100 Years Ago Today: Birthday of a Satisfied Man

Lisle V. Roberts, age 93, on his front porch in beautiful Wayne County, Kentucky

Lisle V. Roberts, age 93, on his front porch in beautiful Wayne County, Kentucky

On December 21, 1911, 100 years ago today, Lisle Roberts—Dad—was born in a log house in beautiful Wayne County, a long stone's throw from where he sits in this photo. Here, in the summer of 2005, Dad is 93 years old. He lived three more good years, and spent his last afternoon enjoying the hummingbirds from this same spot on his front porch.

I knew this man for 58 years and nine months. I paid fairly close attention for about half that time, the last half.  During my first 10 years or so, I do not remember taking much notice – he was just Daddy. Now I assume that even then I was absorbing, without being aware of it, the ways my father made sense of the world and his place in it.

It is hard to notice the problems in life that never appear, like the potholes I glide over without a bump once someone carefully repairs them. In the last years of Dad's life, though, I noticed one important absence in his life. The absence had been there for my lifetime, and gradually it became blazingly clear: I never heard Dad speak in envy of another person. Not regarding money, recognition, acquisition, health, experience, or connections.  His life was absent envy.

Lisle gave all of us near him an ease that wrapped itself around him because he did not want what anyone else had.  His lack of wanting spread a calm zone around him, an absence of fretting and worry.

Dad started college at Kentucky’s Berea College when he was 22, graduating in 1937.  Many of his story-lessons that he shared with me began, “When I was at Berea....”  He passed along to me his gratitude for what he learned there, so that I hold the College and its graduates in high esteem.

One of the Berea stories starts with Dad’s older brother Mack, who began his education to be a family physician by going to a different school, Cumberland College, now University of the Cumberlands, in Williamsburg, Kentucky. Dad said, “When Mack came home from Cumberland, he said the food was bad. Said they ate an awful lot of peas. When I went to Berea, I decided I would eat whatever they had. And I did.”

Sometimes he told stories about new foods he ate there. In another story, one of my favorites, he arrives back at the College after a field trip, and the student dining room is closed. The kindly food service director sends him to the faculty dining room, where fresh green beans in white sauce are on the menu. Memorably delicious, he said.

The main point of his story about eating whatever they served at Berea is not just that sometimes the food was delicious, though he said it was. The main point is Dad's decision to be satisfied, and how that decision made it possible for him to enjoy his meals and to have enough, whether he liked the food or not.

He kept the spirit of his Berea pledge throughout his life, and not just about food.  Food is an important arena, though, one in which it is possible to be disappointed several times a day, and Dad avoided all that.  Privately, I declared him to be the Champion of Satisfaction.

Dad cooked for himself and Mother for the last years of their lives. He often made homemade rolls and cinnamon rolls, cakes, pies, and cookies for others. I feature his long-time dedication to Molasses Crinkles in my book, Sweet, Sweet Sorghum. Dad could cook anything that occurred to him, but he made most of his decisions about what to eat based on what he found when he opened a freezer or cabinet door.

During my visits, especially after Mother died, I liked to cook for Dad, giving him a small vacation from the kitchen.  I always asked him what he wanted, but not because I expected the kind of specific answer most people would give, something like “I want a grilled cheese sandwich.” Instead I asked him as part of an enjoyable family ritual, for the fun of hearing his stock answer, “What’s available?  I want what’s available.”

I so enjoyed the absence of fussiness or demand. I treasured his lack of preference as an intentional gift of generosity from him to those who sometimes cooked or did other little things for him.

For the last 18 months of his life, Dad had people caring for him full time, around the clock. I learned as much from him in that period as I had in all the decades before. His unfailing graciousness and appreciation for his caregivers, coupled with his lack of complaining or wishing he did not need help, created a climate of dignity and peace. And humor - no partial sketch of this man can be accurate without honoring his lifelong dedication to making fun for himself and others.

Some of his care came from Hospice of Lake Cumberland, including the precious people who came each day to bathe him. At the beginning, this new dependency worried all of us. It seemed such an invasion of privacy, and a dramatic departure for a man who had cared for others all his life. Dad accepted it and made things easier with humor. He maintained running jokes with each bath-giver, so that bath times had their own soundtrack: constant teasing and laughter. He told me one day, "I like to make their day a little brighter. They have a lot of pain and trouble to deal with every day."

Lisle did not come with satisfaction built-in as a genetic trait. He decided to make what he had be enough. He chose contentment, made it happen. That is good news for the rest of us, because it means we can choose satisfaction too. We can want what is available, and watch our happiness increase. We can learn from the Champion of Satisfaction.

If you want to read still more about Lisle, here's a shorter piece, The Champion of Satisfaction Chooses Lunch. And here's my tribute to him after his death in June, 2008.

All of us miss him. Yet, for me, his words and his ways seem always nearby. I hope, always, to be more like him.

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