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My dad’s mother died when he was 4, his father died in 1932 so I never knew either. But I did spend some time with my mother’s parents.
My grandfather was born in Texas and the earliest stories I’ve heard about him was that he worked gathering buffalo bones from the prairie and selling them. Apparently the buffalo hunters left the carcasses to rot after they took the hides after slaughtering herds of them. The bones could be sold and later be ground for fertilizer. He was working around Ft. Griffin, outside of Abilene when my grandmother met him. She was born in Mississippi, but always talked about living on the Texas plains, nothing about Mississippi.
My grandfather never called her anything but Mama or “Miss Betty”. She called him Papa or “Mr. Will”, even after they had been married for decades. They hated being called Grandma or Grandpa so we were told to call them Papa and Mama, just like their children.
My grandfather was a tenant farmer most of his life, he never owned any land until he retired. At that time, my Uncle Joe, the youngest child bought them an old house in Stamford. I remember that house so well, no indoor bathroom and the only running water was one cold water faucet in the kitchen. Water had to be heated for baths which took place in a long galvanized tub placed in the kitchen once a week. One room was a bedroom/entry way and the fourth room was a back bed room used as a guest room.
But yet, that’s where the family met for Christmas every year and the 4th of July. The women would create wonderful meals and the men would hang out in the living room. The kids would stay in the huge back yard. Often we would all walk to downtown and go to the Grand movie theater and watch a show. Dad would give me a dollar and a quarter that would buy me a ticket plus popcorn and a coke. The boys would also buy fireworks (some pretty dangerous) and shoot them off in the back yard. Back then in Texas, fireworks were sold at Christmas too!
My grandfather was a giant of man, especially for that time. He was 6’6” when few men were 6’. My shortest uncle was probably 6’3”. He built his own platform rocking chair to fit his frame that sat next to the kitchen door. You had to walk in front of him to get through the door and it was always a challenge because he would sometimes reach out and pinch the grandkids as they went by. That was about all the contact he had with grandkids by the time I came along.
He died when I was 8 years old in 1953 from liver cancer. The events surrounding that was also significantly different than today. This was of course, before Medicare and they had no medical insurance. He also had no Social Security and they lived on about a hundred dollars a month “old age pension” from the state of Texas. So he was taken care of at home. The kids rented a hospital bed that was placed in the living room. I guess a doctor came by the house once in a while, but there was never a question of putting him in the hospital. He was cared for around the clock by my grandmother with my mother coming and relieving her when she could. And that was a lot.
I remember the day he died. Well, not the date, but I recall the events. His whole family was there, all three boys and my mother. I was in the back yard with several cousins when I heard some wailing noises coming from the house. I went in and my oldest uncle was standing in the kitchen. I didn’t say anything, just looked at him. I saw my mother and my youngest uncle crying beside Papa’s bed. My uncle just said, “Your granddad just passed away.” I didn’t know what to do, I wasn’t close to him so I wasn’t upset, but I felt sorry for my mother. I sat at the kitchen table for a long while because even at 8 years old, I knew it would be disrespectful to go outside and play. Finally, my dad came into the kitchen and told me it was okay to go back out.
Looking back on it, what would be a better way to die than being surrounded by people who love you? They had no money, but he had his whole family with him and he was in his home. It beats the hell out of dying in a sterile hospital ICU among a bunch of strangers.
My grandmother lived in that house for another 10 years or better. Her, I have some good memories of. She had no television so she would tell the grandkids stories at night while we sat in the living room. And oh, she had the most wonderful stories. She told us about growing up on the Texas plains as a little girl. Her father had dug a hiding place under their house with a trap door in the floor. When Comanches would come around the house, he would hide her, her mother and sister there and he and his sons would see what the Indians wanted. She had so many scary stories that just had us shaking. And I don’t think she ever told the same story twice. My grandmother was a walking home entertainment center. We all loved her so much.
She had some odd traits though too. When she talked to her children, my mother and her brothers, she was often overly dramatic and pessimistic about the future. Every Christmas after Papa died, I always heard her opine at least once as to whether or not she would be there the next Christmas. Mom would just roll her eyes because my grandmother lived to be 96 years old. She survived another 20 years after Papa passed. But when she was with us grandkids, she was a kick to be around.
She lived the last ten years or so in a nursing home. Her house was literally pillaged by my two oldest female cousins. There were a few things that were so old that they were valuable. The true character of people comes out at times like that.
Although I don’t have bad memories of Papa, the ones I do have are pretty blasé. I just didn’t interact with him much. But I met his younger brother once when I was about 7 and he was a kick. Uncle Tom lived in Colorado and was a WWI veteran. I remember sitting on my grandparents’ front porch and he talked to just me for the longest time. I sat in awe as he told me about when he was a mule skinner in the Army in France. I don’t remember the stories, but I remember the wonderful feeling of this distinguished old gentleman talking only to me! It was only one time in my life, but I will never forget it. I wish I had the ability to impress a little kid the way he did.
It may sound strange to some people, but I know Papa visited me a few days after he died. We were living outside of Plainview, Texas at the time. I woke up with a start one night about 1:30 a.m. and I swear I saw him standing at the foot of my bed. He was there for about 5 seconds and then faded away. My wife asked me recently if I told my parents about it. I said I didn’t because that was probably the only private moment I ever shared with him. I think he was telling me good bye. It’s still a warm memory.
I wish I had known him better, I guess he spent a lot more time with my older cousins But I’m glad my grandmother was in my life. I can’t say she had a strong influence on me, but she was a nice lady to know.
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