From the outside he sounded like a statistic, and not a very happy one. Blinded in one eye at the hands of a father in a freak accident when he was 2 or 3. School drop out. Married at 17 to a woman 4 years his senior. A father at 18. Buried his firstborn son at 34. A father four more times to only daughters.
His daughters would tell another story. The hardest working man that they knew, who could be relied upon to be the best manager at the grocery stores he managed for years. A tough dad that demanded they work hard and do better than he did. One who rarely showed emotion, instead showing love through providing for his family. A man who was respected and well loved at his job, in the neighborhood, and at church.
His grandchildren would tell another story. A loving, kind, funny Papa who wasn’t afraid to tell it like it was (good or bad) who always had coffeecake on the counter and circus peanuts in the cabinet for when they came to town. A man who with one hand movement that we all know, would ask if you wanted to do his favorite past time, playing cards. He would play at any and all hours, with whoever would join him, sticking to the four or so games he loved the most and would gladly teach anyone who didn’t know how to play. We knew him to have the patience of a saint, a rite of passage in childhood was learning the seven hands of progressive rummy, which is a game I have yet to play with anyone other than him.
Just like I was with Nana, I am selfishly happy that I was the oldest grandchild. I had him all to myself for nearly four years and he was vastly different grandfather than he was a father. He would often reminisce with stories about me when I was a baby or a toddler. Mom didn’t work when we were growing up, so she would spend several weeks down in North Carolina in the summers and he doted on us. He took us fishing, taught us how to play golf, took us swimming in the lake, and brought us on his “paper route” in his rural neighborhood, which consisted of Courtney and I bouncing around the bed of his pickup truck while he brought newspapers down the long driveways of his favorite neighbors. We would often accompany he and Nana at one of their timeshares in the mountains. The smell of coffee and Busch beer will always remind me of their house because neither of our parents drank coffee or beer.
He and Nana came to visit me a couple of times in college and I was thrilled to have my grandparents come and visit. They would take me out to dinner at one of his favorite buffet restaurants and would press a $20 bill into my hand when we got back to my dorm. He would write to me on instant messenger, keeping up with the latest slang better than I would.
He loved holding his great grandsons, Chase and Ryder, when they were babies and would be quick to come into the house and take them out of the arms of whoever had them. He was proud to be a great grandfather, and I am so blessed that he was a great grandparent to my kids. One of Ryder’s first understandable words was “Papa” and there’s a reason for that.
He quit smoking cold turkey when his best friend died over 30 years ago, but had health issues from all of the years he was a smoker. He had quadruple bypass surgery nearly 25 years ago, and then by some miracle, my sister, Mom and I were staying with he and Nana when he had a stroke almost fifteen years ago. I still remember him giving us the thumbs up as he was wheeled out of the house. At the hospital he cracked jokes with the nurses, played cards with us in the “visitor area” and nearly got us kicked out of the unit because we were laughing so hard. Thankfully he didn’t have any lingering effects after that episode. Because of his heart problems, he was an avid walker. Rain or shine, the only thing that slowed him down was ice. When his wife fell ill six years ago, he took over the role of caretaker and did it well. After Nana passed away, he even learned how to cook. And although I know it would literally kill Nana to hear me say this, he made a better macaroni and cheese than she did!
His work ethic never wavered in his 86 years. We would all shake our heads with disbelief when he insisted that he continue to work in his 80s at a drugstore he had once managed. His manager would often tell him that he was the best employee that he had. He kept his home and later his apartment as immaculate as he did the stores he worked in.
He was a lover of country music, baseball, and Duke basketball. He would religiously follow the sports teams of the colleges his grandchildren attended. He would regularly stay up later than anyone else if he was watching the end of a game. Despite his cleanliness, he would hoard magazines that he knew his girls and grandkids liked.
He would claim to be introverted, but when he moved into a retirement community after Nana passed away, he was known as the “cruise director.” He was the ringleader of a group of 18 or so that would play cards every single day and he would get my aunt who lived down the street to print out copies of the rules for the games he played most often.
He would brush it off and shy away from any compliments that anyone ever gave him, but he will be missed by anyone who ever knew him.
A month ago, we went down to North Carolina and I ran a race with my sister and cousin. Papa’s hearing hadn’t been great for years, so when the boys were around, it was hard for him to focus and hear. The second night we were there my husband brought the boys to their other grandparents’ house, so it was much quieter than it usual. He was more “Papa” in those couple of hours than he had been in years. He told stories about the people who lived in his community, made fun of my sister and beat us all handedly in cards.
When we dropped him off that night, I had no idea that would be the last time I would see him. We had such a great night and so much fun and I am so grateful that is how I will remember him. But I wish I had given him one more hug, told him one more time how much I loved him and let him know what a great grandfather he was and how lucky we were to call him ours.