Originally posted September 2018
I feel like a part of my childhood has ended today.
When I was born, I had three living grandparents. They all passed away before I exited my preteen years.
My mother’s grandmother, Geya, passed away before I reached 10 years of age. I don’t have many memories of her, but I do remember our family spending time with her as she lived with her daughter, my grandmother, not far from our home for the last few years of her life.
My grandmother, my mother’s mom, lived a short distance from us and passed away when I was near 11 years of age. Her house always smelled of smoke and was dark. She watched football with us and I don’t know if that was from a love of football or a desire to share with her grand-kids, and her son-in-law.
I remember A&W Root Beer and Entemaan’s Chocolate Chip cookies, which she kept in her fridge. There was always another mysterious dark bottle next to the A&W bottle and I never realized I was that close to being able to taste wine. Which, of course, would have banned me from ever visiting Grandma’s house again. Just last week, my wife Christy, brought me home a box of those cookies and I once again placed them in the fridge. It was a great reminder of what love tasted like, though mine were without the sour taste of cigarette smoke that always accompanied Grandma’s cookies.
I remember my oldest brother, Abel, playing the organ in the formal living room while I watched horrible Florida Gator football in the den with an annoying younger brother, Timothy, who loved the Gators. Kerwin Bell was quarterback at that time and I still remember Grandma saying when they got close to the goal line that he should just run the ball himself. Incidentally, I saw Kerwin Bell a few weeks ago when the Valdosta State Blazers came to Waycross to play a game against Fort Valley State. Grandma was right, as I saw Bell; now the Blazers head coach in person, he is a very large man.
My father’s father, Roy, came into our family’s life for a very short time. My father had had no contact with him past the age of 3 until my father was well into his adult years. By the time we knew who he was he was near the end of his life, almost completely vanquished by the alcoholism that had ruined his body and soul.
Memories of Grandpa are few. I remember getting in the car with dad one time, a beautiful tan Datsun station wagon, to ride around town looking for Grandpa. Grandpa was looking for a bottle, or the coins with which to buy a bottle, and dad was determined to find him and drag him back to the seedy hotel where he lived.
I also remember being in the van with mom one day when she stopped on the side of the road to give him a ride as he was walking to or from town. Grandpa wore western shirts with snaps and a cowboy hat, but what I still remember vividly today was how he smelled. If you have ever smelled a homeless person, that was how Grandpa smelled, and I remember sitting in that van on that hot summer day thinking I was going to puke all over the vinyl seats in front of me. Thankfully I didn’t, although puking in vehicles was kind of my thing for a few years.
But it was my aunts and uncles who ushered me and my siblings into adulthood as those caring and generous grandparent figures. They were the ones whose home we were excited to visit and they were the ones who made sure that they were present for those major events of our lives that seemed simple at the time, but which one day we look back on as a time marker, and we remember those who were there and their love and sacrifice.
These aunts and uncles were the brothers and sisters of my dad’s mother who had died when he was 5 years old. They had served as surrogate parents, alongside my dad’s grandmother, for my dad and his brother, my Uncle Roy. They gave them time, they provided material blessings, but mostly; for my dad and his brother, they gave them a place that they knew was home.
It was their homes that we went to on Thanksgiving and Christmas, and it was their hugs that we both dreaded and anticipated. Dad, who has passed on his orneriness to at least this son, can be quite prickly, although age has mellowed him somewhat. He didn’t mind telling those who loved him the wrongness or incompleteness of their ways, more than once. I certainly have done the same.
Yet they did to him what family does, they loved him. And they most certainly loved his family. My Aunt Katherine passed away a few years ago, and I was probably most impacted by her and Uncle Lloyd’s love. They never missed a graduation and some of my most memorable reunions were the ones at her little green block house. They were the constant in our lives that continuously said to us; “You are family, you are loved.” As a young adult I remember driving past that house after they had moved and somehow feeling a sense of loss. They were still living at the time, but life had moved on and for a moment I felt that shifting reality of being a finite being.
For kids growing up in a church that sometimes withholds love from their pastor as a leverage to prove they are right, the reality of being loved outside of that community was crucial, and I know impacted my siblings and I. For kids who grew up somewhat removed from a lot of outside relationships, it was empowering to know that outside of our limited scope there were people who genuinely wanted the best for us. When you think your roots are only as deep as those you immediately know, and those you immediately know are shifting and changing and leaving, you need to have family. My dad’s aunts and uncles were that family for us.
Aunt Grace was an aunt that I didn’t fully know until I reached my later teen years but she also made it a personal point to be involved in our lives. At times, I felt that she knew that she must act as the refined one to make up for Uncle Lloyd’s repeated attempts to rile Dad. As an uncle, I now understand why he got so much delight in telling us off-color jokes. He wanted to know that behind that facade of always doing right that actual breathing humans existed.
Uncle Bud, who’s passing spurred these thoughts out of my mind and into linear shape, became the kind man whom everyone hopes to have as a grandfather. After his retirement, trips to Florida became regular and he always wanted to see his family. We were his family. My mom, who doesn’t wear her emotions on her sleeve and can be faulty in making us aware of things, I don’t believe once missed telling me when Uncle Bud was going to be in town.
He meant that much. He loved, and he knew love. I believe that Rosa helped him with that as she also poured out love on our family over the last 30 years or so that I’ve known her. While he would have brushed it off as being of little consequence, his gracious demeanor taught us much about what love ‘looked’ like, and his constant presence taught us what love ‘felt’ like.
Dear friends, let us continue to love one another, for love comes from God. Anyone who loves is a child of God and knows God.