A creative nonfiction piece commemorating Grandpa Max’s life.
Part 2 of a piece written in honor of my great-grandfather, Charles Maxwell Overholt, November 16, 1912 – March 25, 2013. Part 1 can be found here.
Excerpt from Memory Book:
I loved fishing anywhere with Grandpa. I remember fishing in Colorado, and he was wearing waders and flyfishing. In Wichita . . . Grandpa had a boat and sometimes we would spend the night at the lake. ~Randy, grandson
The best thing about Max is his smile and the love that radiates from his heart. ~Marianne, granddaughter-in-law
It’s growing later, and Grandpa Max seems to realize it.
“Are you all going to be spending the night here?”
“No, no, we’ll go back home in a little bit,” my dad answers. “We told the kids we’d get some ice cream after this, and then we’ll go home to sleep.”
“Oh, okay,” Grandpa Max says, seeming content with that answer.
An elderly man and a younger looking woman have entered the lobby area, and I watch them briefly. She sits on a couch, and he remains in his wheelchair beside it. The writer in me wonders what their stories are. Who are they to each other? Father and daughter, maybe. What is their relationship like? Good, bad, distant? They don’t seem to be talking to each other much, choosing to watch the TV instead, and I feel suddenly grateful for my family’s steady conversation.
Meanwhile, Grandpa Max has gone back to thinking about where all of us will sleep tonight. “Well, if you do stay over, we’ve got some drawers in the room that we could pull out,” he says.
Lydia turns to me. “Sleep in drawers?” she whispers.
I poke her side. “Well, Tigger from Winnie the Pooh did it. It can’t be too bad.”
Although I must admit drawers wouldn’t be the most comfortable place to sleep. But I appreciate the offer. No one could accuse him of being inhospitable, I think.
We’re all hiding laughter again, but it doesn’t feel quite as uncomfortable to me this time. Whether or not Grandpa Max intended this to be a joke, he’s still making us laugh, like he has so often done in the past.
Excerpt from “In Memory of Charles Maxwell Overholt,” by daughter Nancy Margolis
“Dad was a hard worker and was not happy unless he was busy doing something. There was nothing that he could not fix. He was a good provider for his family.”
When Max’s family moved to Wichita, they joined a new way of life. Hesston was a tiny farming community, and Hutchinson and Clay Center weren’t much bigger. Wichita, on the other hand, was the second largest city in the state with a population of nearly 110,000. Rapid immigration had caused a land boom during the 1880s, and the city had received national attention in 1900 when prohibitionist Carrie Nation smashed the downtown Carey House bar with rocks and a pool ball. Shortly after Max arrived in the 1920s, Wichita would earn the title “Air Capital of the World,” when major aircraft corporations such as Stearman (later Boeing-Stearman), Cessna, Mooney, and Beech were all founded there.
In Wichita, Max started high school, attending Wichita High School, which was later renamed East High. Photographs reveal this to be a large, somewhat-intimidating, brick building designed in a collegiate Gothic architectural style with a white turret-like entrance. Max only attended here a short time, however, before transferring to North High when it opened.
He must have enjoyed working with his body more than with his mind, though, because he dropped out of school a month before he would have graduated in order to begin working full-time. Doing this earned him enough to buy his first car, a Model T that cost ten dollars.
His very first job, taken to earn extra money for his family after school and on weekends, was at the Randall Drug store. Here, he made deliveries and “jerked sodas”—something like young George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life, I imagine. In his life story, he said he enjoyed this job, except for being required to work on Sundays and holidays. For that reason, he soon accepted a job at Wyckoff and Kiser Grocery Store, where he priced items, bagged potatoes and sugar, and cut meat. This was where he would later work full-time after dropping out of high school. It paid him a mere $9 a week, but during the Depression, any job was a blessing.
Life took him through a variety of jobs after that. He worked for a number of warehouses, often as warehouse manager. He also branched briefly into public transportation, driving a Wichita city bus for six months and also a taxi for a short time—but he quit that particular job after he was mugged. (This is another of the family stories I wish I knew more about. I have no idea what happened, but I have a feeling it would make a great short story.)
Then World War II came. By this time, Max already had two children, which resulted in a deferment from service. Later, his job at Boeing, the company that produced the Boeing B-29 airplanes needed for the war effort, gave him another deferment, which lasted until the end of the war. Because of this, he never served as a soldier.
After the war, Max worked in a traffic department before going to Wichita Forwarding, a truck company. Here, he worked his way from sales person to terminal manager. Eventually, after Wichita Forwarding had become Mid-American Truck Lines, he retired.
But he never really stopped working.
For the last ten years, Max has lived with my grandparents, his daughter and her husband. They own fifty acres, and I remember Grandpa Max as always being happiest on those hot, dry summer days when the grass needed mowing. He’d take the hulking orange Kubota tractor and mow for hours, often all day long. On rainy days, he’d work on one project or another in the barn, sometimes recruiting my dad to help him.
There’s a picture my grandma took several years ago of Grandpa Max holding my cousin, Aaron, as a baby. The photo doesn’t show either of their faces, just their hands. One is tiny, chubby, pale, the other deep tan and wrinkled, worn from one hundred years of use.
Excerpt from Memory Book:
Corn-pone pancakes . . . A 7-year-old with your fly rod, and how to remove a barbed hook from an earlobe . . . Fixing dishwashers, dryers, lawnmowers, cars, and everything else . . . I’m scared, my 11-year old brother is driving your boat—you’re not even concerned? . . . Pat McManus wrote a story about old men. He said every kid needs an Old Man. You gave me exactly what I needed. ~Jon, grandson
Now, Grandpa Max begins to tell us about his work “mowing the grass” at the nursing home. “I work on it for a few hours each day,” he says.
The way he phrases it makes it sound like the nurses require everyone at the care home to earn their keep by helping with landscaping. I think of the cold, frozen ground outside and the brown dead grass buried beneath slushy snow and wonder what the real grounds people would think if my Grandpa Max suddenly found his way outside and presented himself to them to help with the mowing.
Soon, Grandpa Max starts talking about mowing inside. He demonstrates how to attach ropes to his wheelchair to help get it “real smooth.”
I glance down at the reddish brown carpet. Well . . . it is smooth.
The longer we sit there, the more he comes back to the subject of mowing, and I finally realize: This is why he goes up and down the hallways all the time. He thinks he’s mowing.
Equal amounts of amusement and sadness hit me at this thought. You don’t have to work anymore, Grandpa Max, I want to tell him. You’ve earned your rest.
But maybe rest isn’t what he wants.
Excerpt from “A Profile of Mr. and Mrs. Max Overholt,” by Rev. and Wilma Jones
“We sincerely appreciate the Overholts’ significant contribution to the church over the years and look forward to many more years of service from them.”
Max’s family was, at one point, part of the Mennonite church, and many of his cousins are still members today. At least one Mennonite church in the Hesston area has a history as long as the town itself. The Pennsylvania Mennonite Church (now called Whitestone Mennonite Church) was a simple square white building with thin black rectangular windows. Next to the church was the Eastlawn Cemetery, a quiet plot of ground scattered with gravestones and stubby sticks of trees struggling to survive in the prairie soil. Though Max’s family had probably split from the Mennonite church before his birth, I can’t help but wonder if this was where his faith journey began.
I have no real proof this could be true, except for a quote found on the Whitestone Mennonite Church website: “The Mennonite Church emphasizes service to others as an important way of expressing one’s faith. A disproportionately large number of Mennonites spend their lives working as missionaries or volunteers helping those in need, nationally or internationally.” This description of Mennonite faith is a near-perfect fit for the faith I’ve heard friends and family attribute to Max.
During high school, Max cared enough about faith-related things that he didn’t want to work on Sundays, but when asked by a family member, he said he didn’t become a Christian until he was 19. After making his faith his own, he worked hard at it, though, just as he did in every other area of his life.
For a short time he and Winnie lived in Oklahoma, and while there, he served as the Sunday school superintendent at their church, while also teaching a youth class. He was a superintendent again at the First Church of God after he and Winnie moved back to Wichita. Additionally, in Wichita, he drove the Sunday school bus, taught an intermediate class for boys, and did some janitorial work. Winnie was an equal partner with him, serving as a Sunday school superintendent for the Kindergarten department, teaching a weekday church school, and filling the spot of church librarian, among other things.
This past fall, we held a 100th birthday celebration for Max at our local church—the church my grandparents helped begin. The church Max attends every week with them.
I’ve never heard my Grandpa Max talk much about his faith. It’s a quiet sort of belief, never showy but always there. But I see it in his history of service to the church, in his love for a job well done, in the way he raised his three children, in his sixty-plus-year marriage to my great-grandmother. I see it in the vibrant love his daughter, my grandmother, has for the Lord. I see it in my father, a man of integrity who raised me and my three siblings to love and follow Jesus.
This is the faith I want others to see in me.
Excerpt from Memory Book:
One of my earliest memories involves Grandpa Max. I was only two years old, and my mom, dad, and I had driven down to Texas to visit him and Grandma Winnie. When we arrived, it was already dark. I have one vivid picture in my mind of Grandpa Max opening the door and light spilling out into the darkness. It doesn’t seem like something that should have been significant, but it stuck with me. ~Ruthie, 21, great-granddaughter
It’s the little things in life that you remember, I realize—the little things that make a difference. And if anyone is the master of little things—the day-in, day-out, ordinary things of life—it’s my Grandpa Max. He lives day by day, whether that means working at a grocery store, making a marriage work, doing janitorial work at a church, or mowing his daughter’s yard.
As we get ready to leave, I lean down to hug Grandpa Max goodbye. He swipes a quick kiss on my cheek and says, “Bye, sweetie.”
I squeeze his hand. Whether or not he knows I’m his great-granddaughter, he knows I’m someone he loves.
We walk toward the door, and I think again about Grandpa Max’s love for mowing. Even now after one hundred years of work, he has the desire to be useful. His aged body, nearly worn out from the work he has put it through, makes that difficult now. But I like to imagine that someday he’ll be able to work again.
I don’t know what heaven will be like, but I like to think each of us will be able to do what we love best. For my Grandpa Max, that’s work.
With that thought, I shoot a quick prayer heavenward: God, if you can hear this, do you think you could let Grandpa Max mow your green pastures once he joins you? I think he’d really like that.
It’s a nice picture: Grandpa Max, keeping the green hills of God’s heaven beautiful, working with his hands, just as he has always done for the past century.