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This is a Christmas story. Sort of. Or maybe it’s about grumpy old men. Maybe it’s about the commercialism that we like to rant against at this time of year. I’m pretty sure, though, that it’s about love.
Pawpaw Green, 93 years and six months old, reached down to tie his shoes on the morning of Dec. 20, 1970, and quietly left us. His death took me by surprise. I had assumed he would live forever, or at least until he was a 100, frying up bacon and eggs in his rambling old house and grumbling about arthritis and the state of the world. Certainly, I had thought he would live through another Christmas, and my first response was mild irritation that he had not obliged me.
Nobody wants to begin the holidays with her grandfather’s funeral, but I also felt guilty of neglect. In mid-November, my first pregnancy had ended prematurely. Seeking comfort, unwell and grieving, I made the three-hour trip home to my parents’ Owen County farm at Thanksgiving. However, I decided not to make the 20-minute drive from the farm to Owenton to visit Pawpaw Green that weekend even though I had not seen him since August. “I’m too tired,” I told my father, “and I’ll be with him in a few weeks at his annual Christmas party.”
I could have added that a visit with Pawpaw was not always uplifting. For starters, he couldn’t hear anything I said. He had a hearing aid, but was too frugal to waste batteries on all but the most important conversations which apparently did not include my chatter. It saved money if he just did all the talking. He could be prone to grousing, too, and his stories – well, I knew they were supposed to be funny because his stone like face would crack into smiles and his wide shoulders would shake with laughter when he finished telling one. Still, I often didn’t understand his ironic and finely-honed humor. The dead hapless characters who’d populated his life didn’t amuse me as much as they did him.
And, I rationalized, others would drop by that weekend to visit him. The father of seven adult children, his clan, if you counted in-laws, numbered over 50 by 1970. No, he wouldn’t miss me, I reasoned.
I was too young to appreciate what a marvel he was, living independently in his two-story house, mowing his lawn, walking most days to the Courthouse Square to talk with other old men. His mind was keen, too. He read every word of the Courier-Journal every day, and watched Huntley-Brinkley each night on TV. At the moment of his death, he was better informed about current events than I was.
I also had only the fuzziest notion of what it’s like to live through history. What could I, a child of post-war America’s prosperity, really know about the life of a man born in 1877? Pawpaw’s father had fought in the Civil War for the losing side and returned home sick and defeated. He died when Pawpaw was 8-years-old. That summer, with his mother near destitute, Pawpaw began hiring out as a day laborer in the fields.
Hard farm work would define his life, and so would devotion to family. I doubt that he had the time or inclination to be a playful father or perhaps even an openly affectionate one, but he kept his seven children clothed and fed and out of trouble. They graduated from high school, and several went to college, an accomplishment for a man who had to drop out of school after the third grade.
I did understand that he had always loved Christmas. Maybe this was because the holiday coincided with the end of the tobacco crop cycle, and Pawpaw could take time to rest a little, or maybe it was because the sale of the tobacco in December put a little cash in his pockets. Maybe it was because he missed out on his own childhood.
Whatever the reasons, Pawpaw Green embraced the holiday. Always there was a homemade fruitcake, even the year my father was born on Dec. 22, and Pawpaw had to make it himself. When his children were young, the holiday gifts were as Spartan as the times, maybe candy and an orange in the stockings and one toy for each child. (I still have my father’s Lincoln logs, and have been charged with keeping them sacred for the remainder of my life.)
By the time my memory begins, however, times, though not abundant, were better. At his Christmas party, Pawpaw now insisted on placing a wrapped, name-tagged gift under the tree for every member of his 50-plus clan, oldest to youngest, in-laws, too. Everyone protested this was too much for him to do. Draw names with the rest of us, we said, but he would not be dissuaded.
He drafted his youngest child, my Aunt Helen, as his designated elf and off they would go in early December to do his shopping. He would sit in a chair at Zuckerman’s Owenton Department Store, smoking his pipe, and Aunt Helen would dart around bringing items to him for approval. The clerks formed an assembly line to gift-wrap his mountain of packages. Then it was on to the Dime Store to buy a toy for each child in the family. Cars were bigger back then, but I still wonder how they stuffed in over 50 wrapped boxes for the trip home.
Pawpaw’s funeral was on Dec. 22. The family decided to go ahead as planned with the Green family gathering the following Sunday. Pawpaw, of course, already had his gifts bought and wrapped, so Aunt Helen put them under the tree as usual.
I fingered the tag – “To Georgia Dexter from Pawpaw.” It felt odd, unwrapping a present from your grandfather a few days after you’d buried him.
But it did feel like love.