On January 16, 1933, Mrs. Hazel Pace gave birth to a little boy. This was child number five and it is unlikely that the family was thrilled about having another mouth to feed. The Great Depression was picking up momentum in 1933, but the Paces had been poor long before the economy crashed. Hazel’s husband, Brian, had a steady union job even during the Depression, but he was also a drinking man–a “payday drunk,” as people used to say. Brian never missed a shift, but come Friday he liked to unwind with his buddies. A generous, “drinks-for-the-house” kind of guy, he would stumble home when the taverns closed; his family lived on whatever was left in his pockets.
Hazel’s labor and delivery did not go as planned. The custom among working people of the time was for a midwife–almost always an African-American woman; a remarkable phenomenon in Indiana, the last stronghold of the KKK–to monitor the early stages of labor, then send for the doctor when delivery was nigh. The first part went o.k. The midwife sat with Hazel, talked and prayed her through the pain, and attended to the signs. After a few hours, she told Brian that it was time to fetch the doctor.
That’s when the plan went off the rail.
Brian set off to walk the 15 or so blocks to the doctor’s office, but there were many speakeasies along the route. Nearing the first one, Brian decided to go inside and tell everyone the news. The bartender gave him a drink on the house, a friend bought another round, and Brian moved on to complete his errand. A few blocks down, another one of his hangouts popped up. The now-much-happier Brian dropped in to tell the regulars at that establishment about what was going on at home. More congratulatory drinks followed and so went the routine throughout the afternoon.
Family lore does not tell us how many bars lay between home and the doctor’s office, or even if Brian ever reached his destination. What we do know is that neither he nor the doctor made it to the birth. The neighborhood midwife’s arms were the first to cradle the infant.
She also named the child. I’m not sure why. It is possible that Hazel, who was way beyond angry, could not think of a nice, speakable, printable name to call any male at that moment. It is also possible that she had already used her favorite boys’ names on the three sons who preceded this one. Whatever the reason, after the midwife gave the newborn a good, long look, she decided that he should be called Benjamin, which means “the right hand of God.” This boy, she declared, was destined for the ministry and she took it upon herself to dedicate him to the Lord. I like to think that she saw something special and glowing in the child, although most likely she was looking for some way to soothe his seething but devoutly Christian mother.
The family continued to struggle. The next year, Hazel birthed another son, this time in a hospital. (The Paces couldn’t really afford the luxury, but Brian owed her big-time.) Between the combined weight of international economic crisis and Brian’s drinking, Hazel often had to turn to relatives for help. Fortunately for the children, she had a gift for turning scarcity into fun; if there was any food at all in the house, she tried to make a game of it. I’m told that Popcorn-for-Dinner nights were popular with her youngest children, who did not realize that it was popcorn or nothing.
Eventually Brian found Jesus in a drainage ditch–another story for another time–and lived out his remaining decades as the kind, dependable man that he was meant to be. Benjamin, meanwhile, drew from the best qualities of all of the adults who looked after him. The influence of his paternal grandfather–known by everyone as “Dad Pace”–inspired him to be a person to whom others could always turn for help and empathy. His sobered-up father showed him how to be the sort of man of the church who welcomes sinners into the fold without harsh judgement. His playfulness came, I believe, from Hazel, although only remnants of this young woman remained by the time I came along.
As the reader has probably already guessed, the above paragraphs are about my own father, Benjamin Eugene Pace. He turns 80 years old today and I’ve yet to encounter a person who is not bowled over by his kindness. He is pretty literally the nicest man I have ever known, a bit of information I enjoy sharing with folks who are about to be introduced to him for the first time. “Get ready to meet the nicest man in the world,” I say, a comment that usually achieves some discreet version of an eye-roll. “Sure he is,” I imagine people thinking. “He’s your dad. Everyone feels that way about their dad.” Then they meet the guy face-to-face and after a few moments of conversation, I see their skepticism turn into a sort of wonderment. I’m not sure what it is about my father that signals his goodness so quickly and completely, but it is a genuine phenomenon. I don’t know whether the glow that comes from my dad is the spirit of God or of humanity-at-its-best. What I do know is that even after 57 years of knowing this man, his inherent goodness still takes my breath away.
I think that it is my father’s deeply silly streak that seals the deal. Almost everyone knows at least one serious Christian whose piety demands charity and whose charity, however bankable, comes across as a rather grudging mandate. Ben Pace’s good deeds generally come packaged with smiles, situation-lightening observations, and goofy-but-pertinent limericks.
He also possesses a dry, droll irony. Somewhere around middle age, my dad became aware-enough of his reputation as an impossibly good man to play with it from time to time. If the mood is right, he is likely to respond to a question or inquiry with some absurdly improbable answer that is initially believed simply because of who he is. (A version of this has gone on for as long as I can remember. Once when I was very young I asked Dad why he was the only male on either side of the family who had not been in the military. Straight-faced, he told me that he had, in fact, been in the Spanish Navy. I bought it and for quite a while after also believed tales about his life at sea.) That’s the great thing about being a fully honest person: you can tell people anything and will always be believed.
While I adore my dad’s silliness, the thing that I most admire is that he has reached his 80th birthday without having committed a single act for which he has to be ashamed. As a person who never leaves the house without a posse of shame-faced ghosts, I stand in awe of this achievement. There was a time when I started fishing around for evidence that Dad had done at least one really bad thing: maybe even something so awful that only he and God knew about it. My search was quiet, yet in its own way, as diligent as the investigations of people trying to root out war criminals. The worst thing I could find was an adorable anecdote about climbing a fence to steal apples from a neighbor’s tree. If an adult Ben Pace were a fence-scaling apple-thief, the incident would at least be weird, right? Alas, Dad’s career as an apple-thug didn’t last beyond his eighth year. So imagine: eighty-years old and Ben Pace’s most sordid act was something out of the whimsical first chapters of Tom Sawyer. Shoot, I’d committed more grievous sins than that before I turned five.
I’m not saying that Ben Pace is perfect. He is a cleanliness fanatic. He is immutably obstinate, (although even that flaw has an altruistic bent). He rarely loses his temper, but when he does, it is a terrible thing to experience. Dad does not yell, hit, or throw things. Instead his face falls in disappointment, he grows quiet for a while, and the effect on the transgressor is unbearable guilt for spoiling this fine gentleman’s day. My mother and I have often expressed a wish that he would take up hollering. It’s like pissing off the Dalai Lama: you feel like the most horrible slime that ever crawled the earth. The thing is, you see, if Ben Pace is forced to become angry with you, it really is your fault.
So. There is a difference between perfection and goodness. Perfection, if attainable, is surely boring–probably robotic and obnoxious as well. My father, Benjamin “Right-Hand-of-God” Pace, is good and it is the kind of goodness that motivates others to find their own good selves. When I look at pictures of my dad as a toddler, the special goodness is already visible. My guess is that it was there from the beginning–that this is what the midwife saw.
I did not intend for this essay to have an epilogue. The purpose behind the writing was to make my dad “blog famous” for his 80th birthday. My plan was to edit the above in the afternoon, then send Dad an annotated copy as a gift. As a few readers know, however, Benjamin Pace passed away quickly, unexpectedly, and immediately after his birthday lunch.
The symmetry of his dates, January 16, 1933-January 16, 2013 strikes me as being very much in keeping with who Ben Pace was. My dad loved tidiness and balance and and round numbers and stories that come full circle, back to the point where they began. A fantastic raconteur and lover of the kind of 19th century novels that are filled with unlikely coincidences, Dad would appreciate the way his own story ended.
I had hoped to end this piece with a comment that any reader who stumbled upon an opportunity to meet this remarkable human being should run toward it. It is now too late for that, so I will tell you something else instead.
Individuals like Benjamin Pace don’t live among us very often. Sometimes long decades must pass before the next best guy in the world comes along. My father’s death leaves an empty space, but within that space there is also a challenge for those of us still hanging around to light our own small flames from Ben’s brilliant torch. I am sure that he would send each of you out with this benediction:
Go forward. Live in kindness, integrity, and empathy. Project the best definition of humanity into every interaction with your fellow-humans, from the most important to the most trivial and fleeting. Dad’s version would sound less pompous than mine and might even be spoken in rhyming couplets. But I believe I have the message right.