We seldom speak openly about him, at least, not for long. In fact, what follows is quite likely the most you’ll ever hear anyone in my family say of him at once.
Talk of him is brief and hushed, then the subject is changed.
This is not because he was unloved…but because he was so loved…
He was only 6 feet tall, but his stance and walk made him appear much taller. He could appear ordinary and extraordinary at the same moment. His presence could change the mood of an entire room, but he would sometimes help it along with a glance, a wink or a smile. His unaffected manner hid a natural, inimitable ease that sometimes seemed dangerous, like a slow-running flow of molten iron.
He brought with him a complex union of smells: leather worn in the rain, clothes dried in the sunshine, shaving soap from a mug. His scent was an ever-present reminder that all things would turn out right in the end.
His eyes sparkled and danced and blazed with curiosity, kindness and strength. When he smiled, spider webs formed at the corners of his eyes that snared those fluttering too close.
He had a low, clear voice that could persuade people to relax. He wasn’t boring; he didn’t drone, but he spoke with a tone that you didn’t hear so much as felt, like far-off thunder. And the promising words he used held a hazy, distant quality, as though they arose in misty forests hanging with mossy vines in a time when pure places still existed.
He reminded me of a figure in some Charlie Russell painting, full of energy and life, weathered by the elements, living forever in that moment on canvas.
He could use a pistol well. And knives. I can still see him with his pocketknife deftly peeling and quartering a section of sugar cane so my brother and I could chew out the sweetness. I watched him methodically pass blades over his worn whetstone until a gleaming, shaving sharpness was reached. I never have been able to hone an edge like he could.
He had stomached punches, and thrown his fair share too, I guess. I realize now that most of his fights were internal. He combated his own weaknesses, and, more often than not, he won.
He was loved by people, but especially children. And animals. Animals were drawn to him; children adored him. Some said it was because he took time with both, time to hold a child in his arms or scratch a kitten under the chin. He wiped tears from toddlers’ cheeks and worked countless burrs from the coats of puppies with patience. Still others said it was due to the fact he was wise and knew what children and animals liked to do, and did those things.
But others, those who knew him best, knew the real reason: children and animals liked him because he liked them first. He genuinely cared. It’s as though they knew that. They saw that this man related to them on a level that few could achieve. It was a level where good and bad existed with clean boundaries, playtime was eternal, and survival, though not guaranteed, was the grand adventure.
I loved my grandfather. I loved him for all the things he was that I was not. We are never complete here on earth, but I believe he came closer than most. He was more like Jesus than anyone I have ever known.
He was a really good Saturday matinee cliffhanger.
He was a game of horseshoes in the fading summer afternoon.
He was hot sauce and old blues songs.
Wide-brimmed hats and dusty grasses by the roadside.
Wooden church pews.
Grace said over biscuits.
Elegant and rugged.
Stormy and calm.
Kind, but firm.
I suppose that, deep down, I knew he was human. But he never seemed that way, or, at least, not until he was gone.
And when he was gone, and all the old friends and family left the funeral home, the funeral director got down on his knees before my mother as she sat drying her eyes and said, “I’ve never seen this many people pass through these doors. Your father must have been a very special man. I regret that I didn’t get to meet him.”
His regret was valid.
He missed a man who, having known him, would make one believe the stuff of myth.
He was a true man, and we miss him still. It’s been said of the loss of loved ones that “there is no home without a hush.” Our home still has a hush, all these years later…
But I’m looking forward to catching up with him for all eternity.