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Sunday Stories from the South
“Love covers all sins.” So said Solomon to his son. Planting the seed in his young heart. Praying there was still time for it to take root. Before the evil days came. Before the little one grew up and learned the dark secret that all children come to know all too quickly. The same secret Solomon himself had learned while holding to his mother’s skirt beside a small, nameless grave. A secret we still keep, as long as we can keep it, until it is impossible to hold any longer. Daddies sin. This knowledge marks the true end of innocence.
But my grandmother guarded me from the fruit of that forbidden tree until many years after her own daddy died. “Papaw,” as I called him, was the light of my life and I was the apple of his eye.
Papaw lived beside us in an old house he had built sometime in the 1930’s. Even through fading memory I can still see the faded house. It had once been white, but most of the paint was already gone by the time Ike moved into his own white house. When I came along the house was as gray as a leper. Wind and rain and hard-hitting years had beaten any remaining color from the tired pine.
The house had no foundation. When I was small, I would wander under it to play, and I didnt even have to bend my neck. I built an entire city of dirt roads and ditches beneath Papaw’s feet and would spend whole days playing there with no one else but Cricket, the stray hound that Mamaw eventually got tired of chasing away.
It requires no false modesty to say that the old family home was a humble one. A small living room held two old recliners, a record player, and two ancient televisions. The older, larger tv served only to be a resting place for the smaller working unit on top of it. I suppose there was a couch of some sort but honestly I can’t remember one.
The living room opened on one side to a dining area and tiny kitchen. On the other side, it led to two bedrooms separated by a bathroom the size of a refrigerator. The bathroom itself was the most recent unit. It moved indoors around the time Ike moved away from Pennsylvania Avenue.
My grandparents worked odd shifts at the paper mill so I rotated spending my days and nights with Mamaw and Papaw. In the evenings after supper, Mamaw would sit in her sway-backed recliner reading romance novels. Those dime store novels were piled around her forming a paper wall. Or maybe it was a door. Either way, it was her only escape into a happier world away from an unhappy marriage that would last for better than fifty years.
On the other side of the room I would sit on Papaw’s lap. That was my happier world. I spent hours on his knees, driving toy cars up and down his mountainous belly. He would doze off and snore until I drove down into the ravine around his ribs. He would wake with a start and chuckle a bit and tell me it was time to park my ride for a while. Which I did. In his shirt pocket next to his cigarettes.
I always got to stay up late at Papaw’s house. Late enough for him to hear him yell at the weatherman on the ten o’clock news, and then hear him laugh at Johnny Carson. Then, without fail, he would say, “Now I think it’s time to call the dogs and pee on the fire.” Whatever else that meant, I knew it meant it was time for bed.
I don’t recall him ever making me take a bath. And I don’t recall ever really wanting to. So I would kiss Mamaw goodnight as she headed to her room, and I would follow Papaw to his.
I can still hear the sound of the police scanner buzzing and popping, and the sound of the crickets sawing their legs outside his window. As we crawled into bed I would say, “Papaw, tell me a story about what it was like when you were little.” Then he would tell me about old mules and old men and old times. Good times.
I was Papaw’s shadow until the day I started school. We would make the rounds to all of the coffee shops, cafes, and barbers in town so he could hold court and drink coffee. He was drinking coffee at the Texaco station waiting to pick me up from school the day he died.
He had been gone for several years when I finally asked my grandmother what it was like growing up with Papaw. I still remember her tears.
“Daddy was a hard man back then, son. He wasn’t the same man you knew.” She said. “We were poorer than we had to be because he drank up all the money. He drank and ran around and didn’t have much kindness left for mamma and us kids by the time he finally made it back home.”
I just sat there. Quiet. Dumbfounded. Shattered.
“Because of his wild livin’ I never even had a doll to play with when I was growing up. He wasted everything on whisky and whores.” She said. “What Christmas we had came from aunts and uncles who would bring over a sack of apples and oranges and hard candy.”
“But I remember the day he stopped drinking too.” She continued. “December 31st, 1983.”
“That’s just a few days after I was born.” I said.
“Yes. Daddy showed up to the house so drunk he could hardly stand up. He was wanting to see his great-grandson. I told him that he wasn’t ever going to see you as long as he was carrying on the way he was.”
She shook her head and said, “And he just fell down and vomited all over the front steps of the house. Your grandaddy got him back over to his house while I cleaned up the mess. That was New Year’s Eve. And as far as I know, he never drank another drop.” She smiled.
“How come you never told me?” I said.
“What for? He was a different man when you knew him. He was good to you and loved you more than anything in this world.” Then she added, “And I still loved him. Love learns to forget. Love is bigger than foolishness. At some point, love gets big enough to bury things deep enough that they stay buried.”
Then she said, “Let me show you something.” I followed her into her bedroom. “A couple years before he died, Daddy came over with this. He said, ‘I saw this while I was in town and it made me think of you.’ I was nearly fifty years old when he gave it to me, but better late than never. This is how I want to remember him.” She said, handing me her first little doll dressed up in pretty pink lace.
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