At lunch time today, I pulled food from the fridge and discovered the bag of peppers in the vegetable crisper that my grandfather had given us the last time we’d seen him alive. I had forgotten about those peppers, and now most are shriveled. I don’t know how I’ll manage to throw them out. And even if we ate them–all of them–they’d still be gone, and then there would be no more evidence I could hold in my hands of his gardening prowess.
Papa died on Valentine’s Day, and we left the next day–a Wednesday–for Lucedale, Mississippi, where I was born, raised, where my parents and grandmother still live. The boys and I were in the throes of making our annual heart-shaped Valentine’s cake when I heard the news from Mama. The strawberries that we typically used to decorate the edges of the heart cake had sold out, so we had to substitute fresh raspberries instead.
Papa had not been ill; although he was 90 years old, he was in good health. His death during a heart catheterization–a diagnostic procedure–shocked us all. I had known Papa was undergoing the heart cath at the hospital; and even when I felt a faint sense of worry, I told myself that he wouldn’t die during a process meant to determine how well his heart was working.
I close my eyes and see my 2 brothers and 7 male cousins laboring to carry Papa’s casket to his grave on February 17, a chilly, sunny day. This feels like the beginning of the end of everything good. I told my husband, my sister, Nothing will ever be the same. I also told my husband: You know this is going to keep on happening, right? At some point, my grandmother, your parents, my parents…There’s a line in the Tom Petty song ‘Learning to Fly’ that goes like this: “The good old days may not return.”
We packed up the heart-shaped cake and put it in the freezer and spent the next several days following Valentine’s Day in Lucedale. Leaving my mother and my Nanny when my husband and sons and I loaded into our van to drive home was one of the most agonizing things I’ve ever done. We are so many hundreds of miles away; I want to be with them, to grieve with them and to help them if I could.
On the way home to Orlando last Saturday, I asked Garfield if he needed to get a drink of water. He responded, “No, I still have my tea from Nanny and Papa’s.” Nanny and Papa’s. It wrecked me.
Papa always gave me money for good grades growing up, a quarter for every A on my report card. Sometimes he would hand us rolls of quarters; I often used those to do laundry during college. In first grade, Nanny and Papa took me–just me–to what is now called Ray’s Tri-County Auction. We sat in the back and ate hamburgers from the concession stand, and Papa bought me a beautiful doll with black hair and a long red dress covered in lace.
In fourth grade, I misplaced my lavender New Balance tennis shoes (some folks outside the South call them ‘sneakers’). I didn’t find them for several weeks. During that time, I wore the lovely, dark brown cowboy boots that Papa had bought for me at our local farm co-op. They had just the right amount of heel, in my ten-year-old’s opinion. I wore them with everything, everyday, including a pink track suit with the legs stuffed down in the boots. One day during P.E. that year, our class actually did exercises instead of simply playing around the school yard. The P.E. coach herded us into the gym, and we ran laps. I ran laps–in my boots. Not surprisingly, I slipped and fell on the hardwood floor but got back up right away. I kept running.
Papa had nicknames for all his grandchildren–mine was Pumpkin. Always, it was Pumpkin. Papa served as the sheriff of our county for 24 years, and I remember many hot summer nights at political rallies, passing out flyers urging people to vote for Papa, wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with the words “Re-elect Howell Sheriff.”
At Papa’s funeral, I heard a man say to Nanny–Papa’s widow–as he leaned down to hug her, “He was my friend.” I discovered last week that Papa liked to play 2 old gospel songs in his sheriff’s office: One Day at a Time and I’ll Fly Away. He would even call in to the local radio station and ask for those songs to be played.
He lied about his age at 16 and joined the army, serving during WWII. My husband used to ask Papa questions about this time of his life, and Papa told us many stories. In one, he explained how he and the other men with him who’d landed in Japan wanted to flesh out their MRE’s, so they cooked Japanese eggplants and added them to the army-issued meals. Papa laughed when he said that this just ruined the MRE’s. He also jumped out of airplanes. And he built fences as a side business. Two of my cousins, one of my brothers, and I used to play “Dukes of Hazard” in the back of Papa’s fence-building pick-up truck.
Papa looked to me like a cross between Jimmy Stewart and the TV sheriff Andy Griffith, and he was married to my grandmother for 67 years. And there is no way I could possibly write enough about him; there aren’t sufficient words.
I am shattered and gutted. My eyes burn from the tears I’ve shed, and my head hurts from the tears I’ve not shed. I do grieve with hope, because I’m confident I’ll see Papa again. But right now, I’m just grieving, and I’m exceedingly thankful that God gives me the grace to accept that.