of knowledge. Practice entwined with friendship, neighborliness, good humor and trust.
This world is much different than my world (which is always full of formal structure, political process and abstractions) but the profound relational nature of Garry's world, along with the ways that his gifts fit within those relationships was deeply attractive and meaningful to me that day.
The day was beautiful because the sun was shining and the curvy foothill roads kept hiding and then revealing vistas of remarkable beauty. It was beautiful, because of the particular pleasure of riding in a big truck with windows down and confident speed and farms rolling out in all directions around us. But it was most beautiful because I felt like I got to see and experience my father-in-law in his element.
We only sort of get to choose our father-in-laws. But part of why we wouldn't choose them for their own merits, is because we can never expect beforehand what they will teach us, give to us, and be for us...