When I was five or six my grandparents came up to visit us in Chicago. One evening before supper I was in the bathroom washing up. Actually I was peeing and Granddaddy walked in to wash his hands. I finished and went to wash my hands when Granddaddy swapped places with me and went to pee. Being the wise kindergartner, I informed him that you’re supposed to use the bathroom first, then wash your hands. To which Granddaddy replied: “Oh, no. Always wash your hands before you pee so you don’t get your goober dirty.”
Granddaddy was a tackle box of inappropriate wisdom.
A year or two earlier he’d given me my first taste of Copenhagen. Undoubtedly to make sure I never made it a habit. It worked. But that didn’t keep me from proudly carrying that little round can in my back jeans pocket that Grandmother had washed and refilled with cinnamon and sugar whenever we went fishing.
Granddaddy loved to fish for catfish. He had a few ponds at the farm stocked with fingerlings he bought from the research ponds at Auburn. I think he preferred it over bass fishing because it’s so passive. Just cast, watch your float, and wait. Leave it alone. Give it time. Torture for an 8 year old.
Legend has it that he wasn’t always the best husband. That several times Grandmother had to pick him up, drag him home and put him to bed. But I never saw that side. Until I was older I never saw him drink. And I never saw him drunk. Snuff was his drug of choice. And his El Camino always had a styrofoam cup with a napkin wadded in the bottom. Kind of gross, I’m sure, to read about. But for me it smells like nostalgia.
He and grandmother came from opposite sides of the tracks. He came from a well-to-do family. She was the daughter of sharecroppers. His parents didn’t want him to marry a poor girl. Hers didn’t want her to marry a trouble-maker.
But they managed to carve out a life, raising five kids who would all graduate from Auburn, get married and raise their own kids – who’ve now all graduated (most from Auburn) and repeated the process. There are 15 of us grandkids, almost that many spouses, and I don’t even know how many great-grandkids. He rarely called any of us by our real names, many I can’t repeat for written record.
Every year on Christmas Eve, after church we’d go to their house to open presents. And every year without fail, Granddaddy gave grandmother lingerie.
When he did drink, he drank homemade liquor, which he made himself. And shared with us if we promised not to tell our parents. That’s not the only secret we shared with Granddaddy. He made me promise that if I was ever arrested to call him, not Dad. He also gave the most uncomfortably graphic advice on sex a teenager could tolerate. Politics, racism, stink baits… conversation with Granddaddy was always stuff you should know but never stuff you should talk about.
Sometime in my later teens Grandmother started forgetting things. It progressed like the summer Alabama sun, unforgiving, until she finally had to move into the local nursing home. This is when Granddaddy proved his mettle. He cared for her more and more while she was home. Then he visited her everyday in the nursing home. He went early in the morning, ate all three meals with her, probably shared homemade liquor with the staff, then went home, alone, every night.
For all the stories I heard of her taking care of him in their younger days, he made restitution. It was beautiful to watch really. He seldom complained. Occasionally he cried. Alzheimers sucks. But he handled it like a champ, with all the courage and dignity of a man comfortable in his own skin and content with his lot.
Grandmother died and I cried in the pulpit of Dadeville First United Methodist Church telling stories of her teaching us to tie Junebugs to a thread and how to throw a cow-patty so it landed on your target wet side down. Granddaddy sat on the front row crying too.
I revert to Granddaddy’s wisdom often. Patience to catch catfish even when they’re not biting. Faithfulness to one woman in times of lingerie and times of nursing homes. Being content with what you have. What to teach grandkids that their parents can’t teach. The difference between a church-goer and a Christ-follower. The value of making things with your own hands.
And when you do, you’d better wash them first.