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On Aging with Dr. Roger Branch Sr.: Visiting the past
Branch WEB
Dr. Roger Branch Sr.

Yes, it is true that some of us seniors live in or, more likely, occasionally, visit the past. There are many reasons for doing so.

One is the paucity of present alternatives. Music lovers hear "works" of three- to five-word lyrics repeated until the performers are ready to quit. I can never figure out why they even started. Major movies are composed of computer-generated monsters inserted into scenes with "actors" who never actually encounter them. Many titles include the word "apocalypse" to indicate the real or threatened end of the world.

No one seems to know that "apocalypse" - when translated from the Greek - means the unveiling or revelation, thus the last book of the Bible, not some dramatic events therein portrayed. I learned too much in Dr. E.A. McDowell's class to pretend to become brain-dead and accept such farcical ignorance. Obviously, some things from the present get my "off" button.

Parts of the past that are revisited are often transcendent. Some experiences change us dramatically, shaping who we are and what we do for all of our lives. Some seem unremarkable but mold us in subtle ways.

Hot supper from my mother's skilled hands after a hard day - what a way to define that which is good! Reading, listening to the radio, just talking with my family in the living room around my father's roaring fire that defied any freeze or storm - what a perfect way to nurture security in every sense of the word! Even with all of life's subsequent storms, there remains a bed-rock belief that life is good. Joy is forever embedded in the psyche by ripe watermelon, frost-chilled cane juice and Christmases when Santa was still real to me and then when he was real to our children.

Powerful personal experiences obviously often transform us. The one that I revisit most came Sept. 6, 1953, on my first date with a girl named Annette from Cobbtown, she of the dark, curly hair and a bunch of other good features. She stole my heart. A month later, I was ready to marry her, but she was still weeks away from her 17th birthday and a senior in high school. We did marry on the first day of 1955. She just barely 18 years old and I only 20. She was my beauty, my true yoke-fellow through some poverty, five college degrees, four pastorates and a long teaching career, and still the holder of my heart until her death June 24, 2013.

Among our co-creations are our children, Gary and Elizabeth Annette. From first indication to birth, they were new experiences and necessarily transformational. The first time that I saw them in their mother's arms, the first time that I held them in my own are places often revisited from my past. I knew nothing about parenting, having grown up in a family which included only one younger sibling. Whatever I did, learning on the job, might not have been great experiences for my children, but it was life-defining for me.

Some experiences transcend the ordinary profoundly and reshape us to the core. My most memorable came at the death of my paternal grandmother, Sallie Wilkes Branch. Like her father and other kin, she was vulnerable to strokes and suffered through two in her final months. When it became clear that death was near, her large family gathered near her bed in the room that had been hers for 52 years. Unexpectedly, she woke from her coma-like state and in a clear voice instructed her children on how they should live in the future. That done, she quoted aloud the 23rd Psalm.

Then, looking fixedly ahead, she lifted her hand as if in greeting and said, "Jesus." And she left us, moved from one life into another. I saw it.

That should have been enough for me, but the long, loud end-of-world sermons that were the regular pulpit fare where I went to church left me cold, turned me off. I was hungry, but never fed. Then a humble country preacher who proclaimed and lived grace in the way of Jesus came along.

One Sunday afternoon in May in 1954, I followed this aged, white-haired pastor into the cold waters of the Ohoopee River to be baptized along with my brother and six others. At his request, I stood beside him to help as needed while he baptized the others.

A portent of things to come for me?

Later that summer, at another country church served by an able pastor and distant kinsman, I felt and responded to my Lord's call to ministry. The next Sunday, I delivered my first sermon in a church served by a long-time friend and classmate who was maybe 20 years old but already a seasoned pastor.

My grandmother's inspiration lay at the center of my message and many others in the 62 years since.

Yes, when I visit the past - as I often do - these are the most frequent stops on the journey. These are experiences that have shaped and still shape my every becoming. As my friend, Donna, says, "The Lord is not finished with me yet."

Maybe today will furnish one of those experiences needed for the finishing.

Roger G. Branch Sr. is professor emeritus of sociology at Georgia Southern University and a retired pastor.

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