I knew my grandfather was gone when I woke up this morning and there was a bar of light refracted into a rainbow on the ceiling above my bed. I’ve never seen that before and just figured it was a greeting from the beyond.
I called my dad and I was right.
Peepaw was not a man big on words. When he did talk he spoke loudly and passionately, gesticulating grandly with his arms. He talked like he had a mouth devoid of teeth, rounding everything off into a near incomprehensible Southern softness.
Peepaw loved jokes. Dad knew how to get a rise out of his father.
“Deddy, who makes the best gumbo?”
“The red squirrel! That’s who makes the best gumbo!”
The biggest joke between Dad and Peepaw was that Peepaw was ninety-three and still had all his hair. Dad is sixty and has been bald since he was forty.
Peepaw wore work boots outside and inside worn out old penny loafers that showed his white socks. Outside in the garden he put on a hat and always wore a denim shirt. I remember exactly the way he smelled. Of earth and clothesline–no fragrances, no fabric softeners–just humid Mississippi air and earnestness. When a person dies they take a piece of the world with them. All those experiences, all that knowledge they’ve culled, poof. Gone. I will never catch the whiff of Peepaw’s scent again but that doesn’t mean I’ll ever forget it.
Peepaw and Granmother’s driveway is made of crushed-up shells. It’s what they use down on the Gulf Coast instead of gravel because it’s what they’ve got. When you turn into their shell driveway it crunches and says “home” to my father. There’s a ditch that separates the house from the road and a big cement tube runs underneath those shells. Peepaw said he calls that a “culvert” but he’s not sure if that’s what they’re really called. Not sure if that’s what the rest of the world calls it. He knew he came from a place somewhat removed, the thick Mississippi woods.
This is the first year Peepaw hasn’t planted a vegetable garden.
The last few hours Dad spent with Grandpa it was in the hospital.
Peepaw said, “Chah-lie, what dayzit?”
Dad said, “Saturday, why?”
“Well, yer Mawma an’ ah… We always watch The Lawrence Welk Show on a Saturday night.”
Dad thought Grandpa’d finally lost it. The last time he saw an episode of Lawrence Welk would have been in the 80s. But Dad flicked on the TV and tuned in and sure enough, there it was.
Dad said Grandpa didn’t say anything during the program. He just lay there watching quietly. I imagine there was some comfort in that routine, some familiarity in those reruns. Dad said that he talked to his sister who’d been with my Grandmother at home that Saturday night. They’d done the same thing–tuned into Lawrence Welk.
I have speckled memories of my grandfather but mainly he represented all the things I didn’t know. He would take me by my small hand and lead me through the big iron gate that separates the house from the pasture. The minute he closed that gate I knew we were in a distant world together–he and I and the dogs who he hollered at constantly. I didn’t understand what he said but the dogs always seemed to know. They’d had more practice deciphering Peepaw’s dialect.
The pasture was thirty acres and there was a “crick,” a chicken coop, a pine forest, a corn field, a barn and sometimes there were big black bulls. Sometimes there were goats. Sometimes there were snakes. Dogs, frogs and bugs. We never talked during those walks, Grandpa and I. It was a time for reflection, I presumed. A time to just be and not to speak. I was not used to not talking.
Once when we were little kids, visiting from Houston I asked Peepaw if he would take me out to “pick” some eggs. He laughed and laughed. Everybody laughed. I didn’t know what the big deal was. You pick berries, you pick eggs. Later I learned you “gather” eggs.
That would have been around the time I stepped in a cow pat, got it all over my shoes. That got Grandpa talking. He was mad. Took me back through the gate and up to the house. Dropped me off on the porch and by then I think I was crying. Mom came out through the screen door and put everyone at ease. It was no big deal. I think Grandpa thought the both of us were going to get in trouble.
Grandpa was just tough. He grew up tough because that’s the way he was raised. As a child he only had one toy and in those days parents didn’t have time to coddle their children. He didn’t show much affection. That’s what I know about Grandpa. That and he was an airline mechanic at Keesler Airforce Base back before I ever came along.
Five years ago he finally broke down and bought a brand new tractor when the one he’d used since forever couldn’t be fixed anymore. I don’t think he got rid of it though. He didn’t get rid of anything. When he did get “rid” of stuff, we’d only find it again, my sisters and I and our cousins on our numerous explorations in the far back pasture. Once I was shocked to find a rusty old washing machine, overgrown with thorny vines. I went back to the house ranting about who would be so inconsiderate as to dump their stuff back there like that! Mom later informed me that Grandmother and Grandpa got rid of things like that. It was just the way they did things. It was what they were used to. Uncle Jim says, “You know somebody has survived the Great Depression when they use a khaki stretcher as a TV antennae.”
The last time I spoke with Peepaw it was over the phone on Thanksgiving. Our conversation went like this:
Me: Hey Grandpa, how are you?
Him: Fine. How you?
Him: Wanna tawlk to yer Granmother?
Granmother was the one who did all the talking. I wonder what she will do without him to listen to all her talking. She never went anywhere except to church without Peepaw.
I loved my grandfather which is strange because I didn’t really know him.
He didn’t really know me either but I know he loved me. I guess that’s the beauty of family;
you don’t have to know someone to love them. It can be enough to know you are a part of them and they are a part of you. Just the way it is. No explanation necessary. I think Peepaw would prefer it that way.