RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Ordinary Guys Get Around

Once there was a regular guy. In fact, if you had to design a regular guy, a good one, this is who he'd be. He grew up in a small Texas town, dropped out of high school, built race cars, drank beer, joined the Army, got his GRE, finished his duty, married, divorced, moved to Illinois, started a career in sales, learned how to play golf, married, moved to Michigan, then to Missouri, had two daughters whom he loved very much, played more golf, watched football games on TV and at the state university, sold more houses, bought a business, divorced, closed the business, moved to Michigan, kept selling houses, married, learned how to sail and canoe on rivers and lakes, drank more beer and so forth.

When the time came, he and his third wife -- he finally had found a soul mate -- retired and bought a home in Florida where they could play golf, sail and watch football on TV.

But if you designed this regular, good guy, and you neglected to build in how many lives he touched and how many people he taught, especially to the young ones around him, you'd be forgetting the importance of regular life. This guy's teaching was to meet everyone with a hearty handshake and a big smile. You could be white, black, brown, male, female, poor, rich, any race or religion or sexual persuasion, and he'd meet you on the same terms. And he believed, truly, that everyone should have a home and a community, and that was his dream for America, and he was helping it happen.

Long story short: The guy and his wife moved to Florida and, as they settled in, he began to be ill. Just a mild discomfort, they thought.

The daughters, one of whom had moved to New York City and one to California, came to help with the move and the new life but the visit was spoiled by doctor tests and uncertainness. It turned out he had a particularly aggressive form of colon cancer.

The disease was grueling and painful and a month after the illness began its cruel ravage, he died. Both his daughters were there, and his third wife (his soul mate), and his mother and brother and sister. They had endured a month of hell. Not only his illness, but the medication that made him temporarily delusional had taken a toll on the family.

When he died, the first call the daughters got was from a Cherokee neighbor who practiced Native American rituals along with Catholicism. The next call was from a Jewish friend, and as word spread, the calls and cards were coming from all the people he had touched. Urban, rural, suburban, agnostics, pagans, born-again charismatic Catholics, Jehovah's Witnesses, Jews, blacks, PhDs and college dropouts. None of them were thinking, "I'm going to cross a cultural line today." All of them were thinking, "What can I say to help this family get through this terrible death? What words can I find? How can I help? How can we find meaning?"

When the girls decided to take a few days off after the death, they called old lovers who were dear to them. One called a man and the other called a woman and the four of them headed for the beach. Nobody thought, "We're bringing together gays and straights -- what a breakthrough." Instead, they were thinking, "How can we get through this? When will the pain stop? When will we understand why this has happened?" Their old partners made the daughters sleep all weekend and soon they were feeling better.

This story may be familiar to you. Because you know people, good, regular people, who have lived good, regular lives and connected with hundreds of other good, regular people and, through their connections, touch each other. It happens when we're open to those who come from other backgrounds, practice other rituals, but leave enough openness in their lives to slip into relationships with people who are very different.

The family is healing now and they all know they'll survive. They each remember different things about him -- how he taught them to visualize themselves in a better world and work for it, and things very personal and idiosyncratic to that family. But here's the lesson for all of us: President's month, February, is the shortest month of the year. The rest of the months are reserved for the ordinary, and those ordinary relationships are where the real change happens. We have amazing opportunities to meet each other.

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email

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