I travel to a lot of different places and meet a lot of different people. I also hear a lot of different speakers. After a while, most of those experiences become a blur in my mind. However, a few stand out as truly extraordinary, and last weekend was one of those. I spoke at the Texas Homeschool Convention, and while I was there, I got a chance to meet with Douglas Gresham, a man I had corresponded with a few years ago and interviewed a few weeks ago. We had a lovely lunch, over which Mr. Gresham shared some of his memories of C.S. Lewis, who he refers to as “Jack.”
As I listened to Mr. Gresham’s stories, I was struck by Dr. Lewis’s humor. This is not something I had noticed by reading his books and essays, and it is not something I recall any biographer discussing. Nevertheless, nearly every tale I heard was either charmingly witty or downright hilarious. For example, Mr. Gresham was discussing a time at the dinner table where his mother, Joy, asked C.S. Lewis about a task that she had reminded him of but was afraid he had forgotten. He said:
My mother asked, “Jack, did you take care of that matter?” Jack replied, “Yes, of course I did. What do you take me for, a fool?” She replied, “No, I took you for better or for worse.”
I also learned that Mr. Gresham was responsible for a bumper sticker that was popular a while ago. As I mentioned in my previous article, Mr. Gresham has become an advocate for homeschooling. Apparently, someone was interviewing him about education, and in his typical witty way, Mr. Gresham said:
Schools are for fish.
Later on, the interviewer contacted him and asked for his permission to turn that phrase into a bumper sticker. I remember seeing a couple of them at past homeschool conventions.
Later on, I got to hear Mr. Gresham’s presentation to the convention attendees, and it was wonderful. He told the audience why he was an advocate of homeschooling, and he shared a lot from his personal life. For example, he told the story of how he met Dr. Lewis. He lived in upstate New York when he was a child, but his mother began a correspondence with C.S. Lewis while she and her husband (Mr. Gresham’s father) were having a difficult period in their lives. Her husband eventually divorced her, and when Mr. Gresham was eight years old, she took her two sons to England to meet C.S. Lewis.
Mr. Gresham said that he imagined England as a place where knights rode horses and saved damsels in distress. After all, that’s what he had read. So when he heard that he was going to meet C.S. Lewis he said:
I was expecting this man in silver armor, carrying a big sword who was handsome as a prince…He was a stooped, balding gentleman in very old, shabby clothes who had ink stains on his hands…It took him about five or ten minutes to get rid of the illusions I had.
He then talked about a very difficult time shortly after coming to England. His mother was in the hospital, and he thought it was for something minor. However, he was called out of school and Dr. Lewis had to tell him that his mother had been diagnosed with cancer. He saw his mother, was overcome with dread that she would die, and eventually left the hospital to walk back home. He felt all alone. His new life and new country were still overwhelming to him, and he didn’t think anyone except his mother really cared. Along the way, he saw a church. He wanted to go into the church, but he first had to go through a gate in the fence. He said:
…I undid the latch on the gate, and I stepped through the gate into the church yard, and I stepped out of this world. That’s the only way to describe it…Everything was just super alive…I was suddenly aware of an extremely powerful, very loving presence in the church yard, and not with words you can hear with your ears, he said, “Look, if you really don’t think you can live without your mother, I can fix it. All you have to do is ask.” That’s a very, very important thing to learn. When we are in terrible trouble, terrible strife, and we need some help, all we have to do is ask.
He then went into the church and prayed. He asked God to fix it. His mother’s cancer then went into remission, and it stayed in remission for four years. During that time, he became comfortable with Dr. Lewis and his new life, and when his mother died of cancer, he was able to continue without her.
There were other wonderful stories as well. For example, most people are probably aware of the deep friendship between C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien (which Gresham insists is pronounced tol-KEEN). As a result, Gresham came to know Dr. Tolkien very well. He said that Tolkien was a warm, gentle man. When Dr. Lewis died, Gresham was 18 years old. Without hesitation, Dr. Tolkien said that Gresham could always stay with him if he ever needed a place to live. I simply cannot imagine what it was like to have intellectual and spiritual giants like Tolkien and Lewis as constant companions!
Mr. Gresham spoke for about 30 minutes (without notes or any specific preparation), and then he opened it up for questions. He especially encouraged children to ask questions, and because of that, many of them were focused on Lewis’s masterwork, The Chronicles of Narnia. I was struck by the genuine way he dealt with both the children and their questions. For example, one question was about the order in which you should read the books. There is some discussion about that. However, Mr. Gresham gave an explanation as to why there is controversy and then said simply:
I think it doesn’t matter in what order you read them, as long as you read them. But thank you for the question, it was very good!
He treated every question like that. He gave a thorough answer and made the questioner feel important. Towards the end, one very young child was supposed to ask a question but simply said:
I am named after your stepdad…My name is Jack.
If you were C.S. Lewis’s stepson and someone said that to you, what would you say? Mr. Gresham said:
Ah terrific! Well done. Jack would be thrilled about that – my Jack.
From the first time I corresponded with him, I was impressed by Douglas Gresham, and getting to know him this past weekend only served to make me more impressed.
If you are interested in hearing from Mr. Gresham in person, he will be doing the same thing at the Ohio Homeschool Convention. Since he does not use notes and says that he tries to say what the Holy Spirit leads him to say, I am sure that even his initial talk will be different from this one. I look forward to hearing it!