On the edge of the lakeshore, there’s this stubby-legged, five, a maybe six-year-old human wearing his tiny Richard Sherman jersey about a half-foot away from this old man. The hair and thick ‘stache of this old man are both bluish white, looking on as his grandson casts his line out into frigid rolling water that makes up Lake San Cristobal. The water’s all blown today, tumbling over itself from low-valley wind that rides in along the Continental Divide meeting the San Juan Mountains of Colorado. The road runs right off the old man’s back, the San Juan’s stretching green and rocky in all directions, the opposite shore a couple hundred yards from where they stand. Up in the air of the valley, above the married couple drifting on water inside their blue rowboat, in glides an eagle at a downward angle, then leveling out straight as she returns to her nest about a hundred yards from the busy fishing grandpa and grandson. Even in this rarely matched serenity, a postcard in real-time-motion if there ever has been one, still my thoughts come back around to the same thing.
It’s only been a few weeks since we buried my grandfather, and like the billions before and after me who have said goodbye to loved ones, we can’t help but think about our shared lives connecting us to those we have just buried. His influence on me, his love, his archetype now imprinted deep in my mind. He was Pawpaw to us grandkids, and the only Pawpaw I ever knew since my mom’s dad passed sixteen days after my first birthday. My mother’s dad, Carl Johnson, a man I never truly knew, survives only in dapper haired Vitalis Oil pictures to admire and contrast and compare myself to, a few golden recordings of him and my grandmother singing gospel tunes, the empty bottles of Wild Turkey I’d dug up around his transmission shop, and that later in life he had a glass eye. The one story he and I share together, as told by my mother, goes like this: as my dying grandpa was trying to eat a hospital meal, on his hospital bed, my little infant-tubby-ass kept begging for his food. She sat me on his lap and he fed me his food. Can you imagine? “Hey man, know it’s your last meal and all…but you gonna eat those mashed potatoes?” Sadly, that about wraps up our stories together. It’s a dark humor image but, also it’s much more than that, if you so choose, to see that as this man died, he fed his grandson one of his last meals.
That, my friends, is ‘grandpa stuff’.
My old man’s dad, the Oldest of the Old Men, one of the dearest people ever to have existed to me, passed away late June of this year and we buried him in the same cemetery next to his parents in Prescott, Arkansas. One of my earliest memories with him–why, I don’t know?–is the time he bought me a toy truck from Wal-Mart. As tough of a bastard as he was, he was always gentle with us grandkids. No matter this undertow of testosterone many of us share, some more than others, such as himself who was captain of his football team in high school, a fighter when he had to be, played some college ball as a hundred-and-ninety-pound offensive lineman in a leather ‘hat’, and eventually moved into iron-working for the next thirty-five years. I recall no hesitation from him when asking if ‘we’ could buy this toy. Funny how it’s the only toy I can ever remember asking for him to buy, which may be why the (memory) lingers. Memories are interesting for many reasons, and as far as studies can distinguish now, the more times you recall an experience, the less accurate you are to the details of the actual experience that took place. That’s a fascinating phenomenon. Maybe this is why Pawpaw’s stories he would tell over all these years most definitely ‘evolved’, all of them having more than one version, like remixes to original songs. He’d probably laugh about how I’m attempting to justify his tall-tales with science instead of just calling him a bullshitter when he wanted a laugh from us. For instance, the nickle-sized dent in his forehead in Version One happened when he and another boy collided heads running opposite directions around the school-house. All us kids at some point, more than once, couldn’t help but touch the mild indention just above his eyebrows. But Version Two surely had as much truth to it. The ‘no bullshit’ version.
“Right here,” he’d be pointing to his concave accent on his forehead, “Indian shot me.”
And you can’t forget the story about Old Man Moncrief who’s eyes were going bad, and one day he was involved in a car accident that subsequently went to trial. Old Man Moncrief had to take the stand to defend himself against some, ‘young, cocky attorney’.
“Mr. Moncrief,” the young lawyer faces the old man, “when was the last time you had your eyes checked?”
“Been a while,” he answers slyly, “but that’s what these glasses help with…”
“And my records show that you’re nearsighted, not farsighted, correct? Meaning that you can see objects clearly until things get a little too far away from you.”
“Sure,” Moncrief grunts, obviously not impressed with the lawyer’s tone.
“Mr. Moncrief, just how far can you see, comfortably? Give us a ‘round about distance so the court will have some perspective?” Pride escapes through this young attorney’s smile, leaning audaciously up against the wood surrounding the old man on the stand.
“Well,” Moncrief says—my narrating grandpa taking his middle finger to push his glasses back into place, “I can see the moon,” Moncrief replies, “how far is that?”
Pawpaw would bellow like a smoker, although he never smoked, a toothpick pricking out the corner of his mouth, his cackle coming throaty and punctured, likely due to asbestos that left his lungs scarred. This story about Old Man Moncrief, the original version he told me years back, was somewhere between ten to fifteen minutes long, his details always intricate and dense.
Then there was the time I, shamelessly, farted in James’ truck and went on to, shamefully, blame it on James’ dog ’cause the embarrassment following having to openly admit that such a horrific odor can and did escape from me was too much to bear. And although I subsequently told the truth a few minutes later, Pawpaw told this story to my grandma and dad after we got back home and the man could barely get it out. He literally was crying and laughing as he told it. Of course, now I hold that horrific fart as a proud moment in time, and how could I not? My only remorse comes due to that dog who not long after died from water moccasin venom. And perhaps, some undeserved shame.
After we moved back from Florida, having been away for nearly a decade, he was the one who would pick me up from football practice all eighth grade summer through two-a-days, having that old ’86 F-150 air-conditioning so cold that the extreme shift from heat to partially frozen bones made me nauseous more than a handful of times. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that his loving intentions were amiss. We always hunted in the stand together whenever we’d trek out to the deer camp in Blevins. Sitting, watching. Listening. He liked it when I was up there ’cause I could usually hear the deer before he could. I wasn’t much into the killing part so we really just sat and watched nature from the stand, although had a worthy buck ever crossed our path this story may be different. Sometimes it was bitter-cold. We heard snorts behind the brush before the sun came up. Birds waking with the sun. Squirrels and woodpeckers, cows from James and Jamie’s land. Cold rifles in each of our hands, slippery with cloth gloves. Our heads low, hiding our visible breath. That shot in the distance with a thud, blood spilled and a smoking gun. Sometimes there were walkie-talkies for us and my uncles to communicate across deer stands. “Cottingham,” it was uncle Tommy whispering, “that big ‘ol doe crossed by y’all yet?”
That time on DeGray Lake dock, my first fish, a 7lb Striper, caught with him by my side and a cricket on the hook. It was him that tricked me into giving him the chance to pull my first tooth. Gramps was the first person my cousin and I camped with… He was always showing me different connections to nature.
This, my friends, is grandpa shit.
So, the older I got, Pawpaw remained consistent on overfeeding me, my grandma the same ‘cause it was her who did all the shopping and cooking, and then came later years when I was helping him mix and pour forty bags of concrete with a low-tire wheelbarrow with a damned shovel to tote, with unlimited hour days of clean-up or landscaping at the deer camp, pouring concrete again for their home driveway, or when there was just plain ‘ol yard work. You know, just quality back-breaking time spent together.
But before all the labor work came about, the younger days, in Mom (grandma) and Pawpaw’s yard, we’d climb into his garden of cherry tomatoes, squash, zucchini, and blackberries. Running around with my cuz and Barney, Barney being a hefty black Lab with some German Shepherd in him. I miss that dog too, ‘Barn’ we’d call him, with his massive Lab/Shepherd head and his remarkably swollen balls. Slow-clap-appreciation testicles, if you will. (Pause for applause.) There was also a steady supply of deflated footballs or basketballs either lying around or partly lodged n being chewed on in Barney’s jaw. You forgot to put your ball up? That’s OK, it’s Barney’s now.
Having flown in for the funeral with my sis, I walked into Pawpaw’s shop that he built himself, and there’s that same smell remaining burnt in time. Spilled oil, rusting metal. Gasoline. Trapped humid heat. A tool for any scenario, likely. Damn, I miss that old man. I say this acknowledging that it seemed, with my personally questionable judgment, that it was, when all was said and done, his time to go. Far as we know he died rather quickly, for what that’s worth, likely a massive heart attack. It’d be hard to think that he hadn’t become dispirited with his life circumstances. Not that he wasn’t cared for by family, particularly my grandma and aunt who literally took care of him every single day. My dad lost a lot of sleep those last two years too, those last months with 2 am calls from episodes, or my grandpa and grandma both having fallen in the driveway unable to get up, my dad torpedoing to the rescue only to find his mother and father stranded on the pavement. It was tough. Real tough. And Pawpaw knew that, and he also understood what they all were doing, and you could see it when he’d just stare and smile at them. Not a blank stare, but an appreciative gaze. That gentle pat he gave us all on the back when putting him to sleep or saying goodbye. That last time we were by ourselves, him lying there flat on his back in bed, and I’m there bent over to bear hug him and pull him up to land his head on the pillow. Boy, he smiled so big. I got that last pat on the back.
A disease called aphasia, a rare cognitive degeneration took his ability to speak, left him groggy and lost at times. And then with that mental degeneration, he couldn’t much do anything for himself, anymore. He knew us, his mind was still clicking, he smiled all the time, always found the food when it was time or not time to eat. We could joke with him, get that big ‘ol grin with a toothpick dangling. But in the end, the inability to do anything for yourself, that’s no life for anyone. Especially a person who did so much for himself and his family. Nevertheless, his life gives us a worthy story to tell.
He lived a full and undoubtedly impressive life. He had a passion for living and for experience, keeping his hands and mind always busy, mastering multiple avenues of varying skills. What he accomplished was being busy while always having time for his family. The Family mattered most. I’m talking The Godfather type of thing, OK. Just a little less murder. My grandmother, gorgeous prom queen of her school, cornerstone matriarch, Sicilian blood and mother of three kids, she’s full-blooded Sicilian and her family was the same or stronger in devotion to the family unit, those influences instilling further appreciation to the realm of The Family. With her close-knit side, pawpaw’s intelligent Good Old Boy loyalty, him also coming from a tenacious bunch of eight children, siblings that would take turns fanning each other in the heat of summer as teenagers while the other slept, the writing was on the wall that family, first and foremost, looks out for one another. You don’t start shit with family if at all avoidable. You do whatever it takes to avoid wedges that can separate you and The Family. You show up. You love. And of course that trickles out to friends and colleagues, best friends and spouses, but family is a unit, similar to a tribe mentality but a slightly shifted paradigm, I guess. Most people my age recognize now that my grandparent’s time was like the Golden Age of big close families, so nowadays you’re rather lucky to have much if any family cohesion if you get it, and he knew he was a lucky man, he’d tell you all the time before his voice left him. There’s a gratefulness to experience such a thing. A weakness to the power of it. And you better hold your end of the bargain ‘cause it’s not easy to maintain, as many can only imagine.
Take this white-haired, white-‘stached old man fishing with his grandson, casting and reeling a line in and out of the water, the two of them unaware that some guy is appreciating their subtle yet enormous act of priceless time and love well spent, something so fragile and fading, you know? The old man smiles with some other form of appreciation I can’t quite grasp yet. The little one in the jersey was me not that long ago, really. Not long before that it was my dad. An old man guiding the young hands the best ways he knows how. The kind of stuff you only appreciate more and more the richer the soil gets with your blood.