Just a week or so ago, Frederick Manfred would have celebrated his 100th birthday, had he lived. He didn’t. He died in 1994, from the complications of a brain tumor.
Manfred was a Siouxland original, a CRC boy, Calvin grad, a giant of a man—6’9” when he descended on the Calvin campus and was recruited post-haste for the Calvin basketball team. He didn’t do well in freshman English that year, but no man I know was so purposefully devoted to calling at Feike Feikema, the name with which he was born. By life’s end, he’d written a couple of dozen novels, some of them almost biography, others what we might call Western history. He was as generous a man as I’ve ever known, someone others have frequently called “a force,” like the wind on the plains he loved. Once he told me one day, when he was a boy, he sat down on the back step of his house near Doon, looked out at the open fields all around, and just wondered what the story was of the land where he was born.
I miss him. He certainly was a force in my life, a man so immensely passionate about what he did and what he loved doing that he couldn’t help becoming an inspiration to others. I used to bring gangs of students up to his place, and every year they’d pile back in a van in a kind of stunned silence, even awe. Like no one else, he urged me to take an interest in writing–and he did so long before he ever knew me, or I him.
For years already, these few sentences on his grave in the Doon, IA, cemetery have haunted me. I know the thirst he had for this life was gargantuan; I knew him, and I know he wanted to know, wanted to feel, wanted to understand everything he could. I know he had pain, physical and emotional. I know he cried. But the farmer in him never quit really–he loved the land, the air, the breeze, the critters who’d wander up the hill near his place. He was, in a way, in love with this world.
And yet, when I read it again, I can’t help but think it’s a view of life I’ve been taught is plain wrong, even sinful. This world, after all, is not my own–I’m just a’passin’ through.
But it can’t be heresy to love the world God himself has made, a world for which he gave his only Son. Two nights ago, at some friends’ house, an indigo bunting appeared out of nowhere, a perfectly azure songbird unlike any I’d ever seen. There he sat at a feeder, radiantly, regally blue.
Any hospital visit is a reminder that darkness exists and abides. It doesn’t take a Calvinist to locate the dark corners in all our lives, the nature of human sin in us all.
But Fred Manfred’s tombstone epitaph makes me want to believe in the beauty of the earth, the splendid joy of this life. How can that be wrong?
Just think of that indigo bunting.
They’re haunting to me—those few sentence etched the granite that marks Manfred’s grave. They simply don’t go away. They stay with me, as he does, and the truth should.