Paw-Paw at Christmas 1994 with my Uncle Mark on the left. 

Paw-Paw at Christmas 1994 with my Uncle Mark on the left. 

Have you ever looked at something and seen it completely different than anybody else? Like one of those optical illusions where some people see a rabbit and some see a duck? The same can happen with people, too.

As you guys know, I’ve slowly been trying to chronicle the people who have influenced my life the most and I knew as I started that some of my profiles would be easier than others.
The one about MeMaw? That was easy. She was the guiding positive influence in my life. She taught me about love.

But her husband, my PawPaw, provides a more….complex impression for me to try to explain. Some people really didn’t like him. Or at least they feared his wrath more than they remember anything else. Some people saw him one way, but I saw him another. And I admit, there is such a cocktail of conflicting impressions, especially as I see him now, that it’s nearly impossible to explain easily.

But I’ll try anyway.

Have you ever just inexplicably been given …favor? The harsh school teacher goes easy on you? The dog that avoids everybody adores you? The cop doesn’t give you a speeding ticket? That’s similar to how it was between me and PawPaw. I’ve mentioned before that I practically grew up at my grandparents’ house. They were next door to us and they provided such a stable, peaceful environment that I always gravitated to their house. 

I think, at their very core, every child wants to a) feel safe and b) feel wanted.
And PawPaw actually wanted me, liked me.

To me, he was solid. He spoke plainly and he never seemed nervous.

A military veteran and football player, he was athletic, healthy, and always, always, always clean-shaven. I think it was a point of pride that he never allowed stubble to grow anywhere near his face. Even on Saturday mornings you could count on his militant grooming. He wasn’t vain, but he was certainly of the mindset that cleanliness was next to godliness and this spilled over into how we dressed and presented ourselves. I still iron my clothes. In fact, Heather had to spend a year convincing me that ironing a crease into my jeans was no longer socially acceptable.

Have you ever had a tiny, goofy memory that years later seemed to comfort you? Like you lost something, and then unexpectedly it pops up in front of you and you’re like, “Oh! There you are. Welcome back, you.” I have so many of those with PawPaw.

Weekly we’d take a short trip to the local convenience store (Kittle’s Grocery on Hwy 81…there’s a feed store there now). The two of us would strike out in his orange VW Beetle to pick up a couple items at the store. Do you remember how some of the VW Beetles had those rubber step rails on the side? PawPaw would let me ride down the long driveway standing on those rails, my hands clutching the door, with me feeling 100% like a stuntman. At the store, we’d both get Yoo-hoo’s and if I was lucky, he’d get me a pack of baseball cards.

Know this: At that age, for me, you could define ‘ecstasy’ as a cold Yoo-hoo and a pack of baseball cards. Do you know how much it cost him to take me to the store? Less than $5. But I remember it now, and I remember how special and privileged it felt when he treated me to this.

(Forgive the advice here, but I’d like to say to you: take the extra 30 seconds to make a tiny memory with someone you love. There is no telling when they might recall it in the future; probably when they need it the most.)

And he was of “that” generation that got jobs in their 20’s and kept them. In fact, during my early childhood, PawPaw was already nearing retirement after working 40ish years with AT&T. My earliest memory of him was going to work with him one night (he always worked night shift) and being amazed at the huge map of the U.S. on the wall with flashing lights indicating AT&T’s coverage. To my young eyes, it was like something from a movie, like the White House Situation Room. I loved feeling like PawPaw was a part of something very important, and, by extension, so was I.

I also loved how he could fix anything. Seriously, how does a person get that skill?! You know the type. They say yes a couple of times, word gets around, and people are asking for help constantly. People from our Church would ask him to help with a thousand different minor projects. Everything from home repairs to car maintenance. And he would gladly do it and became “that” guy everyone seemed to look up to in our small country Church.

“Every time my wife plugs in the hair dryer, it blows a dang fuse. What do you reckon I oughta do about that?”

He was not a singer (even though for some reason he was allowed to lead the hymns for a few years at Church). I truly believe he worshipped with the sweat of his brow, serving people in our church. I never asked if he ever got paid for any of this work, but I do recall him receiving a plaque that said “Jack of all Trades” at our Church Homecoming celebration.

As you can imagine, he loved routine, and it seldom varied. 
6 pm: Dinner
7 pm: Bath (for some reason he took baths??)
8 pm: Shave (probably aggressively)
9 pm: Television. 
10 pm: Go in to work (night shift, remember?)
7 am: Home & Sleep
Start over.

In retirement the routine is somewhat different, and includes The Price is Right. He is still in mourning over the loss of Bob Barker.

PawPaw protected me. 
My dad, whom I’ve written about before, often scared me. I was already an anxious child and my dad had severe issues with road rage. At seven, I remember begging my dad not to get out of the car and fight someone who had cut him off, followed too closely, or one of a hundred violations that ticked him off. 

One night in particular we were on Youth Monroe Road in Loganville, Ga. and a guy was “riding our tail” as dad would say, and dad slammed on the brakes and got out of the car and started kicking the guy’s driver side door. When I got back to MeMaw’s house at the end of my weekend visit with Dad, I told her what had happened, with me so shaky that I was seriously considering taking up smoking.

I didn’t know until I was an adult, but PawPaw heard about it and confronted my dad, telling him his behavior needed to change. As I said, PawPaw protected me.

My aunts, uncles, and some of my cousins have a remarkably different recollection of PawPaw. They found him harsh, rigid, aloof, distant, even abusive. Again, I’m not sure why I had favor with him. Maybe he felt sorry for me. Maybe he saw something in me he liked. Maybe God softened his heart toward me because He knew I needed a man who loved me. 

I’m not discounting my extended family’s experience with PawPaw—both their experience and my own were real. Both happened.

I saw PawPaw last week after not having seen him for a little more than a month. Usually when I visit, he’s asleep. With Memaw gone, he now cycles through doctor’s visits, naps, The Price is Right, medicine, meals, and more doctor’s visits. 

But for now, I have memories of Yoo-hoo’s, baseball cards, and this tough soldier of a man who liked this little red-haired boy and gave him just the slightest bit of attention.

I am committing to go see him more often now, Alzheimer’s slowly and thoroughly destroying him so much so that he doesn’t remember my name.

And now he has a beard.

 

-jono