He wakes up early. Way before the sun slips over the southern Illinois corn fields. Nestled deep in the covers on the hideaway bed near the grandfather clock, I hear him whistling in the bathroom as he shaves and slides his silver steel comb through his jet black hair. He leans over me and nuzzles my cheeks with the remnants of his whiskers and calls me a “yon yock,” a term of endearment I have yet to decipher. Perhaps strange nicknames are the norm for a man who spent most of his life being called Snooky.
Breakfast is a smorgasbord; Post Toasties with milk, Jimmy Dean sausage patties, farm fresh eggs sunny-side-up and dripping with grease, toast with oleo and apple butter. If anyone left Memaw’s table hungry, they had only themselves to blame.
And then we kneel around Papaw’s chair to pray. Though he’d already prayed for the meal, in his familiar lilting yet muffled manner, “Lord, we’re thankful for this food, dear God . . . ,” this is the real deal. This is the prayer that will set the tone for the rest of the day. Memaw and Papaw always prayed together, each giving voice to their own praises and petitions in words that overlap in a strange sort of harmony, an old fashioned Pentecostal concert of prayer.
Papaw in his overalls, I in whatever Memaw determines will keep me relatively clean and dry. We head out the door with Melinda the Chihuahua in Papaw’s arms, make our way across the narrow wooden porch and down the cobblestone walkway, and then climb into Papaw’s bright red Farm Bureau truck with its truck bed tool box full of the implements of his trade. He’s a gauger, the guy who visits the storage tanks at the various oil leases and pumps out the ones getting full. It’s a dirty, physical job and he rises to the task with a song on his lips:
In the shade of the old apple tree
Where the love in your eyes I could see
When the voice that I heard
Like the song of the bird
Seemed to whisper sweet music to me.
I could hear the dull buzz of the bee
In the blossoms, as you said to me
With a heart that is true,
“I’ll be waiting for you,
In the shade of the old apple tree.”
We stop at some small town diner and he sees someone he knows. I listen as he chats about this or that and smiles his gentle smile at the stories they share. A storm remembered with details of lightning strikes and flash floods that wash out roads and makes his job difficult but seldom impossible. More often, there are easier memories of peculiar acquaintances with equally peculiar personalities. They share tales of the past with an air of wonder and gratitude. He is never coarse or vulgar but one who is “swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath.” At the end of the day we stop for a fill up and he places a call to dispatch ticking off the day’s tally and signing off with “that’s the crop.”
This is how I choose to remember him.
He retired after thirty-five years and got a nice watch. In the early 90s he started falling down a lot. He drug his feet. He hunched over. He almost drove off the road near Griffith and pulled over so Memaw could drive. These things were not normal for my Papaw. In 1996 he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Memaw did her best. She helped him eat. Struggled to bathe him and helped him go to the bathroom. For six years, amid her own medical difficulties, she stood by his side and served him with a dignity and compassion beyond her means. Eventually the family realized enough was enough and admitted him to a nursing facility. Into a room he has occupied to this day.
June 1, 2008. His 84th birthday.
My wife and I were married on Papaw’s birthday. He stood in the back of the sanctuary during our rehearsal seventeen years ago yesterday and got choked up when asked what our special day meant to him. Later he nuzzled me with his whiskers and told me to “treat her well.” He is the embodiment of his counsel.
I spoke with Memaw on the phone a few moments ago. She said he didn’t wake up at all today. This is now normal for my Papaw. There’s a part of me that hopes he rests so well because he knows he is loved. Respected. Cherished so much that it hurts . . .