Saturday, August 19, 2006

And the one I did....

This is a continuation, of sorts, of the previous post.

I didn't know my grandfathers at all, but I had a great surrogate grandfather -- Pop John, my maternal grandfather's brother-in-law (married my grandfather's sister). He was kind and generous of heart, and did he ever dote on us! He never had children of his own, so we were the closest thing he was ever going to have to grandchildren.

I can still smell the Aqua Velva he wore daily. I know the layout of their home as well as I know my own, even though nearly 20 years have passed since I visited, and almost 30 since I made yearly summer visits. I can still hear the wake-up call of each morning: "OWWWW!" (from his daily insulin shot). I remember the HUGE ears he had. I can see the alarm clock that sat on the table in their dining room. I remember the trips to Tallahassee that were part of every visit to their home. I can see the wispy white-gray hair that was on top of his head. The gold-wire-frame glasses. The tile in Pop John's little bathroom (off to the side of the guest room, but he used it as his). I remember that on occasion, on Saturdays, we would watch wrestling -- just like I did at home, but with different people. He wasn't a huge fan, but got a kick out of the fact that I loved it.

And to call him "robust" or "stout" was an understatement. He was larger than life. He had served in the Pacific theater of WWII, and he and his unit nearly starved to death on a Pacific island. Upon their rescue, he decided he would never go hungry again -- ever. That man could eat like no one I ever knew. If he visited, it was meals out each night -- especially at any sort of cafeteria. Morrison's was a particular favorite. There was a time they were up visiting when I was young, and he picked me up in his lap and said, "Well, little missy, where do you want to eat?" My mother says I replied, "Anywhere is fine, but I always eat better at Morrison's."

Even after my aunt died in 1978, he still came up to visit, or welcomed us back to Georgia. Then in 1982, while visiting an old high school girlfriend in the Midwest, he had a stroke. They got him back to a nursing home in Quitman, Georgia, where he would spend the last 5 years of his life. When we went to visit him, there was a misunderstanding between he and my mother -- I blame the stroke for his diminished capacity, and my mother's own tendency to hear what she wants to and put the most negative spin ever on it. I'm not sure why -- guilt or whatever -- but my mother would call the Home once a month to check on him. She always got the same report: "he's doing well; it's been a good week."

We never saw him again until that July weekend when his sister "Louise" called us on a Saturday night, to tell us he had passed, and that the funeral was the next day at 2:00. We very quickly threw clothes together in suitcases, left for south Georgia, and stopped when it was already midnight and we were exhausted -- and two hours left to drive. That morning, we stopped at his secretary's house. "Nita" was a long-time friend of ours too, and she warned us that it wouldn't look like him. She and my mother played catch-up on details, and she also told my mother that the Home had apparently been feeding her a load of bull all those years. He had not been alright, but had steadily gone downhill.

We got to the house where his sister Louise was. She more or less hinted that we were welcome to take a few moments to freshen up but that THEY would be leaving for lunch shortly. When my mother conveyed this tidbit to Nita later, she was furious. She told my mother that the Presbyterian church in town had sent over a feast and that there was tons of food in the fridge. We could have (and should have, in her opinion) been given free reign of the house and the food therein. I think Nita and my mother shared the opinion of my aunt regarding her sister-in-law -- "rhymes with witch." It became my opinion that day as well.

We ate a quick fast-food meal and hustled to the funeral home. Nita had been right. The man in the casket was not my Pop John. This was a 130-pound shell of a man. There was no barrel-chested man, no loud voice that had commanded troops and yelled, "OWWWW!" each morning. There was no hearing aid present, but had it not been for those humongous ears, I wouldn't have known it was him. Even my mother turned to the funeral home folks with a look of "Did you bring us into the right room?" I just said, "My God. The ears." That's how I knew.

At the graveside, we saw many old friends of Aunt Mary and Pop John's. I had known so many of their friends, and their friends' children and even a grandchild or two, from all my summers there. Even now, if I were pressed to, I could probably remember a few names. I saw "Artemis," their part-time cook and housekeeper. She was a precious woman, and I couldn't believe that the older woman with gray strands now all through her hair was the same person I remembered.

Mom received a small sum from his will. Living at The Home had drained much of his savings, but I think my mother was surprised she was remembered at all, considering their frosty relationship of the previous few years. We got my aunt's jewelry, which we did expect, and a cedar chest that had belonged to my aunt. Nita got a few things, and Artemis got a few things and his car (to which my mother and Nita both said, "GOOD!")

I was 17 that summer. I would leave for college in a few weeks later. It was a tough summer. It seemed to me that all the people who had played such a role in making the good moments of childhood outweigh the bad were leaving me. Not only had Pop John passed, but another surrogate grandmother was dying of leukemia and would leave us just after Thanksgiving. The time had come to take all they had taught me and move forward.

1 comment:

Talmadge G. said...

That was a very sweet tribute to your Pop John .... it's amazing, isn't it, how much we remember the little things about the times spent with our kinfolk: the Aqua Velva, the tile in the bathroom, and even watching "rasslin'" on the telly.

This was a 130-pound shell of a man. There was no barrel-chested man, no loud voice that had commanded troops and yelled, "OWWWW!" each morning....

Talk about 'deja vu' and a tear to the eye.

I'm now looking at a picture I found when going through a box of things my Dad wanted to throw out. It's of my grandparents, taken in December 1999. Big John was in "a home", and would die just two weeks later. His face is SLIM. His body is emaciated, just half the weight he was in better days.

On the back, in my grandmother's handwriting: I can't remember Big John like this so destroy this if you wish.

I start tearing up every time I look at it. It reminds me of how a good man was allowed to rot. In all decency, that picture should be destroyed.

But I'll do no such thing.