Friday, February 15, 2013

My Granddaddy

Memories are an interesting thing. They come back to you when you least expect them. Sometimes something you haven’t thought about in years can appear in your mind with a picture so clear that you’d think it had just happened. Could that be what Memories, light the corners of my mind means in “The Way We Were”?

My earliest memory of him comes from a time when I was no more than 3-years old. I know this because I was three when we moved from our trailer, in the lot that adjoined that of my maternal grandparents, to a house in the next town over.

It was Halloween 1973 or ’74. He showed up at the door in plain clothes and a bag over his head. There were eye holes cut out so he could see. He said nothing. He stood on the step. Just stood there, unmoving. I stood staring at him. I can only assume my mom or dad answered the door and knowing who it was called me over. I don't recall if I was scared of the man standing in front of me with a brown paper bag over his face, those empty eye socket cut outs allowing him to see me but preventing me from seeing his eyes. I looked down. It seems natural to me that I would look down as being a toddler I was closer to the floor than his height of more than 5'8”. And let’s face it, I wasn’t getting anything from the brown paper bag in the way of recognition. Looking down though, I recognized his work boots immediately. I knew the man with the bag covering his head standing in front of me was my granddaddy.

As his life winds toward an end I'm struck by the fact that I knew him even when I couldn't see his face. I've take for granted that he is present in my life even when I'm here and he's there. I never reach out enough, but I love him.

My granddaddy is a gentle, generous, compassionate man who loves his family and has always taken care of all of us. Whatever "taking care" entailed. 

As I began to think about him and to write this story I remembered that in 2007 my mom wanted to give my granddaddy a scrapbook for Father’s Day. She asked her siblings, their spouses and children to write a letter to granddaddy to be included in that scrapbook. I was convinced I still had mine and sure enough there in my sent email was the letter I wrote to my granddaddy. Funny how it starts with the same story as this blog.

Dear Granddaddy,

One of my first and fondest memories of you is when we lived in the
trailer and you came over for Halloween with a brown paper bag over
your head. I knew it was you because of your work boots. Everybody
laughed. We should have known then that I had a gift for comedy and
making people laugh.

All my life you have been on my side and made sure I knew I was
welcome in your house and loved--always. I appreciate that you and
Grandmother always listened to me when I was having problems with Dad.
You are a wonderful grandfather. I love you and I am truly blessed
that you are part of my life.

I am very happy that you have found happiness again in your own life. Happiness is so important.

You are surrounded by so much love in our family. It's the love you
have always given. It's the love I have always felt. To look for an
example of loving, compassion, and strength we only need to look at

I love you, Granddaddy.  Thank you for all that you are.

Happy Father's Day!!


I’m the oldest grandchild. Seven-and-a-half years before the next one. There’s roughly the same distance between my mom’s youngest brother and me as there is between my sister and me. I’m the grandchild who's known him the longest. Then I think about how much I really don’t know about him. I’ve asked him questions about people in our family, but don’t know that I really ever asked him about his life. I think I was too intimidated to have a one-on-one conversation with him. Those are my own issues and nothing that came from him. But the fact remains that as the end nears I wish I knew what it had been like to work the projector at the Arlington movie theater, the Arly. I wish I knew when he knew he’d fallen in love with my grandmother and wanted to marry her. Sometimes I even wish I knew how it felt to become a grandfather under the circumstances in which he did. Maybe I will never know these answers, but I know that I love him and cherish what I do know.

For instance, I remember him always squeezing foot powder into his white socks before putting them on and then putting on his work boots. Knowing me I questioned what it was. I don’t remember that part. I just remember watching granddaddy do it and the small cloud of foot powder dust that would float from the opening of his sock. Of course, as you age you acquire the knowledge that the foot powder is to keep your feet dry and from smelling bad. Smart move, Granddaddy.

As more of granddaddy’s children had children of their own and our little town of Arlington acquired a convenience store, my granddaddy would take the smaller grandkids to “the little store” (his name for said convenience store) where they could fill their small brown bags with penny and nickel candy. That convenience store will always be “the little store” for all of us. I was too old to be bothered with those bags of candy, but now I can look back on that as something he loved to do for his grandkids and something that each grandkid looked forward to in turn. Interesting way to bring the brown bag back into play, Granddaddy.

He thinks Garth Brooks ruined country music. Hey, music tastes are subjective. He’s allowed his opinion and will still voice this one if you ask him.

My most recent visit home had us sitting down to a dinner of chili and cornbread one evening. There were also baked taco shells for those who might want to use the chili for a taco salad. Granddaddy wanted a hot dog. So there on his plate lying next to the bowl of chili was a plain hot dog, fresh from the boiling water. Another memory flashed across my mind. When my grandmother was still alive and they were both still working, Friday night had always been hot dog night. No one questioned it. It just was. My grandmother would cook the other nights of the week, but on Friday it was easy-breezy-boil-some-water-we’re-having-hot-dogs. So on that night of chili and fixin’s, my mother boiled that hot dog and my granddaddy treated it like the comfort food that it is.

I never really had anything in common with him except our blood, but I knew he loved me. Back in 1994 after I’d graduated from college I was in the process of moving to Nashville, Tennessee. My friend Billy had come with me to Kentucky to help me move my things. I took him to my grandparents’ house. 

My granddaddy said, “Are you the reason Michael’s moving to Nashville?” 

I felt the heat rise to my face. I didn’t know how to proceed. My mind was reeling with the idea that granddaddy was questioning if Billy was my boyfriend. He wasn’t my boyfriend. He was merely a friend who happened to be gay. Without giving Billy a chance to answer I jumped in with the explanation that Billy was choreographing a dance number for the First Night Awards--Nashville’s answer to the Tony Awards--and had asked me to be in it. The time needed for rehearsals, the friend network that already existed there, and the desire to get on with my life post college made Nashville seem like the perfect place to start. We never spoke of it again, but to this day I believe that my granddaddy knew I was gay and whether he approved or not, never made me feel uncomfortable or unwelcome in his home.

When my grandmother died, I burned a CD for my mom and her sisters. Music that  ran the gambit from emotional to uplifting--music that would allow you to cry, but would also make you smile. I recently decided that I wanted to listen to that playlist again. It had been a while. Of course I’m one who is constantly in touch with his emotions and it wasn’t long before the tears welled up in my eyes and spilled down my cheeks. Partly is was the muscle memory of my heart’s my loss of grandmother, but partly it was because it occurred to me the he was going to see her again. Maybe sooner than I wanted. It was that sudden realization that increased the stream of tears. It was the first time I’d allowed the thought of him dying to penetrate the armor of denial around my brain.

As for memories, granddaddy still has them, but the short term ones are fleeting. He’s not getting enough oxygen to his brain due to a severe decrease in heart function, so he doesn’t remember the most recent things anymore. Thankfully, my family has created a lifetime of memories, that, even though they are old, can still bring a smile to his face when he recalls them. 

I know he’s tired. It takes more energy to get out of bed, or walk from the bedroom to the living room, than he has to exert. I’m trying to understand his desire for the big sleep and how that might be the most welcome respite from the daily struggle that has become his life. It’s selfish of me to want him to fight to stay with us. That is me being human. 

My heart breaks for my mom who is watching the decline of her last living parent. My heart breaks for my niece and nephew who will be touched by this kind of loss for the first. My heart breaks for me as the inevitable passage of time that takes with it my last grandparent.

The cool thing is that since 1971 he’s been my granddaddy. He always will be. Nobody can take that away from me.

Breathe deep, Granddaddy
Godspeed as this journey ends
And your next one begins

I will always smile, Granddaddy
Because one-eyed Jacks will always remove
And you’ll always be one step ahead

Thank you for loving me, Granddaddy
Try not to be too scared
And I’ll try not to be too sad

Into her arms you’ll fly, Granddaddy
But until that journey's day
Our strength will be yours

My granddaddy (and grandmother for that matter) gave me money for no reason. He listened to me when I was having a conflict with my dad; he listened and gave constructive advice. He attended my high school and college graduations. He comes to see me every time I’m in Arlington for a visit. He still plays a mean game of Sequence and will do everything he can to kick your butt in Dominoes, you just have to make sure he plays on the right train now. He’s proud of me. I’m proud of him. I’m thankful for the kindness, understanding, and respect that I learned from watching him.

I wonder if grandmother is waiting for the right moment to call him to the dinner table. I can hear her calling “Jimmy” in the distant memory of my childhood mind. Again, I know it’s selfish, but I hope she keeps everything on simmer for just a little while longer.