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 . . .

22 thoughts on “Whiskers

  1. So sorry that your grandpa is suffering with Parkinson’s. Glad for you that you have these memories of him in better days…my memories of my grandmother are some of the best of my entire life.

  2. i’m sorry too. you paid him a wonderful justice by writing this detailed, well-written piece for him.

  3. So bittersweet: the memories of your grandfather, the reality of his life now, the juxtapositioning with your own celebration. But that’s life, I guess.

    Happy Anniversary to you and happy birthday to PaPaw!

  4. Exquisite, like the author’s spirit.

    Here’s to PeaPaw, MeMaw and their legacy.

  5. I always remember Papaw in that truck too. Riding with him always was the best part of staying there.

  6. It such a hard thing, watching your heroes, your mentors, your pillars fade away. And knowing that it is part of life offers little solace.

    That said, Pawpaw sounds like a fine man. Its nice to know you are preserving his memory.

  7. Wow Brian…yeah I completely relate. The falling down and everything with the parkinsons. My grandmother called the fire department 16 times in a couple months to come help him up. They did have to put him in a nursing home for a period of 6 months, but otherwise he was home and she was caring for him. He also has hydrocephaly, and when they got him a brain shunt he was a new man for almost two years. Oh and he also spent the last 37 years being called a nickname – Boppy – because that is what I (the first grandchild) named him. Even the mailman new him as Boppy. He was 87 on May 22nd. He grew up farming but worked in construction most of his adult life after being discharged from the Navy. And I’ll never forget his thermos…it went with him everywhere. Black coffee in a green metal thermos.

    Anyhow, thanks for listening. Your grandfather sounds like a great man who impacted many people, and I so relate to your memories.

  8. Great post and sorry about that. My grandmother died of ALS a few years ago and we dealt with this except at an accelerated rate. She went from perfect health to no speech and finally passed away in a two year timespan. Very tough. She was the best person I have ever known.

  9. Thanks you guys for your kind words. He’s quite a guy . . .

  10. Really lovely tribute, Brian.

  11. Maggie, dammit June 3, 2008 — 9:00 pm


    At the risk of leaving a duplicate comment (which is normally lazy and weird), I have to tell you what I just told another blogger not an hour ago.

    My Grandpa had surgery today to remove the cancer from his lungs. He’s been on my mind all day but I haven’t been able to write about it. This post feels like a love letter to my heart.

    And, actually, reading two posts in a row about wonderful grandpas tells me that it is indeed a love letter. Maybe from him, somehow.

    Thanks for this, Brian. Yours sounds like an amazing man.

  12. That was really touching… where did you learn to write so well? exactly like a novel…

  13. wha a great character sketch- he would be honored to read this, I am sure.

    so sorry about the parkinsons…

  14. This was a beautiful story and a lovely tribute to man I can see played a big part in shaping you. I hope you share this with your kids someday.

  15. You got me with this. Right in the middle of my chest. What a beautiful tribute to your grandfather, and I’m certain he knows how much he is loved. Sending good thoughts and happy birthday wishes.

    This was beautifully written.

  16. I found you through Ask and Ye Shall Receive, believe it or not. I find that even though I don’t always like their verbiage, I do find that their methods uncover some amazing blogs. This is one of them. What a wonderful tribute to your Papaw. The relationships we have in our lives are God’s gift. You obviously appreciate them.

    Peace – D

  17. My dear! (I’m old enough to call you that)

    This was a work of staggering genius and heart. My throat is still closed up but PawPaw’s dreams today on his 84th birthday are most certainly dreams that include you.


  18. Pat,

    It’s an honor for you to call me dear. I’ve always loved that particular term of endearment.

  19. This is one of the best posts I’ve ever read on a blog partly because you wrote it well, and partly because it reminded me so much of growing up next door to my grandparents. He’s been gone for a while, and I miss him terribly.

    Thank you

  20. I really think this is beautiful. Heartbreaking. But beautiful.

  21. I wanted to read this again today.

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