Two years ago, about this time of year, I wrote the following . . .
Just hung up the phone with the man I affectionately refer to as “Papaw.” This would of course be my grandfather, my mother’s father. In so many ways this man has played a vital role in my life. Papaw is the universal fix it man for everything tangible in our lives. If it’s broken, he can fix it. If it’s not broken, he can still fix it.
I’ve spent many years watching him. There were times I wanted to be just like him. I still do. I learned a few years ago that a man’s worth isn’t found so much in what he knows, but in what he does with what he knows. I also learned, thanks to Papaw, that style is relative, and that class (like still waters) runs incredibly deep.
The phone call was like many others before. “Hey man,” he would say. “What’s going on?” I would ask, as if I didn’t know. “Aw, just sittin’ on the couch. Your Mamaw’s cookin’ supper. I’ve been down at the shop fixin’ that [you could insert any item here] for [you could insert any person here, especially a member of his family].” And so on and so on.
Papaw’s not much for in-depth conversation. No deep transcendental thoughts on the order of the universe . . . no philosophical musings. No. Just chit chat. It is enough for my grandfather to simply have you on the phone ““ to know you are safe, happy, and without want. This is the purpose of conversation for him, to know his family is safe.
On occasion, however, he will (much like today) pierce my unsuspecting heart with a love so so profound, yet so unknowing. It is then that he is like hot coffee in a cup that’s too small. When he spills out, you’re gonna cry – only in a good way.
“I’m glad you’re coming in for Christmas,” he told me, as if this were a new thing. We come home every year. In 32 years, I’ve never spent a Christmas morning away from this man. “Maybe we’ll have time,” he continues, “to just be together.” My eyes watered as I listened. “I just enjoy being with you, just driving and talking. Maybe we can do that,” he says.
OK. That’s not fair. I had no warning.
There are two things you need to know at this point:
1) Conversation is never easy between my grandfather and me. On the surface, it’s like Bartles talking with James. The older I get, however, our conversations remind me more of the dialogue in a Hemingway novel. So much not said. It would take, I suppose, someone of tremendous perception to appreciate the full value of each sparse word, each pregnant pause.
2) Since the arrival of my children, quality time with my grandfather (no matter how dysfunctional) has been VERY limited. My family’s abbreviated trips back to Alabama are usually reserved for time spent spoiling great grandchildren. Papaw/Brandon time is hard for both of us to come by.
BUT ““ if I can ever get him alone and start chipping away at those walls he builds around his mind and his heart, I can (on occasion) probe just a little deeper. It is then that I get just a glimpse into this man that contributed so completely to my raising ““ this man who still remains such a mystery. He was now giving me another such opportunity.
Thus, the tears.
“Sure, Papaw,” I chocked back. “Maybe L’Rancho [local dive good for just such an occasion] will be open on Monday morning. We could go get some breakfast.” I couldn’t say much more.
If you could only see what I see, or rather what I can’t see. It’s a strange thing to love someone so much and know so little about them. He has so much bottled up inside. I’m sure to let it all out would in many ways betray who he is to begin with. But to just glimpse into who he really is . . . that’s what I want.
I want to hear about being a father to my mother. I want to hear about working at 15 to support a family, about owning and operating a business, about thriving, about surviving.
Somehow, when I read or hear about men who buckled down in the face of adversity, it inspires me to do the same. While it takes a true leader to do the right thing in the absence of precedent, it’s important for posterity to realize that it can be done. Others have done it. Great men have done it. I belive the potential is there for my generation as well. We can be great men. We are born from great men.
Yet we are a spoiled generation of quick fixes. Microwaves, computers, credit cards . . . not all evil (except for the credit cards) but still not representative of the hard working delayed gratification that built this incredible nation.
Only briefly have I seen Papaw open up about alcoholism. Only briefly have I heard him speak of hard work in tough times. I would so love to have another opportunity to look inside once again and build on these small but giant moments. I have so much to learn, and he has so much to teach.
However, if that time doesn’t come I can rest easy knowing that the really crucial lessons have already been taught through his actions, and consistently so.
1. Love your family like they’re all you have, because they truly are.
2. If there’s work to be done, do it. Then rest.
3. Don’t ignore problems. They just get bigger.
4. Always keep air in the tires and oil in the engine.
5. Don’t shoot a BB gun when someone’s in your way.
6. Clean up extra food and crumbs, or suffer the wrath of ants.
7. Take care of other people’s things.
8. Take care of your own things.
9. Be on time.
10. It’s OK to wash your hair in the sink, if you have to.
And most of all, the greatest gift you can give your family is yourself. Be there for them, even when it’s not fun, or when they’re not fun, or when you’re not fun.
When it’s all said and done, this is most important.
I do love that man. And I know without a shadow of a doubt . . . that he loves me.