Some anniversaries are harder than others. March 14 will always be a soul crushing reminder of the day my marriage fell apart and I lost my home. July 3 I’ll always wake up and remember the phone call telling me that a friend and coworker had committed suicide as I lay sleeping. I’ve said goodbye to mentors (July 16 & October 7) and well-meaning antagonists (December 24) but September 9th has to be one of the hardest anniversaries of them all. Today will be three years since I got the call that my grandfather had passed away. For those of you who have never read my blog extensively or payed attention to the captions in my Instagram photos and other social media posts, let me tell you about Willie Young. He was a carpenter, a farmer, a philosopher, a musician, and a teacher. Sitting in the den at night, smelling of sawdust and the sun with one foot up on the coffee table he’d built in his workshop, he’d pick his guitar to the tune of an old Carter family song and tell a story about his life growing up during the Depression.
“We were poor but we didn’t know we were poor,” he’d say, or “We lived in about as close to a Utopian society as you could imagine.” He’d grown up one of nine children on a farm in Smartt Station in DeKalb County the year of the Scopes Monkey Trial. Before he was ten he’d already buried a younger brother from meningitis and started working with his father and older brothers plowing fields and harvesting sorghum. He walked everywhere, often times as the second banana to his “little big brother” J.B. who’d been born with muscular dystrophy and, despite being older, didn’t learn to walk until he saw my grandfather doing it. Together they lived this rich, adventure filled life against a backdrop of Antebellum southern poverty and change. He joined the Army Air Force in 1945 near the end of the Second World War but they made him a clerk instead, answering his mother’s prayers to keep him out of harm’s way. He went to school on the G.I. Bill to become a chiropractor but, after the money ran out came home to work the fields and eventually become a carpenter.
Always driven to education, he read everything and had a library of medical books from his time in school and encyclopedias that would eventually become intermingled with issues of National Geographic, Popular Science, and Popular Mechanics. He encouraged his own children to take up where he’d left off in education, inspiring each of them to find degrees or to complete trade schools. He passed that love of learning to his grandchildren, my sister becoming a therapist working towards a doctorate in psychology. I took more from his love of reading and storytelling,
I woke up this morning feeling like hell. I couldn’t explain it. Lying in bed, sun shining through the slats in the blinds, I opened up Facebook on my phone and almost vomited. Facebook loves to remind you of what you’ve posted over the years and today they decided to remind me that my grandfather was dead. You know, because they care. It’s been rough today ever since, rougher even than I could have predicted. I miss him. I miss knowing that I had his wisdom to rely on, that if nothing else there was someone who might sing me a song, tell me a story, and guide me through the tough decisions coming at me. If he were here now, reading this, he’d probably tell me a story about him and J.B. and explain to me that this is all part of that incredible gift of life that we’ve been given, that we couldn’t really appreciate it if it lasted forever.
Okay… maybe he just did.
I’m not going to let my loss trump the nearly 28 years I was lucky enough to have with him in my life. I’ll shed some tears because that’s what we do when we hurt. Then I’ll prop my leg up on that cheap plastic coffee table sitting in my living room play my harmonica the way he taught me or pluck some chords on my ukulele. I’ll listen to the Carter family or Jimmie Rodgers, and I’ll remember a great man whose love helped him raise and guide a family even after his passing.