He grew up on some hard-scrabble land in the Southwest corner of Arkansas. His father grew some crops, but mostly peaches. As a young boy, he worked on the farm and picked and packed peaches. Lots of peaches.
Having four sisters was hard enough but being the only boy in the family made it even harder. His own father was lean and tough, like all men that were trying to raise a family during the Great Depression.
Times were not all hard, though. There was family all around, with more cousins than he could count. Yet, when it came time to make his own way, he chose another path. The Air Force gave him a way out so he could find his own place in the world. That was pretty common in those tough days.
My father-in-law, Van Thomas Ponder, Sr., passed away this past Saturday. His passing was a long time coming, but when the time was here, he just took a deep breath and peacefully passed from this life. He had suffered enough living in a nursing home these past several years. It was God’s grace that allowed him to pass without pain or struggle.
In the time between the bookends of his life, he lived for 92 years. He and his wife, Mary Nell Calhoun, shared 64 years together. They met at Oscar’s Restaurant in Dothan; he was on weekend leave from Camp Rucker and she was out with her friends from nearby Columbia.
After that, he had to visit her church the next day if she was going to see him again. So, he made the trek to Columbia, met her parents and went to church. It was not all that long before the young couple married.
Ironically, his son, Tommy, also met his wife, Gail, at Oscar’s many years later. Funny how life works like that, but then a lot of couples probably met their partner at the famous old restaurant over the years.
They had two daughters, Charlotte and Mary Lou, my future wife, while he was still serving in the Air Force. The baby brother, Tommy, followed while they lived on the farm in Columbia, where the Farley Nuclear Plant sits today. In 1961, the young family moved to Dothan, where he and Mary lived the rest of their lives.
Each of his children has their own stories to tell and memories to share. However, I have personally known Van for 59 years. For almost 45 of those years, he was my father-in-law, though people often mistakenly thought he was my father since we shared the last name. To his last days, he always had a firm handshake for me whether we were arriving or departing on a visit.
Less than a week before he died, his daughter, Charlotte, brought him a sausage biscuit for breakfast. No longer familiar with the town after so many years, she picked up a biscuit from McDonalds. After arriving in his room, she took the biscuit out of the bag, unwrapped it, and he took two bites. Without prompting and unaware of where the biscuit came from, Van simply said, “Not as good as Hardee’s”. That will be my last memory of Van and a story I will likely share for the rest of my own days.
Van repeatedly told all his children not to make a “big fuss” when his time came. To honor his wishes, his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren will quietly gather in a private ceremony where he will be laid to rest beside his wife and their mother and grandmother. They will not make a big fuss.
Dan Ponder can be reached at email@example.com