2000 Anne Horton Writing Award
He was known as Bill, a Kentucky gentleman with a slight southern drawl and a whisker stubbled worn looking face. He was small in stature with short stubby fingers and horned-rimmed glasses perched on a rather large nose. He kept his side burns cut short and his thin gray hair neatly combed to the side. He wore baggy pants held up by suspenders over a crisp white short-sleeved button down shirt and his white socks and black lace-up shoes were a mainstay of his apparel. He had an infectious smile and always knew how to tell a good joke. The twinkle in his soft blue eyes told of tales I would never know and he would make me smile when his large belly shook with laughter. He smelled of cigarettes mingled with Old Spice cologne, but it wasn't overpowering. His quiet manner belied the mischievous boy within. He, was my grandpa, and he was the most giving man I knew.
He lived with my grandma in a tidy ranch style brick house two blocks from my own, in a small community on the outside of an Illinois town. The back of the house overlooked the river and had an enclosed porch that ran the length of it. There was also an addition on the back that we called "the cabin" complete with its own bathroom and kitchenette. I spent a lot of time in that house growing up. The smell of chicken fried steak and hot apple pie were the delicious aromas of my childhood. My grandma loved to cook and my grandpa loved to eat.
He owned the local grocery store that was attached to the side of his house in what used to be the garage. The low orderly shelves contained the staples of life such as flour, sugar, bread, milk, cheese, and of course, ice cream. Among the food items were various every day hardware items used to hang a picture or fix a toilet. The small local grocery is now a thing of the past, having given way to huge vast impersonal super stores, but back when I was girl, Grandpa's store was the "hangout" for us kids and the hub of small town life.
He let the neighborhood people run a tab on their purchases because they couldn't afford to pay but once a month. Sometimes they couldn't pay then either, but he just let it slide and figured it was money in the bank. He kept a large supply of rootbeer barrel candies just inside the door of the store. "Help yourself!" he would say to child and adult alike. If a child came in to buy his amply-stocked penny candy but were a few cents short of having enough money, Grandpa would let them have it, reminding them to do something for someone else in return.
He never thought of anyone as being a stranger, as my mother can attest to. When she was a young girl still living at home, there was many a night when Grandma would awaken my mother, the youngest of four daughters, to have her move to the couch so someone Grandpa brought home could have her bed. This "stranger" would stay for a few days and then move on. Giving someone a place to stay for a while was second nature to my grandpa. He never thought twice about it and he never worried about being harmed or repaid.
He gave me several experiences, moments in life, that in retrospect were teachings on patience, love, family loyalty, empathy and compassion.
When I was around six years old, Grandpa gave my twin sister and I paint brushes and told us we could paint the fence. Now, this wasn't some nice wooden picket fence in desperate need of painting. It was an old rusty wire fence that had no real purpose but to separate the yard from the weeds along the riverbank. He and Grandma sat in their lawn chairs a generous distance from us, and watched as we "painted" the fence, or should I say, ourselves! White paint sprayed from our brushes with every swipe until we were completely covered with speckles of flying paint. He knew we were having fun, (and it had to be all right for us to be doing this because Grandpa said we could), but he also knew how our mother would react when she came to get us. They sat in their chairs holding hands and giggling at us while we worked. I could see the love in their faces, for one another and for us. Now, to some, this would seem like a cranky old man being a troublemaker, but he knew that we would enjoy our painting project and after my mother's initial shock, she had to laugh at us too. We must have been a sight to see! He was the first one to teach me the old adage, "Don't sweat the small stuff." After a little soap and water, we were fine, but the memory of that day has lasted a lifetime.
His habit of drinking a couple of shots of Jack Daniel's between lunch and dinner was a ritual that as a child, I never gave much thought to. He was discreet about it and never overindulged. At the age of eight, I found my Grandpa sitting at the dining room table with its worn tablecloth and ever-present jar of peanut butter, taking his "medicine." I wanted to share in the mystery of it so I asked him if I could have some. His response was, "Of course! But you have to drink it like I do." He proceeded to pour himself a shot and then poured one for me that was less than half of what he offered to himself. His instructions were to pick it up carefully, look at it, sniff it, then, toss the contents into the mouth and swallow. He went first, and I watched with fascination at the ease in which he accomplished this prodigious feat. Then it was my turn. I followed his direction completely, but was totally surprised by the awfulness of it as I ran to the kitchen sink gagging and spitting. I can still hear him chuckling behind me as I bent my head into the sink willing myself not to get sick. That was the first and last time I ever drank whiskey.
He taught us how to plant, grow and care for a garden and his was immaculate. He grew everything from corn, tomatoes, turnips and squash to beans, cucumbers, radishes, beets, and one year, even popcorn. My favorite was the strawberries. He would send us out to pick them and remind us to eat as many as we could while we were picking. He never set boundaries for us and we loved him for that. The problem was we sometimes didnÃƒÂ•t set any for ourselves, either, and would end up with excruciating stomachaches! He gave away almost as much of his crops as he kept. The neighbors would come over and help themselves to a tomato for that night's dinner, or pick some rhubarb for a pie. He would set bushel baskets full of his home-grown produce in front of the store for customers to have. There was always plenty to go around.
I rarely saw Grandpa without a cigarette in his hand and a cup of coffee in front of him. He would tell us the proper way to drink coffee was to pour only a half cup and then place a little tap water in to cool it down. It wasn't until I was older and began drinking coffee myself, that I realized why he had said that. My grandma made the worst, strongest coffee in the world! Grandpa had to water it down just to be able to drink it, but he never would think of hurting Grandma's feelings by saying anything different.
In the summer all my aunts, uncles and cousins would get together at his house to have wonderful pancake breakfasts cooked outside on a grill set up by his antique shop. These were lazy Sundays on the porch overlooking the river with Grandpa and Grandma sitting in their glider rocker watching us fish and play. He loved to have his family around him and we equally enjoyed our time spent with him. He gave us a place to congregate, a place we could always consider home. He never made us feel like we were intruding or bothering him in any way.
Christmas at Grandpa's house was quite an event, that as grandchildren, we always intensely anticipated. He was the only person I knew that had an aluminum Christmas tree with a rotating light placed in front of it causing it to turn from red to yellow to blue to green. There was a wide, long hallway in his house designated for us kids to play in with all our new toys. The women sat in the living room chatting about everything from the new dresses at Soles' Department Store to cousin Norma's new boyfriend, and the men stood in the kitchen telling tall tales while Grandpa handed out cigars. He invariably played Santa Claus, and he was quite good at it. He didn't even need any padding to play the part. He would call out whom the gift was from and then be agonizingly slow at reading the name of the recipient. I think he enjoyed watching us creep closer and closer trying to "help" him out. Grandpa gave me such a sense of family. Our gatherings revolved around food, fun, play, chatter, and togetherness. Because of him, all of us still get together every summer to share our lives and to pass down to our children the importance of family.
When I was eleven years old my grandpa took me to the hospital with him. He told me he had an appointment and wanted me to go along. He held my hand as we walked in and I sensed there was something wrong as we went into a small room that had a strange looking machine in it. Grandpa sat down in front of it and a nurse handed him a tube connected to this machine that he placed into his mouth, and then she turned it on. He began to breathe deep labored breaths, while the machine dripped some kind of medication through the tube. This went on for fifteen endless minutes before the nurse shut off the machine and we were free to go. We slowly walked back to the car and as soon as we were inside, Grandpa lit a cigarette. I couldn't believe that he would continue to smoke! He made no apologies and we talked very little on the way home. I knew he was showing me what a life long habit can do to a person, minus the sermon. Giving me this ugly glimpse of what was going on in his life is something I will always remember. It has helped me to become a more compassionate, tolerant person.
That was the last real memory I have of him. Soon after, he was admitted to a hospital out of town, and I never saw him again until his funeral. I was twelve years old when he died of lung cancer.
My grandpa had a way of showing me life. He didn't preach at me, yell at me, or sugar-coat anything. He was never stern, or overbearing, or mean, or disagreeable. He showed me his generosity, his playfulness, his nurturing, his kindness, and his love in the things he did for all of us. I will never forget him.