As one of those souls lucky enough to have lived most of her life with all four grandparents living close by, I’ve felt especially grounded with a true sense of “knowing who I am and where I came from.” Having spent the past 45 years of my life with these folks of “the greatest generation,” has given me a worldview that I know is becoming a rarity in this world. It is a treasure that I hold deep in my heart, and do not take for granted.
Likewise, I’ve had quite the example of long-lasting marriages in which commitment was key, and the idea of divorce or separation was never even entertained as a thought, much less a threat. My mother’s parents, my “Mamaw & Papaw”, were married for 70 years, until the year they both turned 90. My sweet Mamaw passed away just a few months later, and we lost my dear Papaw just last night, at the grand ol’ age of 94. My father’s parents, my “Grandmother & Granddaddy”, were married 49 years, before my Granddaddy passed away at the young age of 68. My Grandmother is 89 and still kickin’ in the assisted living facility, but beginning to experience her own rapid decline. And my own parents are getting ready to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary this year.
My extended family is large, and for most of my growing-up years, pretty close. As my mother-in-law, who moved here from Texas, says, I can’t open a car door in this town without knocking into a relative. I think she said that with equal parts jealousy and derision, with love, of course.
Most of my extended family, along with my own, spent nearly every Sunday going to our respective churches in the morning and then converging for a familial visit at the home of at least one set of the grandparents for Sunday dinner – usually a visit that extended late into the afternoon, before returning to church for evening youth group and worship meetings.
Memories of those Sunday afternoons bring to mind huge family tables and several overflowing folding tables filled to the brim with food to be shared among the family masses of aunts, uncles, greats and grands, cousins, and the many friends who were invited along the way. Though our family is still full of great cooks, nothing will ever compare to those meals prepared by my grandparents in the good ol’ days of my childhood. Food was “love” and boy, were we loved by our grandparents! When I said my family is large, I meant in more ways than one!
A typical Sunday at the dinner table of one of my grandparents looked like something another family might enjoy once a year at Thanksgiving or Christmas. Almost every week, we ate our way through at least three or four choices of main courses, usually perfectly fried chicken, turkey and dressing, tender roast beef and gravy, and ham, or on special occasions my Papaw would grill his famous “Boston butt” briscuit roast, or my Granddaddy would “fix” his famous chili. Side dishes included creamed corn, fresh green beans, silky mashed potatoes, creamy chicken ‘n dumplin’s, homemade rolls, sliced tomatoes and cucumbers straight from the garden, deviled eggs, cornbread, and home-canned pickles and beets. Grandmother’s homemade “angel rolls” were absolutely straight from heaven, and dessert literally finished dinner, and us, off – Mamaw’s chocolate and butterscotch pies, banana pudding, and yellow cake with penuche icing were the stuff of which legends are made!
Once the rituals of prayer, first course, second course, maybe thirds, and then dessert were finally completed, we took turns clearing the table and washing and drying the dishes, by hand of course – no dishwashers to be found. No worry – some of the best conversations among women-folk happen with hands full of soapy suds.
Occasionally the men would gather around the television to catch a ballgame or a nap, but more often than not everyone gravitated to the back porch, to let dinner settle, enjoy the breeze, and watch the kids play. As one of those kids, I have fond memories of hide-n-go-seek, tether ball, kickball, and such. On luckier days my Papaw would hitch a small trailer to the back of his riding lawnmower “tractor” and pull us around the field. And we almost always had to make a visit to the garden to pull a few weeds, work a few rows, and make sure it had enough water.
Granddaddy and Grandmother, who were two of the hardest-working people I’ve ever known, lived on a large farm about an hour away for many years. Granddaddy worked hard as an electrician at “The Eastman” so that he could take care of his family – he lived for his family, but his heart’s dream was his very own farm, and I’m so thankful he got to live out that dream. A visit to his farm meant I got to feed the chickens and gather the eggs – something that excited me to no end! But then there was that time I got to watch Grandmother wring a hen’s neck – and watching a headless hen continue to waddle around the yard isn’t a sight I’ll ever forget, or want to relive. Sometimes we got to help Granddaddy feed the cattle, and once or twice we’d hike down to the pond to swim – but you had to look out for the snakes, so I tended to find other things to do, such as chase Queen, their German Shepherd, around the yard during those times.
My Granddaddy was the first to leave us, the summer after my freshman year in college. I felt like I was just beginning to get to know him, as an adult – you know, really beginning to discover the nuances of his personality – other than just this crazy, hard-driving man who worked so hard at everything for everybody. He was always dirty, because he worked so hard in the gardens and on the farm, and he drove a beat-up old truck that was full of rust. His clothes were ratty, and he would never wear his teeth – because they bothered him when he ate. But he could really clean up when he wanted to – I got to see him dressed to the nines in his suits and tuxedos whenever he would take my Grandmother to the Eastern Star meetings, which he loved. But most of all, I remember the sweetest man, who ALWAYS greeted and left us with a hug and a kiss, saying, “Granddaddy loves you!” Today, I know the importance of those words – and especially the importance of hearing and saying them to those you truly do love, thanks to that man.
Grandmother was so much fun – she was the grandparent who would hold us and tickle us until we couldn’t breathe and were begging for mercy, read story after story to us, played long games of Aggravation and Uno as she screamed with laughter every time she’d beat us, and be ready at the drop of a hat to pack up and head to the beach or anywhere with us on a family vacation. She’d also be the first one to run down and get her feet in the water – she has lived her life to the fullest! She helped raise her five younger sisters, raised four children of her own, dealt with thirteen crazy grandkids, worked the farm, headed up the PTA at school and Sunday schools at church, was the national leader of the Eastern Star for a time, and yet always found time to visit and care for those she loved. Her own mother, who suffered from alzheimers, lived with her for over twenty years, and Grandmother took full responsibility for her care. Grandmother is the last of my grandparents to still be with us, but we are beginning to watch her fade in health quickly. It’s not easy to watch helplessly as this strong woman, who has been one the greatest influences in my walk with Christ, is resigned to her bed.
Back in the “city”, my sweet Mamaw favored us with her jokes, especially the ones in which she never could remember the punch lines. “Did you see those bees flying around overhead with their legs crossed? They were going to a… a… a FINA Station, was it?” We’d all have puzzled looks on our faces, trying to figure it out, until Papaw would growl, “You mean a BP Station, Ruth!” To which Mamaw would shake her head, and lament, “Well, wrong again!”
Mamaw was THE BEST cook in the world, hands down, and if you can find one person who ever had one bite of anything she ever made that would disagree with this statement, I’d sure like to meet them and have them say it to my face! I have to confess that one of my pictures of what heaven will be like for me is to be able to sit down once again at my Mamaw’s table for Sunday dinner, and THIS TIME, I want to make sure that she is seated first. That’s the thing about this woman – she would never sit down to eat with us, no matter how much we all begged and insisted. She wanted to serve everyone until she was sure our stomachs and hearts were content. Then, and only then, would she finally fix herself a plate and sit down to eat a bit. That’s the best way that I know how to describe her servant heart. She was the epitome of it – if you look up “servant’s heart” in the dictionary, her picture is beside it. She never had a cross word to say, and her home and her heart were a safe haven for me, and all of her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.
Papaw loved to pull out his jokes and funny little toys to entertain us. He was famous for keeping novelty items such as magic tricks, puzzles, and battery-operated toy animals, trying to trick us into believing they were real. Other times, he’d bring out his collections of knives, coins, and belt buckles and let us ask questions about the history of those items, and how he had collected them.
My Papaw served in the United States Army. I’m not the best historian in the world, and he wasn’t one to talk about it much, but that didn’t stop all of us kids from asking him endless questions about it from time to time. Here’s what I do know about his service, but I can’t guarantee that my memory is completely correct…
Papaw joined the Army during World War II. After his training, his platoon was to be sent overseas immediately. However, my Papaw, being a very strong and fit man, was pulled from line one day, and given orders from “higher up” instructing him that he was to remain behind to train other soldiers, as an example of “the perfect soldier.” They had him doing drills and showing other soldiers how to do tons of one-armed push-ups, or to grab matchsticks from between his fingers with his teeth between pushups, and things like that. He hated it with a passion, and was fighting mad about it – mad enough to appeal to every authority he could in order to join his platoon overseas. However, it was to no avail. And that was a blessing for us, as it turns out. You see, my mother had not yet been conceived. And my Papaw’s entire platoon was killed immediately when their boat landed on the beaches of France. Not one man survived. And my Papaw never got over it. He says that the hardest thing he has ever done, to this day, was to post their names as deceased. In many ways, it was obvious that he carried the guilt of this with him until he died. But as his grandchildren, who never would have been born into this world had he not survived, we were eternally grateful for those orders from “Higher Up.”
Papaw was the kind of man for whom you always got up and offered the best seat in the room. He sat at the head of the dinner table, and when he talked we listened. He commanded respect, and rightly so. He was formidable, he had lots of wisdom, and he expected nothing more than your best and your obedience. And buddy, if you saw the size of his hands, heard about his boxing career in the army, and then realized that he came from a family of tough men from the law enforcement community, you knew you’d better toe the line.
We lost my Papaw last night. He was 94 years old, having lived at home until just last year. He never got over losing my Mamaw, and he never got over having to leave his home of over fifty years. He showed us all how to live – strong, right-minded, standing for what’s good and true. We are going to miss him. We are going to miss having his strong influence, and having that stalwart example of the way of life that his life represented – yes, the “greatest generation.”
If you want to know who I am, you have to look no further than the shoulders I’m standing upon, the shoulders of those who helped raise me to be the person I am today. I am so thankful for their influence, their unconditional love, their support and encouragement, and their example. And I am so thankful that my parents had the relationship they have had with their parents, so that I could experience all of this – this way of life, this bedrock, this foundation.
Though their lives weren’t perfect, and times are definitely different, I have a firm foundation. I know where I come from, and thanks to saving faith in God through Jesus Christ, His One and Only Son, I know where I’m going.
This is HOPE. This is the heritage I’ve been given. This is my past. This is my future. And this is how we live.
“And now, dear brothers and sisters, we want you to know what will happen to the believers who have died so you will not grieve like people who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and was raised to life again, we also believe that when Jesus returns, God will bring back with him the believers who have died.
We tell you this directly from the Lord: We who are still living when the Lord returns will not meet him ahead of those who have died. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven with a commanding shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trumpet call of God. First, the believers who have died will rise from their graves. Then, together with them, we who are still alive and remain on the earth will be caught up in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. Then we will be with the Lord forever. 18 So encourage each other with these words.”
-1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 (NLT)