The Exodus:5 Project
Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, brought Moses’ sons and wife to him in the wilderness, where he was encamped at the mountain of God. Exodus 18:5
My father died when he was my age and I was in my mid-thirties. Since that time, the pater familias in our family was my father-in-law. He lived past his 93rd birthday and died early this year during a whirlwind couple of weeks in which a series of his chronic health problems collided. Oh, and the week he died his first great-grandson was born. The baby was circumcised on Sunday, my father-in-law was buried the next day.
He was described with deep love and respect during his funeral. As is usually the case, the positives of his life were emphasized, which made me reflect on the shift in our relationship over the years. The way he reached out to me when I lost my dad was in inverse proportion to the earlier friction caused when I swaggered into his only daughter’s undergraduate life. I lived an adult life of profound gratitude and affection for him.
The best part of his relationship with our family was his connection to his grandchildren. And though he was extremely attentive to his six granddaughters, born over the course of twenty years, he had a unique relationship with his unique grandchild: his only grandson, my only son, who was born smack in the middle of the years of family growth. From the beginning, they shared a sense of humor that was grounded in all the things that boys find hilarious and that provokes girls, including wives and mothers, to express disapproval with raised eyebrows and an elongated pronouncing of the offender’s name.
(Here’s a hint for you young people out there: though it is genuinely the funniest invention of the human species, this toy will mysteriously disappear the same evening it is gifted.)
My wife and I raised our boy into an extraordinary man, but there were parts of the wilderness of growing up that only a grandfather could help him explore. I had less interest in sports than they shared. I had no expertise in the stock market, let alone the idea to ask my kid to research some stocks and then buy a couple of shares with him to start his portfolio. My son evolved from my responsibility to my favorite guy to hang out with. But he grew into respect and affection for his seniors because of the slow transition from his grandfather’s little buddy to the guy who kept him vital and active.
There are some things a father is not well-equipped to do. The complicated responsibilities that a dad has can eat into the time (and, to be honest, the willingness) to give a son his due. So much of self-image is involved in a father raising a son that, try as we might, we cannot avoid the mini-me syndrome. But a grandfather has time for the wandering that is a necessary part of growing up. He has raised his mini-mes and has nothing to prove. That's why people often say of their fathers, "He was a good dad, but he was a terrific grandfather."
I can't write about mothers and daughters and grandmothers on either side of the family. I am an observer of those relationships. When Jethro brought Moses' wife to him in the wilderness, I can imagine certain things, but I can't know the heart of anyone in that part of the story.
But I know what it is like for your father-in-law to bring your boy home from some adventure in some wilderness. I know what it is like to see the gleam in two sets of eyes, the physical exhaustion, the inside jokes, the adhesive quality of their mutual affection, the anticipation of next time. For me, it is a reminder and a promise. It is so far beyond words that even the Bible doesn't try to record Moses' reaction.
All seven of his grandchildren will miss my father-in-law in a distinct way, because he had that kind of relationship with each of them. Some things will be the source of collective amusement – he had two jokes he told so frequently that we could recite the punchline with him. But my Jethro will carry with him to the next world my gratitude for always bringing back my boy a little more of the man he has become.