While spending my 15th summer with my mom’s folks, my mom’s biological dad and his second wife contacted me. Somehow they’d heard I was in Oregon, and they called me at my grandparents’ to invite me to accompany them for a few days to the annual family picnic for his side of the family. In the space of a few hours, I met my biological grandfather for the first time and embarked on a five-hour car ride with he and his wife, Edna, to a gathering of family I’d never met.
Which is how I found myself on a dock in Coos Bay, Oregon, several days later with my newly-met cousin, Larry, and my erstwhile grandfather, Cliff, throwing crabbing nets over the side. Once the nets were submerged, Cliff produced a bag of peanuts and we sat, dangling our feet off the edge of the dock, shelling them. This was the first time I’d been around Cliff without Edna and I wasn’t sure what to expect without her there to guide the conversation.
It cannot be underestimated, the pall that sitting with an older, taciturn man can have on two teenaged people of opposite genders who have just met. Still, I liked peanuts, and since crabbing consisted mostly of waiting, I liked that the shelling gave me something to do. As the afternoon drifted and we gave the unwitting crabs a chance to crawl into the nets, we made our own individual piles of the hulls, not at all concerned when the wind lifted the occasional one to float away on the sea.
Cliff cleared his throat. “Lookie here,” he said. He held together two halves of a long peanut shell. “Do you know what this is like? Look at this shell. It looks just like the others on the outside. You expect you’re going to find maybe as many as three peanuts in here.” He held it in front of my face and then in front of Larry’s. Indeed, three gentle bumps promised that number of peanuts. “But when you open it-” he split the halves apart –“there’s nothing.” Sure enough, there was not three, or two, or even one peanut; there was nary a peanut in sight. This happened every now and then: the outside formed but not the inside.
Cliff said, “This is like a life without Jesus Christ.”
I was suddenly alarmed.
“From the outside, everything looks fine; but inside, emptiness. Do you see?” He held out the halves again, matched their edges together, then pulled them apart.
No one had thought to warn me that Cliff might foist a Jesus monologue on me. Even my father’s side of the family – most of whom attended churches whose names included variations on the word “evangelism” – tended not to buttonhole me in this manner.
“Do you see?” he said again, clearly expecting an answer.
I scrambled to gather a response, tried to form a sentence that would be both polite and conversation-changing, when I happened to look over at Larry. He held my gaze a moment, then carefully, soberly, he rolled his eyes.
“Sure,” Larry said to Cliff. “Without Jesus, a person is empty.”
“That’s it exactly. Without Jesus we’re empty.” Cliff’s hands dropped into his lap, a half peanut shell in each.
“Yeah,” I added. I nodded for emphasis, then gazed out toward the horizon with an expression I hoped communicated my deep consideration of his parable, and which discouraged any further conversations like this. Larry took my cue and looked thoughtfully at several peanut husks bobbing in the water.
Cliff said no more.
I saw Larry a couple days later at the family picnic and impressed him by picking up a garter snake. Cliff I only saw a handful more times over the rest of his life.
I wonder sometimes at this outburst of Cliff’s. Was he just trying to be a good Christian and share the Word with us (which would suggest some deeper spiritual commitment I wasn’t aware of)? Did he think an elder’s job was to Dispense Wisdom and this is what he came up with? Whatever his reason, what I remember most is how it felt when Larry rolled his eyes: a feeling of complete relief and sweet connection .