I sometimes think of my grandfather ‘Papaw’, who passed away in 2013, as an American Relic. Why?
A relic can be as “an object, custom, or belief that has survived from an earlier time but is now outmoded.” This, I believe, describes my Papaw. His way of life feels increasingly less common in today’s world, though I suspect it probably still exists in many places around the world, especially those that are less “developed”. In brief, I would describe it as a combination of self-subsistence and community reliance, independent of the global economic ‘race to the bottom’.
Papaw grew up on a farm in Scioto County, Ohio, during The Great Depression. They were poor, but they always had food, he said. He never left Scioto County until he was 18, when he joined the Navy, and traveled around the world. He married my grandmother, whom we call Mamaw, in his early 20’s, and started raising a family of 5, of whom my father is the oldest. He worked briefly for the railroad, but most of his career was in the Air Force.
When Papaw was alive, I didn’t have much regard for him until near the end of his life. He could be rude, he was outspoken, and he didn’t care too much what you thought. That is him on the right.
To illustrate one of many examples, one lazy summer afternoon I was sitting with my cousins in the back porch of his house. It was an old house, one they had lived in since the 50’s, when Pickerington, Ohio, was still a rural place. One that he mostly built himself. Papaw came into the porch from the house, proclaimed “Who wants an ass whoopin!?”, and we all took off running outside. He came after us and got at least one of my cousins, who he grabbed up and spanked, only half jokingly (I guess?).
I remember he would always shout to us to “get outta the crick!” whenever we were playing near the small creek in his 2-acre backyard in Pickerington, Ohio. It became a legendary saying within the family. Only a few years ago did he explain something, to my wife, that he didn’t bother to explain all those years – that the water was contaminated and he was trying to protect our health.
One summer day, I didn’t eat all of the food on my plate, and my punishment was to eat an entire watermelon by myself on that back porch. I felt like I could throw up. This is cruel to do to a kid. I understand the lesson, especially coming from someone having grown up in the Great Depression, but like many out-dated parenting techniques, it was counter-productive.
Lastly, I remember on many occasions hearing racist jokes and commentary. To a kid, this didn’t make sense and felt wrong. I never thought it was funny, as I always got along with the few black kids I encountered where I grew up.
Like I said, I never had much regard for him.
However, I have fond memories too. I remember swinging on the tree swings that he made out back, and riding in his big red tractor in his 2 acre yard. I remember exploring his tool collection and workshop in the basement, and watching Walker Texas Ranger together in their living room at night, while the old fashioned iron furnace kept the house warm. He was an excellent cook, and he always kept a vibrant garden. His homemade pizzas were famous, and I still carry on the recipe today. Mamaw and Papaw always had iced tea and chocolate chip cookies in the summer. I remember going to Mamaw and Papaw’s 50th wedding anniversary when I was a teenager.
As a matter of fact, I believe that I get my artistic talent from him too, as he could make just about anything and often created painted crafts for their house.
Once Papaw hit his 80’s, his health gradually deteriorated, but his kindness improved. He became more gentle, and you could even say he was a ‘cute old man’. My wife and I would stop to visit them on our trips back to Virginia from Indiana. I painted a portrait of he and I that I gave him as a gift, and he made his own frame for it. When he passed away, I made sure to get the painting back.
Out of all of his numerous grandchildren and great grandchildren, I’m the only one named David, just like him. He’s Senior, my Dad is Junior, and I’m III. Just for that reason, I think we shared a connection. In fact, he told me I’d have to name my kids David when I have them. He didn’t offer that comment it as if it was some sort of option to consider, I had to. Both of my boys middle names are David, so I came close.
During his last couple years, he and my Dad were not even on speaking terms, over grievances that had festered over the years. Papaw told me he didn’t know why my Dad wouldn’t talk to him. Of course, he himself didn’t make much of an effort either, or care to find out why. These are old fashioned men that don’t know how to communicate well…not that I’m such an excellent communicator myself, but I think I’ve improved over the past generations! While I was visiting Papaw, I called my Dad and forced them to talk to each other. So they did, and they aired it out, even if it was in a basic sense. Then they started seeing each other again, and my Dad became one of his primary caretakers as his health worsened. I’m really glad. In fact, Papaw died in his arms, as my Dad was changing his clothes.
To Papaw, an American Relic, whose spirit lives on in me.