How to Live a Meaningful Life

By Cliff Springs

Fifteen minutes of fame.  Or shame.  It doesn’t seem to matter which anymore.  Our society’s constant worship of celebrities and fascination with the freak du jour has fueled the seemingly insatiable need to get noticed—to be “somebody”.  Never mind that the “somebody” you may be is a laughingstock, a pervert, a criminal, a blowhard, or an idiot.  Just be “somebody”.

Two recent examples demonstrate the depths to which those in need of attention will stoop:  namely the “balloon boy” family and the White House party crashers.  For me, I find it interesting that these two sets of absurd fame-seekers 

perpetrated their fiascos the same year that my 90-year-old grandmother passed away.  More on her in a moment.

Richard Heene and his wife—the Colorado family who fed the lecherous media the juicy hoax of a runaway experimental balloon with their young son supposedly trapped inside—
had already exceeded their 15 minutes of shame with two appearances on the reality series Wife Swap.  But that wasn’t enough.  Anything for attention.  A new reality show would almost certainly be waiting in the wings, salivating at the opportunity to feature this moron in some form of series. 
At least that’s what he assumed—and probably with good reason.  How many “celebrities” today are infamous for simply being “celebrities”?  How many are accustomed to paparazzi and notoriety without benefit of any form of accomplishment or talent?  Too many.  Far too many.

Tareq and Michaele Salahi apparently are frequent fixtures in the D.C. social scene—always eager to post stories and photos on Facebook about the various elbows they regularly rub.  The couple had recently auditioned for the reality series Real Housewives of D.C. and must have thought that breaching security at a White House State dinner would make them more intriguing and worthy of our attention. 

So far, nothing of the reality series variety has materialized for either of these two publicity whores.  I do not use that word flippantly.  A prostitute will do most anything for money.  The Heenes and Salahis will apparently do most anything for notoriety.

At least in the old days (I feel like I just added 20 years to my age for even using that phrase) society would weed out such moronic behavior for what it was.  Few people were willing to reward these kinds of antics with their time, attention, or especially their hard-earned money.  Nowadays, the right antic can have you set for life financially—with no real societal discipline to make you rethink your actions.  Or even worse:  someone like Levi Johnston can become a celebrity just for getting Sarah Palin’s daughter pregnant and then disparraging Palin to the delight of her detractors.

Is this really where we are as a culture?  I desperately hope not.

Earlier this year my grandmother passed away at the age of 90.  My grandfather passed away in 2002 at the age of 83.  They lived in Hartsville, South Carolina—a largely rural, small town in the middle of the state—in the same house my grandfather built with his own hands when my mother was in elementary school.  Their house was like that of most of their neighbors:  sitting back from the country road on a very large parcel of land with fields of corn and cotton all around, directly across the road from a railroad track.  One neighbor might live next door.  The next neighbor might be a quarter mile or more down the road.

I guess it almost sounds like the stereotype of what sweet little old grandparents should be.  And they were.  They grew up within very close proximity to each other.  Attended the same schools since first grade (there was no kindergarten back then).  Dated in high school, and got married at age 19.  They were very active members of an old country church from their earliest days to their last.  My grandfather was a deacon.  They both delivered meals to shut-ins in their later years.  He retired from Sunoco as a respected manager—the same company where he began working as a young man decades ago.

I was never not excited to see them.  Hartsville was a two-and-a-half-hour drive from our home in Charleston—an eternity to a child—but always well worth the time.  It was different from Charleston in so many ways.  As much as I would’ve loved to have seen them more often (though we did see them regularly), I never envied my friends whose grandparents lived in town.  There was something magical about visiting my grandparents.

When I was younger, my grandfather would take my siblings and me down to the end of the road (it was a long road) to the tiny general store for a Coke and some ice cream.  Eventually, that store closed as some degree of civilization encroached upon the community (though not their specific road—which remains largely as it was from my earliest memories).

At my grandfather’s funeral in 2002, the minister told stories about Papa that I didn’t know, but nevertheless were perfectly aligned with everything I knew about him:  when things needed repair at the church, Papa just did it.  When an old lady called the church because her sink was clogged or a window was broken, he went and fixed it.  He wasn’t verbose and never sought to be the life of the party.  He did his job, loved his wife, raised his 4 kids (including my mother), loved his grandchildren, and served his Lord.   The minister told the congregation at Swift Creek Baptist Church that they were going to have to step up to the plate because it was unlikely that any one man would fill his shoes in service to the church and community.

All of the grandsons served as pallbearers for Papa.  My cousins and I talked before the service about some of our favorite memories.  My knowledge of my grandparents never involved any perception of their relationships with my cousins beyond the obvious.  However, as my cousins shared stories with my brother and me, we realized how many unique but similar experiences we all shared.  At one time or another with each of us, Papa had taken some piece of scrap wood, metal, or plastic and fashioned a home-made toy for us on the spot.  And took us to the store down the street.  And let us ride on his tractor.  And on and on.  Consistency defines character and gives comfort in a way that few other character traits do. 

Mama, on the other hand, was quite the entertainer.  Barely 5 feet tall, she was a sweet little old lady with a spry disposition, spunky and funny as she shuffled around the house in her later years.  I remember the smell of sausage and yellow grits waking me and my sister from the bed when my Mom would take us for extended visits when we were little.  Mama had a serious sweet tooth and a neverending variety of Little Debbie treats filling the cabinets. 

And boy could she cook.  Like other southern women of her generation, macaroni and cheese, deviled eggs, green beens, stuffing—you name it—was never anything short of sinfully delicious.  Thanksgiving and Christmas get-togethers were something to look forward to for the food alone.  I could almost taste the food from the moment we left home in Charleston.  She also made a 6 layer—yes, 6—caramel cake that was always perfectly sculpted and dangerously scrumptious.  I could eat that cake all day long—and probably would have if there weren’t so many other things to sample.

After her funeral earlier this year, the ladies of the church prepared food for our entire extended family—quite a few people—in honor of my grandparents and everything they meant to the church.  I remember the incredible spread of down-home southern cooking and realizing I might never get to sample a smorgasboard of that type ever again.  I also remember realizing that I would likely never attend a service at Swift Creek Baptist Church ever again. 

I stepped outside onto the back deck today to get a good sense of the cold, brisk air.  Immediately, the temperature, the leaves on the ground, and the time of year (two weeks before Christmas) brought to mind a familiar sensation that I also will never get to experience again—visiting Mama and Papa at Christmas.  That’s life—everchanging.  I’ll have to make a special drive if I ever want to see recently harvested cotton remnants along the road—a regular rite of the season I had always enjoyed.

This will be our first Christmas without being able to see either of my grandparents.  I don’t mind horribly the fact that I’m getting older, but I hate that my getting older usually is accompanied by the loss of more and more people that are important to me. 

As I drove my family away from the grave site after Mama’s funeral—a church cemetery next to Swift Creek, where my great grandparents, great aunts, and great uncles are also buried—I thought about the fact that the story of Ellie (Papa) and Bobbie (Mama) Sparrow was over.  This couple that met young, married young, and lived long never left their small home town.  Never left their country church.  Never left the house they built.

It would be easy to dismiss their story as something that happened in a tiny, irrelevent section of the world—a small town in South Carolina.  But ask their three daughters and son, their twelve grandchildren, their 18 great grandchildren—the people who became mothers, fathers, engineers, architects, teachers, CPAs, computer programmers, filmmakers, artists, and more—what kind of impact Mama and Papa had on their lives, and chances are that any answer would be incomplete.  Ask people who attend church or work with the children or grandchildren if Mama and Papa’s legacy is evident in the way we all live our lives today.  Their impact isn’t over yet and won’t be for quite some time.

That’s how to live a meaningful life. 

And they did so without a reality show.

–CS

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One Response to “How to Live a Meaningful Life”

  1. Ada

    Clifton,

    This is a lovely tribute to Mom and Dad. They would have been surprised at the compliments because they always assumed anyone could do what they were doing. Many of the people who I knew growing up – including Mom and Dad – were probably about as near to being ‘saints’ as I will ever meet. Sure, they had flaws. But what you saw was the real thing. They did not try to be anything other than themselves.

    And they were proud of all their grandchildren! I understand that because I have come to realize (as you will many years from now) that grandchildren are the greatest things in our lives!

    Good job. Good writing. Keep it up.

    Ada

    #139

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