Saturday, February 25, 2006

Portrait of Grandy

Come this July, my side of the family -- parents, brother, sister, sister's family, cousins, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, and family friends -- are returning to the Smoky Mountains cabins near Dillard, NC for a reunion. The reason I mention this is that the last time our family had such a get-together, the hernia that my grandfather had lived with for the majority of his life ruptured. The recommended surgery he required, one that he at first begged not to have, and eventually underwent basically did in his ninety-plus year old body, and he died shortly thereafter. At least he made it back to the hospital in Lakeland, FL where he had lived for nearly thirty years. I flew in and sat with him in the hospital days before he finally passed, taking turns with my aunt, cousin, friends, and mom. Every once in a while, I fed him ice chips... a small price for everything he bestowed to me.

Young Threlkeld -- better known as Grandy to me, all of his grandchildren, and all of his "adopted" grandchildren -- had been born in Clayton, GA, and I know very little about his childhood and growing up except that he played high school basketball in a time "when the referees called traveling violations, not like nowadays when these boys take ten steps and you never hear a whistle." He couldn't stand the way the sport had changed. Of course, his lifetime saw a lot of change. But before I get off too far, I do know that he loved his roots. Whenever we accompanied him and Grandma on visits back to Clayton, even with his bloated hernia, he walked with a spring in his step and a spark of life he didn't often show. He'd meet people he hadn't seen for fifty or sixty years and start conversing with them as if they had seen each other every day. He always found people he knew, and he always seemed to like them. The reverse was true as well.

The Great Depression had been hard on him and his family. Grandy loved FDR and what the government did to bring people out of the Depression. He was a lifelong, "yellow-dog" Democrat - well, almost "yellow-dog" but I'll get to that. A professional barber from start to finish, Grandy never made it too much above poor, but years after retiring the man still cut hair, most of it for free. He had a wife, Janie, for nearly seventy years and two daughters, Sandra and Patsy (the first of whom is my mom) that he never stopped loving. By all accounts, he was a terrific and beloved father.

But I only knew him as a grandfather.

As with any person, the dynamics of life paint a blurred vision, some of it dark, some of it light, and most of it somewhere in-between. By that, I mean, he had both virtue and faults mixed in with the journey of life he took. Hitting the faults first, because the more time passes the less these mean to me, for one thing, Grandy didn't believe in the Holocaust. You could show him history books, have him listen to news shows, heck you could have brought people that had been there with numbers on their arms and he would have told you plain as day that it never happened. It just never happened. Also, as a barber, Grandy had his share of dirty jokes, but those for me, especially as I sat on his barber stool time after time and we both got older and older, became more endearing about him than anything else. The one issue I always had a problem with was his racism. Coming from a poor background and then following that up as a poor barber, Grandy had been raised in a racist environment and he never departed from that way of thinking, which was: white folks are better than black folks, period. It always drove me crazy hearing this nice, loving man throw out the "n-word" time and again, and I heard it mostly when he cut my hair.

One of the proudest moments of Grandy's life was in direct relation to his racism. While on the stool, if I heard this story once, I heard it at least a dozen times as my locks were shorned: When he was younger, Grandy worked as a barber at a Florida navy base outside Melbourne. For a long time, whites and blacks were required to have separate facilities for their crew cuts. Well, de-segregation occurred on base as it did in most places. It so happened that a black ensign (or whatever the naval term for the men going into basic - equivalent of an army private, I believe) came in to have his hair cut by Grandy. My grandfather refused. The navy man said, "You have to," to which my grandfather said, "Let's take it up with the skipper." (I know, I know, shades of Gilligan. Right, little buddy?) Ended up, the skipper came down on Grandy's side, and he never cut a black man's hair as long as he worked on that base. He loved that story.

Mostly, though, Grandy's racism usually seemed more theoretical than practical, and especially as he got older. He had African-American neighbors with whom he was on very friendly terms, and any time they were in need, he'd provide. When I asked him about these acts, he usually smiled and would reply, "Well, he's pretty nice for a 'n-word'."

In the end, any of his misbegotten beliefs that came along with who my grandfather was paled to me. Because no one I've seen loved like he and Grandma did. And I loved him, fiercely.

Grandma and Grandy had always been great to me and my siblings. At some point in high school, however, I stopped seeing them as just my grandparents, and I started getting to know them and love them. The fact was, they had always done that for me, and now it was time to treat them accordingly. The time spent doing this, mainly in my college years, ended up with me... well, falling in love with my grandparents. I'd grocery shop with them. We'd watch The Morton Downey, Jr. Show (they called him "The Mouth") together late at night. I'd spend time talking to them about their lives, then and now. And I'd wonder why I took them for granted for so long. Any break I had in college, instead of heading to where my parents were -- and since my grades were heading that way, it was usually a good place to stay away from -- I'd drive to my grandparents, including one entire summer break. They felt like home, and they treated me like a king. What more could a selfish teenage/twenty-something boy want?

Like me, Grandy was phlegmatic, and Grandma basically ran him and his household. She'd say, "Do it," and Grandy labored, and with his hernia most work was a true labor for him, to get it done. He'd get frustrated every once in a while and say, "Now, Janie, I'm doing what you told me to do?" when she'd nag him once too often. But for the most part he just took everything she dished out (and don't get me wrong, she wasn't malicious at all, just a little demanding). And through it all, he loved the heck out of her. Not in words that I heard often. Just in every action he undertook. Ephesians talks about men loving their wives like Christ loved the Church and sacrificed Himself for Her. I've never seen a better example than in my grandfather's servanthood to his wife. He amazed me. Even when Grandma had lost most of her mind from the dementia caused by repeated TIAs, his concern was ever for her welfare. In fact, I'm convinced he held on as long as he did simply because he was afraid for what might happen to Grandma if he died (i.e. nursing home, etc. - things she'd never want), plus he knew how reliant she was on him. He whispered words to this effect to my mom and her sister just before he died.

So, yes, I'll remember him as a servant of my grandmother. Also, I'll remember him, and Grandma, as servants for me. Anytime they heard I was coming, they got so excited. They pulled out all the stops to fix all my favorites. Fried chicken, barbeque, ambrosia and peeled and cut oranges, gizzards and noodles, watermelon, greens, three-layered yellow cake with chocolate frosting, three-layered red velvet cake, lemon meringue pie, and key lime pies. Their closets were a delight of Little Debbie and Hostess cakes, candy, chips, pickles, just so many things I could just open and say YES to.

I can still see Grandy going out to the garage to peel and cut up those oranges in a three gallon bowl. I see him over the stove adding batter to the fried chicken or making his famous barbeque and its sauce. I can still hear his knock on my door awaking me so I could make it to the summer job I had on time- he cared soooooo much more than I did. I can still feel him cutting my hair and telling me the old joke where the guy asks God to save him from the flood, and the guy dies after a helicopter, raft and boat come to him but the guy says he's waiting on God to save him. I can also hear him telling me, "Rich, I sure do love ya son."

If I ever have one half of the love of my grandfather for my wife, children, grandchildren, friends, neighbors, and even "enemies," then I'll have lived as successfully as a person can in this fallen world. My times with Grandma and Grandy were probably as close to Heaven as I'll ever know on this earth, because I felt nothing but love there. And I loved in turn.

I realize this sounds more like an essay than a piece of art, but portraits often aren't the best art has to offer. Still, it's written in fondness and in love for someone I'll never forget. Rest with Jesus, Young Threlkeld. Rest well, my Grandy.


DugALug said...


For the record, I loved your grandpa too. They made anyone (well at least me) who entered their house feek welcomed and special. And 'Grandy' entertained himself as much, if not more, than he entertained his guests.

One time, when we were visiting, he took me to the side. He told me that I needed to take care of (I believe his exact words were 'keep an eye on them two') you and Brett, because he knew that he and his wife wouldn't always be there. I told him I would, I in that, I guess I failed him a little, but all of this to say that he was a good man, and his heart was to protect his grandchildren.

Like my grandfather, who passed away last year, racism seemed spookily acceptable in their generation. But they loved us with thier whole heart and they loved others too.

I will miss Grandy with you, and I will choose remember what a great grandfather he was to you and your siblings and your friends (namely me).


codepoke said...

Undeniably cool, Rich. Thanks.

Brett said...

People are complex. Neither Rich nor I can (or want to) rationalize or justify away our grandfather's flaws - especially the racism that colored his views on blacks and, to some extent, Jews (though he and my grandmother both certainly embraced and loved a Jewish girl I dated for a couple of years).

And viewed outside of the context of his birthplace, upbringing, and the era during which he came of age, it's difficult to reconcile some of the uglier aspects of Grandy with the big-hearted, loving grandfather we knew. But we don't have to view him outside of such contexts, and we're aware that everyone is flawed. It doesn't excuse the flaws. Some of the flaws aren't even really understandable.

Despite this, I wouldn't hesitate to say that our grandfather was a great guy, just a joy to know. His love for and faith in his children and grandchildren was unshakeable, unconditional. His love and devotion to his wife was almost unfathomable.

Our grandmother joined our grandfather in Eternity last fall. In eulogizing her, I commented that it was a comfort and a joy to me to know that, in life, my grandparents had known what it was like to feel truly adored. They adored each other. And both of them were adored - that's not too strong a word - by an amazing extended family that grew and grew up around them.

Rich and I are lucky. Just incredibly blessed.