My Chinese Father-in-Law

posted in: Family, History | 0

Before I married my current husband, I had no Chinese relations. I knew hardly anything at all about China, except its enormous size, the ink-drawing characters of its language, and its “great wall.” Then I met Fran and eventually his parents, Ralph and Louise. When they returned from China, after being interned in their home by the invading Japanese, Ralph went to work for the Fellowship of Reconcilation which preached nonviolence. Soon he was in prison as a pacifist who protested all armed conflict and refused to register for the World War II draft. Louise, pregnant with their first child, spent the rest of the war with her in-laws. Lester (named for British pacifist Muriel Lester) was two years old before he met his father.

What were these two, very WASPish types doing in China? Ralph had been born there, near the city of Xi’an. This is the city where in 1974 the statues of thousands of terracotta warriors were unearthed to astonish the world with their individualized faces, their swords coated in chromium oxide which were still rust-free and sharp after being buried for nearly 2000 years. Ralph and his parents (both originally from Iowa) wanted nothing to do with war. They had arrived in China as missionaries for the United Church of Christ. Born in 1915, Ralph grew up in a walled compound much like Pearl Buck describes in the novel I remember reading as a teenager, The Good Earth (1931). Even before I met him, Fran advised me not to be surprised, but his father had the polite manners of a Chinese, almost bowing between each sentence. His English syntax was also a bit unusual: “Get for me a horse.”

Was it any surprise, either, that he did not fare well as a preacher to small Oklahoma churches, but fit right in with the Mandan/Arikara/Hidatsa community on the Fort Berthold reservation in North Dakota. There the Native Americans enjoyed several church services every Sunday, making their rounds depending upon which Christian denomination (United Church of Christ, Catholic, or Baptist) offered the best after-service “feed?” Nor surprising that his son, my husband, grew up riding bareback, eating fry bread, and learning to love basketball from watching the Native American teens play in the high school gym?

Not much of a surprise that his parents decided to send him off the reservation for high school. Fran bounced around from Stillwater High, yes right here in MInnesota, to Williston High where he graduated. One of his classmates was Phil Jackson who’s just retired as one of the best basketball coaches of the last few decades. Recently coach for the Los Angeles Lakers and before that for the Chicago Bulls, Jackson holds records for winning teams with the most national titles and the highest winning percentages. Fran recalls a lanky, 6′ 11″ teen practically reaching the basket standing on his tiptoes. Not so unusual now, but back in Williston, quite a feat.

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