I love Autumn. I love October. Leaves are changing, the spooky nature of the world is being celebrated, the weather is cooling off and nights are growing long. But it’s hard to believe that it has been 13 years since my grandfather passed away.
As happy as the month makes me, October 3 is one of the hardest days of the year for me. October 3 was my grandfather’s birthday. For 13 years I’ve woken up knowing what day it is and knowing that I won’t be able to tell him to enjoy the day, or tell him how much he means to me. My grandfather was the biggest male role model I had growing up. From the time I was a little kid I can remember staying with my grandparents and knowing, if I didn’t wake up as he was leaving (or if he didn’t take me with him) that he would be gone fishing until at least breakfast time – closer to noon if he was having good luck. When he came in and ate he would immediately go outside and spend hours prepping or taking care of his garden, often while I “helped.”
The man wore hats and flannel nearly every day of his life, his white hair often sticking out below the back just a little, protecting the lightest part of his dark skin, the Native American blood in him more obvious than ever at the end of a nice long summer. In the winter he wouldn’t shave, a habit left over from the days he farmed for a living, knowing the best trick to keep the winter wind from biting too much was to keep as much body heat in as possible. I can still remember him teasing me if I got a haircut during the winter months, telling me I’d freeze if I wasn’t careful.
He and my grandmother raised their 3 children on a farm-hand’s wages, moving where the work took them and providing what they could for their kids. Retirement was kinder to him, my grandmother working when he was no longer able. He wasn’t a shirker by any means, working through at least one heart attack without stopping, only finding out he’d had it later on. Even after he stopped working for a living, he farmed and fished nearly every day of his life. Only the most extreme heat or cold could keep him from the water most of the time, and he always produced enough crop to feed most of the family – even just working out of his own backyard.
He saw the world much differently than others, in more ways than one. Being blind in one eye, he had to learn to do everything in his own way, but it never slowed him down. He could fix most things wrong with the family vehicles, could do basic home repair – and he could tie a hook on a fishing line as fast as anyone I’ve ever seen. He also wasn’t much for what he called ‘putting on airs.’ You are who you are, and there’s no reason to hide it. That’s one of many lessons from him I’ll never forget. From the time my grandfather opened his mouth until he closed it he was as real with you as anyone in the world, never pretending to be something he wasn’t. He loved good jokes, and loved to laugh – but he hated nonsense.
I can remember the sound of his laugh even now as I told him my lame jokes, and I remember how quickly that laughter dried up whenever someone turned on a goofy 90’s Jim Carrey movie. If he didn’t like something he made it obvious, and if he didn’t want to be somewhere he left. It was always easy to tell when he didn’t want to be around someone, because he wouldn’t. He wouldn’t be rude to them, but if someone came in a room that he didn’t want to be around he would silently stand and leave. I think he realized that life is too short to waste it doing things that don’t make you happy. Of course, I like to think he had a lot of life’s answers tucked away in his hat somewhere, so maybe I’m putting a philosophical spin where one wasn’t intended.
I could write about my memories of him and tell stories of how, as I got older, my grandfather would talk on the phone with me for hours sometimes, even though we just lived across town from each other – but when we went fishing together the talking was minimal and hushed, so as not to scare the fish away.Of his grandchildren I think I was the only one that had the connection with him I did. We had our understandings and we liked many of the same things. We could sit in a room together for hours without uttering a word and could say all we needed to say in a moment.
I could tell any number of stories of how he was so selfless that he often went without in his own ways, wearing his clothes until they were threadbare and falling apart before he would worry about trying to buy a replacement. I live for hours in these memories sometimes, wishing for just one more day, one more hour to talk to him. Granted, I understand he wasn’t perfect. He smoked, he drank, he ate food that clogged his arteries and he lived life in an antiquated fashion. He was very much a product of his generation. But I think I would be the only one who would get the full effect of all of these stories and memories.
My grandfather would have been 76 years old today. So much has changed over the last 13 years. The world is nothing like it was when he left it. Technology has taken over, racism has become breaking news again, and everywhere we look there is a fear of bombs falling. I know none of these things would have changed him, though. He wouldn’t own a cellphone, and he certainly wouldn’t pay attention to things like vegan diets and low-carb foods. If there was ever a constant in my life, it would still be Calbert Mathews. He would get up at the crack of dawn and make coffee, watch a few minutes of the local news (I’d love to hear his opinion on his favorite weatherman retiring) and would hit the river bank or lakeside. Like clockwork he’d spend his afternoons weeding, tending the garden and resting on the porch until a little after sunset. I miss knowing that if I wanted to find him, there were usually only half a dozen places I’d have to look.
I often wonder, though, what he would think of me. He wasn’t one to talk about the future much, so I can’t be sure what he had in mind for me as I grew up. I chose a very different path than he did as I went on in life, picking books over farming equipment and writing over being a full time farmer. He always encouraged me in my reading, though. He maintained an interest in my grades and never seemed to mind if I did want to pick up a novel instead of weed the garden or fish. I had not made the decision to be a writer before his death, though. I would definitely like to have gotten his opinion on that. I wish I would have been able to see his face at my high school and college graduations- although I’m sure he would have ducked out and avoided the crowd after seeing me walk across the stage for each one. I wish I could have been able to hear his reaction when I told him I got my first post-college job or hear his frustrations that his house was just outside of the delivery range of the newspaper I worked at later on.
I’d give nearly anything to be able to pick up the phone and tell him that I still look up to him to this day. That his hard-working nature rubbed off on me, whether it is in a different field or not. That I strive to be myself as openly as possible and that I don’t ‘put on airs’ to make people think I’m someone I’m not. I like to think that he would be proud of the man I’ve become, the way I’ve handled myself and my life through thick and thin. I know one day I’ll see him in Heaven, and I look forward to seeing what he has to say about everything we never got to talk about. Until then, I have my memories, I have my mementos, and I have the strong will and morals that he provided me with – whether he knew it or not.
Happy birthday, Papaw. I love you and I miss you every day. I’ll see you again on God’s great golden shore and we’ll go fishing, or maybe just take a walk and catch up. It will be a glad reunion day.