Grandparents Are Special Because . . .
- Category: Dad's Dirt Roads: A Blog
- on Wed Nov 30, 2011
- by Mark Stephens on Wed Nov 30, 2011 - (6) Comments
The old man you see in this photo arose on a typical sultry Southern summer morning in 2009, put on the coffee pot and waited for it to brew a kettleful in the kitchen of his small-town Louisiana home while he worked up a plan for his day. The house is modest yet so full of joy; for evidence, there's a rather old and yellowing crayon drawing taped to his cabinets that was made by one of his granddaughters who's now 27 and working on her Ph.D. The picture is of two figures in a rowboat with fishing poles. The little girl had written across the bottom of her drawing, "PeePaw is special because he takes me fishing."
Once the coffee was brewed, he picked up the pot, filled a mug, left it black and walked it into a dark bedroom in the back of the house. In that room, I was asleep. He placed the rim of the mug under my nose and said, "Number One, you want coffee?" He spoke, like he always does, with a grainy voice marked with the gentle charm of a thick Southern accent.
In his house, you can sleep as late as you want because he's just happy that you're there. He made sure always to remind me, "If you ain't home, well, then ya oughta be." I don't think that was his way of saying you're free to go if you're not happy here, but it's embedded in there. It was really an invitation to feel always welcome when you're at his house. And if you have a strong back, he'll put you to work. That's why he didn't let me sleep too late this morning. The row of bushes in front needed a prune and the leaves needed to be raked.
His first-born granddaughter from his first-born son married me, and for reasons known only to PeePaw this was grounds for naming me Number One. He and Nana made the trip across the country by car to be at our wedding because Nana doesn't fly. That was the first time I met him. I shook his hand, told him it was a pleasure to meet him and he simply said, "Welcome to the family, Number One. That's what I'm gonna call you. Number One."
During our morning coffee, my wife and her grandparents flipped through a book of photographs from a two-week adventure road trip we took the summer before. We told them the stories of living out of our truck with an 11-month-old girl, their only great-granddaughter, and immersing ourselves into the back roads of the Rocky Mountains and Colorado Plateau. They loved hearing about Grand Teton and the dazzling canyons of Moab, but still questioned one part. "Ya'll have a tent on ya'lls truck?"
In fact, we'd driven to Louisiana this time and spent a few extra days passing through the San Juan Mountains of Colorado instead of blasting straight across New Mexico and Texas. "Sure. We'll give you the tour of the truck later if you want. It's out there in your driveway. We didn't even have to stop at a hotel on the way here." Brooke told them, "We actually need to open up the tent and wash the sheets if you don't mind."
PeePaw and I worked in the yard the rest of the morning trimming bushes and raking dead leaves. That evening we flipped open the Eezi-Awn tent showing them where we kept the 35-quart refrigerator and other generally unnecessary, yet comforting gear. Show and tell is always fun. PeePaw would show me his hat collection and tell me the stories of coaching basketball in the 1960s, and we'd show him our unusual truck. I had my camera and thought it would be fun to snap a few frames of Brooke's grandparents poking around. PeePaw even humored me by putting in his teeth, smiling, and striking that pose.
Our home in Arizona is far from this small town in Louisiana, so we don't get back there as frequently as we'd like. So when years of cigarettes and fried food, or just old age, caught up with PeePaw's lifelong exuberance and buzzing happiness, his health slid fast. Right or wrong, we were trapped, somewhat, 1500 miles away by our lives and our living. A week and a half ago, the Friday before Thanksgiving, my mother-in-law called me and broke the news that still doesn't hit my ears without piercing the rest of me. "We lost PeePaw today."
The next day I hiked alone in a creek in the pines of the Mogollon Rim, a band of basalt and sandstone that connects the Colorado Plateau to the basin and range area of Arizona's lower half. The few oak trees have dropped their dead leaves as they must do. Turning teak-brown, the leaves lay on the ground or drift with the strolling current of the mountain trickle that continues on to who knows where? The circle of life, when it circles back and takes someone you know, seems like a cruel one. Other times, when it circles back in the outdoors in late fall and you're blessed enough to get to watch dead teak-brown leaves ride the current of a mountain creek where they'll break down and go to their final resting place, it seems like a beautiful one. But this is about a happy old man we called PeePaw who was so giddy with joy for his family and what the circle brought him that he cared enough to put a hot cup of coffee under my nose so I'd wake up and wouldn't miss a single moment to see the world through his eyes.