Papaw would be 85 today. He is still one of the greatest men I’ve ever known.
When I was little I’d jump at any chance I had to climb in Papaw’s Cadillac and run an errand with him — Whether he was picking up toothbrushes on sale at the nearest drug store (the man loved a bargain) or the ingredients to make my favorite pimento cheese from Wilson’s.
There are certain things Papaw always kept in his refrigerator. There was the apparently ultra easy to make french onion dip, homemade pimento cheese, and a carton of ice cream (or two or three). On weekend mornings when we’d visit he’d cook up pork tenderloin biscuits. When I was small I’d stand on tiptoes next to him and watch.
We never lived in Wilmington with most of my Mom’s side of the family, but we spent a whole lot of our childhood there. The once quaint coastal town was just a short road trip from our home in Raleigh and always worth the drive.
For a while I was the only girl grandchild of my particular age group. There are 17 of us, and somehow there was a big stretch of time when my parents, aunts, and uncles managed to pop out a whole baseball team worth of boys (and me) before Kathryn (finally!!) came along 5 years later. When I was still the only girl I’d always talk my way into sleeping on the floor in mamaw and papaw’s room. Something about the steady hum of Papaw’s snoring made me feel safe.
Papaw never seemed to mind that I followed him around and I never cared where I was led.
When I was 15 Mamaw and Papaw moved in with us. Papaw had Mamaw’s rapidly fading memory to take care of, but he sometimes distracted himself by following me. He encouraged me to get involved in clubs at school. His push led me to be President of the Interact Club, to run for student council, to study a little harder, to earn a scholarship to a leadership camp. He came to my track meets and basketball games (poor guy). He caught me every day as I came in from school to check on how my day went. He asked about my grades and my dreams. He wanted to know what I wanted to be and he pushed me to believe it was possible. He hitched rides with me to the grocery store.
One Saturday in April 2005 he followed me around the kitchen as I unloaded the dishwasher. He made small talk as I put away the plates. He asked me nothing memorable as I stacked the bowls. I always save the utensils for last. I was probably somewhere between the sorting of knives and serving spoons when he began to tell me who he was as a teenager. He talked about his time serving in the military. He told me how he met Mamaw, how she hated every moment of living in California while he was in the Navy. He quipped about her stubborn ways and how he always secretly loved her sass. He told me about his time after the military. They came back home to North Carolina and he started as an assistant to the janitor with a big corporation. He had mouths to feed, so he just did what he had to do to work his way up to a managerial position.
He served our country for years then started over as an assistant to the guy who took out the trash and worked his way up to management. How’s that for the greatest generation?
He told me about raising seven kids and losing one way too young. Papaw told me every gritty step an almost 75 year old could remember about a life well-lived.
I’d long finished putting away utensils and was sitting on a barstool behind the counter by the time Papaw wrapped up his impromptu life story. I probably had plans with friends. I probably could’ve been watching TV or texting someone about whatever happened the night before. But this was a story I’d only heard pieces of on rides back and forth to Phar-Mor as a kid. This was my first chance to hear it all.
I didn’t count the days but it wasn’t more than a week or two before Papaw was gone. He died the way anyone could possibly want to– quickly in his sleep.
His death was a surprise, but something compelled him to tell his story in the weeks just before it happened.
I followed Papaw around for 17 years, from every corner of his house to every quick trip to the store and anywhere else he’d let me go. But on one spring morning without leaving my kitchen he let me follow his story from start to finish.
One day I’ll figure out how to properly retell it.