My Papa was my best friend. Maybe it’s strange for a little girl to have a grown man for a best friend, but my earliest memories of unconditional love almost all involve him. He was a chronic smoker for most of his life and wore beige coveralls every single day by choice. On special occasions, he would trade in those coveralls for something fancier, something like denim overalls.
My grandparents were never wealthy people, they never even really made it to the middle class. My grandfather was a blue collar worker, scraping together what he could until he was injured on the job and was no longer able to work. They lived in a trailer in small rural town for the early years of my childhood and drove old beat up cars. They didn’t take me on vacations or buy me the latest toys. But I never minded. I had everything I needed from them. That’s the thing about kids...you may temporarily win them over with “stuff”, but the pieces of yourself that you generously give them will be the thing that endears you to them forever. In twenty years they won’t be talking about how grandpa bought them a Lego set, they’ll be remembering the myriad small ways grandpa revealed who he was.
When I was about a year old, we visited my grandparents. I was standing in front of my Papa’s TV- a luxury they probably couldn’t really afford, but one they saved up for anyway. I stood there hitting the glass of the TV screen, the way that toddlers do. My dad told me several times to “stop hitting that TV”, but I came into this world as a rule breaker and boundary pusher so I kept doing my thing and my Papa kept coming to my defense. “She ain’t gonna hurt that TV”, he said. It wasn’t so much that I wasn’t actually going to hurt the TV, he just didn’t care if I hurt that TV. He cared more about whether I was happy and if beating his TV made me happy, then by God he was going to let me do it to my heart's content. Fed up after several stern but patient requests, my dad popped me on the leg, letting me know that he was serious. My Papa was so livid that my father had (appropriately) disciplined me that he stormed out the front door, the screen door slamming behind him on the way out. He lit a cigarette and legend has it that he smoked the whole thing in one drag. He started up his truck, peeled out, and spent the next several hours driving around to calm himself down. That’s just the sort of man he was- fiercely loyal, generous beyond measure, and strong in his convictions even when they were a bit misguided. I think about that story a lot. It captures so much of him in just that one small slice of time. And then I wonder what stories will end up on my own highlight reel.
He’s been gone for more of my life than he was alive for, but I’ll be damned if I don’t think about that man every time I slice a cucumber or happen upon some fine woodworking or watch my own son with his best friend, his Papa. My own Papa never made a ton of money and he never had a lot of power and nobody is going to write a book about his life, but his legacy lives on in my spirit and that’s the mark of life well lived.