Wednesday, May 26, 2004

Thoughts of Grandpa

and Grandma, come to that.

A long time friend back in Ohio sent me a cute little joke about Grandpa's wisdom. Of course it had a funny ending having to do with women with small hands and the relative size of a man's pump handle, but that's not what put thoughts of Grandpa in my head.

You see, my grandfather was a big man, about 6' 4" tall, stocky, and he looked just like Lyndon Johnson's twin, except he had a big mole on the left side of his chin. He had silver hair and he always smelled of hair oil (the old fashioned kind), tobacco, and horehound candy. Grandpa smoked Camel unfiltered cigarettes, but he didn't die of lung cancer or even get emphysema. he died of an aneurysm and he went in his sleep, quickly.

I used to sit on my grandfather's knee and light his cigarettes for him. I'd fish the pack of cigarettes out of his starched and ironed white shirt, pull one from the pack and put it between his lips, then get his silver lighter from his pocket, flip open the top, flick the ball, and light his cigarette. He always put the lighter and his pack of Camels back in his left breast pocket, but I got to light his cigarette. Everyone in the family smoked, except my father smoked rarely--usually when he was drinking.

Mom and Dad would go to the base commissary once a month and they had a special card so they could get lots of cartons of cigarettes. Pall Malls for Aunt Joan, Camels for Grandpa, Winstons for Mom, and Kools for Grandma. I think it was Kools for Grandma. The cart was loaded with those long slender cardboard cartons, right alongside the food, most of the time heaped in the seat when we were too old to sit there. We usually got two carts and pushed them up and down the aisles in the warehouse-like commissary.

Mostly I remember Grandpa when I was a teenager. He always wore charcoal gray trousers with knife-edge creases and crisp, starched white shirts. He kept the sleeves rolled up to mid forearm and his top collar button open so you could see his bleached white T-shirt. He was a giant to me, but a gentle and loving giant. Mom told stories about Grandpa's rules, like not coming to the breakfast table in your pajamas or gowns, and his strict curfews, but to me he was a gentle giant who loved me completely and let me sit on his knee to light his cigarettes.

And he taught me about Bluegrass music. Not the crossover country rock they play nowadays, but the good old fashioned mountain Bluegrass music full of mandolins, fiddles, and guitars -- the acoustic kind. I can still see Grandpa sitting by the big bay window in the dining room on his corner sectional couch smoking Camels and listening to Flatt and Scruggs, Merle Haggard (before he got famous), and Tex Ritter, among others. The twang and almost whine of the music and voice and the feeling of sitting in the front parlor of some old shack on a cold night with the pot bellied stove warming the thin linoleum overlaying the board floor all the way to the clapboard walls, the heat fading slightly as you got close to the doors and windows where someone stuffed old newspapers to keep out the wind. Thinking of Grandpa reminds me of listening to his father, Great Grandpa May, playing the banjo so fast his fingers were a blur while he picked and sang while the kids sat on the floor, silent and entranced. I don't remember Great Grandpa May saying much, at least not in a regular conversation, but I remember his music and his flying fingers that never missed a chord or a string.

It seems strange now, but Great Grandpa May was a tall, thin reedy man and all his children were about 6' 2" tall or better in their stocking feet, even the women. I have seen pictures of Great Grandma May and she was broad in the beam and tall. The kids must have taken after her.

I remember listening to Grandpa's stories and reminiscences about his earlier days, days full of business and music and old fashioned values, but most of all I remember how he gave everyone nicknames.

Mom was Tom because she was such a tomboy when she was younger, although you couldn't tell it now because she's such a clothes horse. Grandma was Girlie, but I never knew why. I'd say it was because she was so feminine and domestic and sweet natured. Laura was Cutty or Gassy (you can figure out why). Laura begged us not to tell her brand new husband her nickname, but after having to make six eyelet pinafores with ruffles and bows the night before her wedding because the other bridesmaids didn't get them done, I told her groom. It was only fair. Bobbi Jean was Leaky or the S. S. Leakybottom, for obvious reasons. She was also nicknamed Blackie, but that was her father's doing. Mike was Pickle and Ellen was Roadhog. Aunt Lois, Uncle Bob's wife, was Hatchet Face because of a rather prominent profile. Must have been the nose. Gail was Shepherd, but I think that was Uncle Bob's name for her because her middle name was Shepherd after Aunt Lois's family name. And then there was IsinaCrab for my sister Carol, Dick Tracy for Tracy, although Uncle Bob had a much more colorful and non-PC nickname for her to go along with Bean, which is still what I call her. Jimmy was Towhead because his hair was nearly white as a child, and then there was me. Grandpa called me Pearl. He and Uncle Bob used to tease me and sing "Pearl Bailey won't you please come home" at every opportunity, sparking a little battle in which I insisted I was home.

Grandpa called me Pearl because he said my teeth were like perfect tiny pearls, but I found out that it was because he had heard the story of a Pearl of great price a man sold everything to own and Grandpa believed I was his Pearl of Great Price. Grandma called me Little One-Finger Jo, but she couldn't remember why.

Grandpa lived long enough to see and nickname two of my boys: David Scott was Buster Brown and Eddie was Little Pedro. I wish he could have given A. J. A nickname. (Btw, A. J. just turned 27 on Sunday.)

I learned so much from my grandparents: love, tolerance, charity, unselfishness, and generosity. But most of all I learned about family and music. I was adopted, but to my grandparents I was special, a gift. They were my family from the moment I drew my first breath and even though they're gone and their blood does not flow thru my veins, their memories are a part of me and we are family.

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