As most of you know, this blog began as a sublime conversation with my grandfather. Who, in my eyes, was man who stood second to no one. A person, who every decent man within his bloodline strove to emulate, even if they didn’t know him personally, it was, is, genetic. Papa was all I wished my father had been. As a young child, my days did not begin until I saw his face and many days did not end which did not find me cradled in his arms. In today’s overused vernacular, “He was my Person.” Chinee was my heart and every decision I made was tempered by the overwhelming passion he brought to anyone or anything he cared about. He taught me to care deeply about the things that should be loved. Given time and proper consideration, you’ll find that is not an altogether simple concept.
Papa on the other hand, gave me balance and direction. As he aged and became feeble only in body, without my knowledge, he guided me gently toward his grandson my brother, and deposited my continued familial education into his care. Chinee had spent seven years longer than I under Papa’s tutelage and therefore had become his very reluctant student. Papa was a harsh taskmaster with Chinee and the other males under his care because he knew that if his sons and grandson could withstand the weight and pressure, he placed upon them, the world would have an infinitely more difficult time in its efforts to crush them. Papa’s lessons came from love whereas the worlds’ lessons would come with hate.
The females in Papa’s circle were loved with open arms as he gave all he had and struggled to find more to give, but he was not blinded by our faults or weaknesses. He was fair in his assessments of us, yet he wasted no effort in pointing out those weaknesses. He loved us in spite of them and attempted to guide us around the pitfalls we would undoubtedly create for ourselves because of those weaknesses. However, if anyone attempted to create pitfalls for us, you could almost be certain the bodies would never be found. If there was ever anyone Papa loved more than his wife, his only daughter and me, I’ve never met them. (ok, I’m writing this from my perspective…there might be one or two others he loved equally but definitely none more!). I was that granddaughter who insisted on learning at his knee; who followed him or tried to follow him everywhere. He was the one to whom I’d toddled when as a young child the thunder and lightning made me quiver in fear. It wasn’t enough just to have him hold me with those strong and roughly calloused hands, but my utter sense of safety was only to be found underneath Papa’s t-shirt, those sleeveless units of underwear which have for the last fifty or so years, come to be known by the hideous name of “wife-beaters”. There were few places this side of Heaven which offered as much security as that which I found underneath Papa’s shirt listening to his steady, rhythmic heartbeat, drowning out all other external stridency.
Papa was born in August 1881, sixteen year after the “declared” end of slavery, almost a century before the Civil Rights Act of 1964, exactly one hundred years before the birth of my youngest son (1981) and eons upon eons upon eons before the founding of “true” equality, yet still to be found. But there was one particular event during his early life which shaped him as no other.
One of two of the many prolific lessons he taught me gave name to this blog, if you are joining me mid-range or even now, please visit the first entry of this site and see how his simple but profound insight into people will leave you in awe. The second guiding point was and is something of which has colored my life; further it is something of which I’ve shared with my sons and believe they have used it on their life’s path as well. There has never been a single day in my life when I’ve not considered this particular statement of his: “Your name is the only thing that you came into this world with and will be the only thing that you will take with you when you leave it so, take care of it because your name will go places your feet will never take you.” I’ve shortened it over the years to: “your name will go places you never will.” This is an undeniable truth. Even within this forum, Readers from the UK, Australia, France and Germany have found their way to this blog. I’ve certainly never been to any of these wonderful places, yet my name and thoughts have traveled there and to my knowledge and prayerfully, I’ve done nothing to reflect negatively upon my name nor more importantly, Papa’s. My grandfather was a man of great wisdom and that’s becoming an increasingly rare commodity.
My Grandfather, like Chinee, was fiercely loyal and no one or nothing was more important than family. If Chinee was here to lend voice to my assertion, he would agree that it was Papa who instilled in him that loyalty, whether it was an easy installation or hard-fought, I can’t say, but its truth cannot be denied. Papa was not forthcoming about the early facts of his life. Actually, he was downright secretive. As open as he was with his advice, love and guidance, he seldom divulged any of the experiences in his life that gave birth to his wisdom.
He was immensely in love with and loved by his mother Jane, a full-blood American Indian. He spoke proudly of her long, thick, black and straight hair that hung almost to her knees and how at a few times during his boyhood he had been pressed into the service of helping her to brush it at night. He spoke nothing to me of his father other than to say that he was or had been a freed slave name Jordan, like the river. One of the only other few facts that Papa shared with his children and some of his grandchildren was the reason he purposely shielded his past.
While only in his late teens or early twenties, Papa had been accosted by two men, opposite of his racial persuasion, who thought to make sport of him. They hurled at him horrific expletives and told him that it didn’t matter whether he called himself a damned Indian or Niggra, he had no business walking around free as if he was as good as they. They sought to, in their limited diction, put him back into slavery where he belonged. Their intent, according to Papa, was to make him their personal slave.
When naturally Papa balked at their threats to return him to his “proper place”, they retaliated by placing a rope around his neck and were almost successful in their attempts to hang him until he freed himself, overpowered and killed them both. To my knowledge, Papa spoke no more than one or twice of this matter the whole of my life with him and probably not many more times than that during the whole of his. He steadfastly resisted any efforts to elaborate on the matter, not for fear of his safety but for ours. The less we knew, he reckoned, the less opportunity for us to speak on it by force or chance, thereby he protected us. Until the day he died at 87, he never told us anymore than that he had killed two who had tried to kill him. To that I say, “Yea Papa!”, because to have not done so would mean that I and hundreds of others of your progenies would not exist. However, that most unfortunate happenstance, created in him two lifelong unmovable stances; first, he would not allow anything tight to be worn about his neck. He refused any attempt or occasion which would have forced him to wear a necktie or forced him to close the top button on his shirt, much to the chagrin of his fellow deacons at church. Papa was Miami Vice cool almost before there was a Miami! He blazed his own trails! The second lifelong stance this incident created in Papa was the fact that he would tolerate no disrespect from anyone who sought to tell him where his place was in life. He allowed anyone a chance to be told something twice and shown once, after that…hmmm. He carried a doubled-barrel shotgun every time he left home, accompanied by a bandolier full of extra shells, in the unlikely event he would need to fire more than the two already locked and loaded barrels. I’ve never heard of anyone, Black or White who ever thought to challenge him. On the contrary, Papa was the only man of his Race and time of whom I had ever heard referred to as Mister by all who addressed him, who were not his relatives. Again, I say, “Yea Papa!”
Papa stood six feet five in stocking feet, in my mind. He was as strong as Hercules, in my mind, and was as tightly wound and dangerous as a coiled Rattler, a fact that does not merely abide in my mind! Papa was a hardworking, earnest living, straight talking, sailor cussing, horseback riding, joke loving, domino playing, wisdom sharing, female aesthete, bestest grandfather EVER.
I hope you will enjoy getting to know him through my eyes over the next few posts. Not just him alone but also some of his most trusted friends. I’ll attempt to tell a few of the heartwarming and entertaining conversations that took place between Papa and William Gatlin, (Mr. Bill /Pop-Pee), Gene Ridgeway (Con’ Gene) Hardy Shankle (Con’ Hardy) and Albert Watley (Mr. Orb). I’m immensely proud to say that because I followed Papa almost everywhere he went and because these men were very often in his presence, each of them all 70 to 75 years my senior, allowed me within their circle without preamble. (Con’ was a diminutive and colloquial form of the word Cousin used throughout the Southern United States).
Decades would have passed when I, considering some of their conversations, realized they had spoken “between the lines” or talked “over my head” when matters they considered too strong for my ears were discussed. How I still love those old men. How I value the lessons they taught me not so much by design but by example. Except for the place underneath Papa’s shirt during a Thunderstorm, no place felt more secure than in the present of those Giants of my childhood, with my Papa, Mr. Robert (Bob) Allen leading the pack.