Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Wednesday Wisdom: Family History on a Rock - Why is Grandpa Pole-Vaulting Barefoot and in Bib Overalls?

FAMILY HISTORY ON A ROCK - Why is Grandpa Pole-Vaulting Barefoot and in Bib Overalls?

"In all of us there is a hunger, marrow deep, to know our heritage - to know who we are and where we have come from."  Alex Haley  


My brother Lane and his family orchestrated a magnificent family reunion for the descendants of my Farnsworth grandparents in August. They used family history as a theme and created a wide array of fun and engaging activities to help participants learn or remember the stories of ancestors on that side of our family tree. These included "Family History Jeopardy," "Word Search" with ancestors' names, and "Compare a Face" from Ancestry, matching our parents' and aunts' and uncles' countenances with earlier ancestors.

For the younger children, Lane and his family organized "This Family Rocks!" They painted dozens of rocks with names and pictures of senior family members and episodes of their lives. The rocks were hidden in the grass and trees and the children were sent out to find them, Easter-egg-hunt style. Once a child found a rock, he or she could bring it back and share the story on it for a simple prize. Adults were encouraged to study the rocks in preparation for Family History Jeopardy.

Later, the painted rocks were auctioned to family members to raise funds to cover reunion expenses. That's how I came to own the rock pictured above.

The story behind this particular painted rock is fascinating. In 1924, five years before my father was born, the Farnsworth family lived in a small village named Colonia Garcia, high in the Sierra Madre Mountains of northern Mexico. Colonia Garcia was among a dozen or so small mountain settlements and two larger valley towns largely populated by American ex-pats.  

On summer holidays like the 4th of July, residents of those towns and settlements would gather for picnics, rodeos, horse races, and athletic contests. The rivalry between the mountaineers and the valley dwellers was intense. However, because of their scant numbers, teams representing the mountain settlements were usually at a serious disadvantage when pitted against teams from the larger valley towns.

The specific competition on this occasion was a track meet, to which the various communities sent their best athletes, usually older teenagers and young adults, decked out in colorful matching track uniforms. Unfortunately, the village of Colonia Garcia was able to send but a single competitor, namely 35-year-old Byron Farnsworth, my paternal grandfather.  

You can almost imagine the snickering and eye-rolling by the young, sleek, and well-dressed athletes from the valley teams when "Old Man Farnsworth" showed up wearing work boots and bib overalls, and especially when he announced that he (alone) was the team from Colonia Garcia.

Byron wasn't able to compete in the team events such as the relays, but his natural speed and strength, fortified by the rigors of living and working in the mountains, served him well in the individual events. He may not have looked like a track-and-field athlete in his bib overalls, but he managed well enough.

He only owned one pair of shoes, the boots he wore every day at work. He competed in his boots when throwing the shot put or javelin, but when it came time to race or jump, he would peel off his boots and run or jump barefoot.

Competing alone all day, he amassed enough points in enough events to put him close to the lead against the other teams. It would all come down to the pole vault. Those were the days of bamboo poles and cross-bars, and hard landings in pits of sawdust or pine shavings.

With the passage of a hundred years since then, we no longer have a record of how high Grandpa pole vaulted that day, but this we know for sure: Byron Farnsworth, clad in bib overalls and bare feet, cleared the highest bar when the others could not. He ended up winning the pole vault event and, as a result, the entire track meet.  


Army of One.

You go, "Old Man Farnsworth!" Show those young-buck valley boys what a mountain man can do, even in bare feet and bib overalls.

And today, I own the rock that tells the story.  Now I can make sure that all my children and grandchildren will remember this episode for generations to come.
I sometimes wonder, if I could talk to my grandpa today, what life lessons he would share with me from that day at the track meet.  He might say something like:

·         Farnsworths can do hard things.

·         Farnsworths aren’t afraid to stand alone if necessary.

·         Farnsworths focus on what’s inside of us, not what’s on the outside.

·         Farnsworths ignore what others may be saying; we just quietly do our best.

·         Farnsworths are never too old to get out there and try.

·         Farnsworths aren’t embarrassed of where we’re from or the work we do.

·         Farnsworths play as hard as we work.

Thanks, Grandpa Farnsworth, for your courage and fine example.  And thank you, Lane and Nalene and your family, for a great reunion and my beautiful rock, a memento of what it means to be a Farnsworth.

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

WEDNESDAY WISDOM: Finding Joy in an Out-of-Tune Piano


"Virtually every writer I know would rather be a musician."  Kurt Vonnegut  

Our son Evan at the family piano, Christmas 2015

As a family, we've encouraged our children to develop their musical talents. We provided each child piano lessons, membership in their respective high school bands, and training on violin and guitar for those who were interested. Some of them have become very accomplished musicians. Many can sing well and some have become professional piano instructors, guitar teachers, and church organists.

Our children learned to play the piano on a baby grand piano we inherited from my wife's grandmother. It's definitely not a Steinway or anything close to it, but it was adequate for lessons and family sing-alongs. It's now well over 100 years old and holds generations of loving memories.  

Unfortunately, as our children grew up, moved away, and stopped taking lessons, we tended to neglect the piano's care.   It has suffered through several moves and has gone many years without the benefit of a good tuning. As a result, this grand old lady is a "little off."


My brother Brent and his family visited us on the Sunday after Christmas. Brent's five children, all young adults and teenagers, are exceptionally gifted musicians. The three older daughters have won dozens of awards in music and have majors or minors in music performance or music education. The middle son is first chair in his All-State Honors orchestra, and the younger son, a fine brass player in his own right, is following in his siblings' footsteps.
As my nieces and nephews were leaving Sunday evening to go back to their hotel, some of them stopped at the old piano. I apologized for the mediocre quality of its sound and for its lack of tuning. Kimberly, the oldest and a college graduate in piano performance, responded with a positive and cheerful comment:

"Oh, I love to play an out-of-tune piano. You can really get into . . ." She paused, searching for the right word.

"Ragtime!" said Matthew, "or Honky-Tonk!" completing her sentence. "It's so fun to play Ragtime or Honky-Tonk on a piano like this."

Both he and Kimberly jumped on the bench and launched into a lively Scott Joplin duet, their four hands full of energy and enthusiasm. They made those old out-of-tune keys sing and dance, filling the room with happiness.

I was positioned to watch their faces during this impromptu performance, and in those youthful countenances I saw pure joy.  

In their faces I saw the joy of making music; the joy of playing together; the joy of bringing pleasure to their audience; the joy of using their well-honed talents; the joy of employing this less-than-perfect instrument in a manner for which it was perfectly suited.  

Never mind that this rather ordinary piano didn't - and probably never could - measure up to the quality of instruments they were accustomed to playing in All-State orchestras and college symphonies. What mattered was that they were making it resonate according to the full measure of its creation.

They overlooked its faults and flaws and indeed used those weaknesses to their advantage. This piano, at least in its current state, would not suffice for a senior recital or a grand concerto, but that didn't stop it from being the belle of the ball at a Sunday evening ragtime gig in the Farnsworth living room. What fun for all of us!

After they left and I reflected on their visit, it struck me that my nieces and nephews had just taught me two magnificent life-lessons, tutorials more about people than about musical instruments.

First, even "average" people can produce exceptional results when they are placed in the right environment and are nurtured by leaders, friends, or family who care for them and are willing to overlook their imperfections. Such supporters recognize abilities and ignore disabilities. They guide ordinary folks into roles and situations where success is possible, then believe in them wholeheartedly. Hand in hand, they bring out the best in everyone. I'm so thankful for leaders, friends, and family who have this amazing gift and use it to bless and bolster me and others in their circle of influence.

Second, as frail mortals, each of us can do far more and can become far more when we allow ourselves to be instruments under God's direction. He can make much more of us than we could ever achieve alone. One of my favorite poems is "The Touch of the Master's Hand" by Myra Brooks Welch. I realized after my brother and his family left that I had just seen a live demonstration of that beautiful composition.  

The Touch of the Master's Hand 
'Twas battered and scarred, and the auctioneer
      Thought it scarcely worth his while
To waste much time on the old violin,
      But held it up with a smile.
"What am I bidden, good folks," he cried,
    "Who'll start the bidding for me?"
"A dollar, a dollar. Then two! Only two?
      Two dollars, and who'll make it three?"

"Three dollars, once; three dollars, twice;
      Going for three..." But no,
From the room, far back, a grey-haired man
      Came forward and picked up the bow;
Then wiping the dust from the old violin,
      And tightening the loosened strings,
He played a melody pure and sweet,
      As a caroling angel sings.

The music ceased, and the auctioneer,
      With a voice that was quiet and low,
Said: "What am I bid for the old violin?"
      And he held it up with the bow.
"A thousand dollars, and who'll make it two?
      Two thousand! And who'll make it three?
Three thousand, once; three thousand, twice,
    And going and gone," said he.

The people cheered, but some of them cried,
    "We do not quite understand.
What changed its worth?" Swift came the reply:
    "The touch of the Master's hand."
And many a man with life out of tune,
      And battered and scarred with sin,
Is auctioned cheap to the thoughtless crowd
      Much like the old violin.

A "mess of pottage," a glass of wine,
    A game - and he travels on.
He is "going" once, and "going" twice,
    He's "going" and almost "gone."
But the Master comes, and the foolish crowd
    Never can quite understand
The worth of a soul and the change that is wrought
    By the touch of the Master's hand.

Thank you, Kimberly, Kayla, Karina, Matthew, and Michael, for a wonderful Christmas message, taught not from a pulpit or lectern but from a rather ordinary piano bench. And thank you for also teaching me to love and appreciate our old piano by focusing on its capabilities rather than dwelling on its disabilities.

And thank you, Brent and Delwyn, for raising such remarkable and talented children.