By Jennifer James
My grandfather passed away on December 21st about five years ago. We buried him on Christmas Eve.
It still feels like there is a huge gaping hole in the family. He was a quiet man--soft spoken, kind, and often he’d be sitting in his chair praying or contemplating his own thoughts. But somehow he managed to command the room simply because he was there.
Some people are like that. They are like the boulders in the middle of a stream, the one solid thing in the fluidity of everything that flows around them.
Growing up, I loved to go to my grandparent’s because there was a play house in the back yard, right between two large apple trees. My brother, cousins, and I had loads of fun climbing those trees to shake the fruit off or using the branches to get on the roof of the house.
My grandmother had fits over the roof climbing stuff, but Grandpa enjoyed watching us play. I’d hear him say “Leave ‘em alone, Frecks. They’re just fine.” (Frecks was his nickname for Grandma…she’s a red head with loads of freckles. *grin*) He’d help us gather up the apples and spent hours helping us peel and chop them to boil down for apple sauce. No sense in wasting food.
We even canned the apples on the wood burning stove in the living room.
Both of my grandparents grew up on farms. My grandmother is from Tennessee, and she was a spoiled brat of a child with her own horse. (Her words, not mine.) The small farm she lived on grew tobacco, sweet potatoes, and cotton. She hates sweet potatoes, and so her mother often gave her money to go into town to buy a cheeseburger for dinner.
Like I said, spoiled. Grandma pronounces “spoiled” as “spoilt” to this day. Every now and then you can hear the tones of the Deep South in her words, especially when she’s upset. Yelling things like “Jenn-ay, you get off that rouf this instant befur y’all break yer necks!”
My grandfather was the child of an Irish immigrant coal miner who settled in West Virginia and a woman who was half Irish and half Blackfeet Indian. Unfortunately, his mother died when he was only three weeks old. All we have left of her is an old faded photograph of a solemn looking twenty-something in a white lacy wool cap and winter jacket. I like to think I got my cheekbones from her.
His father remarried, then divorced, then remarried again to a woman who was once divorced. Try to sort out that family tree! Grandpa ended up with twenty-one siblings. Twenty survived to adult hood. Only one sister was his full blood relative, and she still lives in a small cabin in the mountains of Maryland.
His family struggled through the Great Depression, and like many people who lived on farms, after the war he moved to the Cleveland area where he met my grandmother. She was thirteen at the time.
They married when she was seventeen and were together for almost fifty years until he passed away.
He saved his own lunch money to give to a less fortunate childhood friend of my mother’s so she would have lunches at school. Grandpa knew poverty first hand.
He told me stories about killing poisonous copperheads and rattle snakes. Taught me how to pick green beans and cook green tomatoes and collard greens and that you never make corn bread with actual measurements. Oh, and the best way to cook it is in a cast iron skillet. Trust me. It makes a difference.
One of my favorite meals was fresh buttered bread smeared with warm applesauce from the stash we’d canned ourselves.
In the winter time I loved to sleep on my grandparent’s couch because it was directly across from the wood burning stove. I’d wake up sometimes in the middle of the night and see him stoking the fire to keep the house warm.
We went to the saw mill and watched him run enormous boards through the saws in between catching frogs and eating “Jo-jo’s” (Enormous sliced potato wedges with this seasoning…yum) On the way home from the mill we always went down a certain road with this hill on it that was topped by really bumpy rail road tracks and had a great dip on the far side. Grandpa would hit the gas hard and launch his truck over the hill so we’d have the thrill of feeling our stomachs rise in our bellies.
After my first child was born, despite the fact that he was on oxygen and had lost most of his eyesight, he’d take his tubing off and get on the floor with Ashley to play, genuinely joyful to spend time with her.
I wish he’d lived to meet Carly, who was blessed with very distinctive ears that look exactly like his.
Despite their fixed income and the lack of spare money (a former coal miner and retired house keeper don’t have big pension plans) my grandparents helped provide food for the needy through their church’s food pantry. Because they believed that helping others and providing for the less fortunate was a calling and a blessing. If you gave, you’d always have enough for yourself.
We miss him so terribly. But the memories he left us with bind us together. Each time I meet someone who knew him, I’m honored by the amount of love and affection I hear in people’s voices when they speak of him.
He didn’t erect buildings or set the world on fire with headline news, but he made a positive difference for everyone he knew.
And that’s something worth leaving behind.
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