Did I even call you Grandpa? I don’t remember, because I just barely remember you. You are more of an impression than a memory. I think I was seven when you died, and I don’t think I got to spend much time around you. I vaguely remember candy: Dad says you used to give me candy. I remember a man in a ball cap. That was you.
Most of what I know about you, I know from my Dad: your third son of only the Lord truly knows how many. Did you have nine children? I know all of them. Ten? Dad swears there was another baby. Please understand, I’m not judging. I’m just trying to wrap my head around what it must have been like for you: An Appalachian boy, often left on his own because of aging parents, during the Great Depression. You learned to take care of yourself too, didn’t you? Is that why Dad was pretty much on his own from the time he was 13? Because you just didn’t know how it’s “supposed” to be done?
What was it like to play baseball at 17, thinking it might be your future, only to learn that your fifteen-year old girlfriend was pregnant? What was it like when she left you (or did you make her leave) a few years later with four little boys to care for? What was it like working in the coal mines, loading coal, when the canaries were dying? So many things you experienced, I can’t even imagine.
I know that you had a lot of patience with animals, but not much with people. Your fists often spoke for you, and when you did speak, the words were often hurtful. I don’t know that you meant them to be, but you, like your son, and your great grandson, evidently did not have a filter between your head and your mouth. Why else would you call your own daughter “Berky” because she reminded you of a Berkshire hog; or tell my dad that he was “the dumbest white boy you ever saw”. Did you even know that words like that stick? Did you care?
Speaking of your great grandson, my oldest son James; Dad says you would have “loved that boy”. I know you loved to fish…James does too. Too bad you couldn’t have been around to take him. I know that you were hard headed and had an iron will. When the “black lung” took you, the nurse told Dad that if there had been the slightest chance for you to live, you would have. She had never seen anyone fight as hard as you did. You didn’t know any other way, did you?
This letter is not to air grievances of all the things you “did wrong”. I can’t judge: I wasn’t there. I have seen the results of some of your actions and attitudes, but again, that’s not what this letter was about.
This letter is from a wistful grandchild who wishes her grandpa could have been around to teach her his secrets for growing the best tomatoes around, and how to care for sick animals, and what he knew about foraging and mountain medicine. Those are the things that I feel that your untimely death cheated me of.
Dad says you used turpentine to treat sick dogs. Really? How did that work? He says you could whittle and play the harmonica. Your great grandson Kyle has played harmonica a little. James can play anything he puts his hands on.
I wonder if you would have “mellowed out” in your old age, kind of like Dad has. Recently, I got to see a picture of you and Grandma when you were young. By the way, I met her when I was about fifteen, and we stayed in touch until she died a few years ago. Anyway, looking at you, so young, I was struck by how much Dad and Uncle Dale look like you. What a handsome young man you were!
I’m just sorry that I never got the chance to really know you.
P.S. No one calls me that anymore, except Uncle Bill. It’s just Connie now.