Thirteen years. Today he’s been gone for thirteen years.
I remember digging potatoes from the cool, moist Louisiana silt on warm May afternoons, piling them up, gathering them into buckets. I remember cutting watermelons on the back porch on June evenings, hearing the rind crack open, the summery-sweet scent of the fruit rising thickly into the steamy air. I remember churning ice cream, cranking, cranking, in the hot July nights, the sour smell of sweat mingling with the smell of the ice and salt. Riding in a wagon with my grandmother and young cousins behind whatever horse or mule happened to be on the place at the time, with his first great-grandchild in my belly.
Thirteen years is just about a quarter of my life.
I think about when I was thirteen, with three younger siblings and a dad who was working far way. PawPaw was there, stopping by on Friday afternoons to bring fruit and snacks from the grocery store on his way home from work. I remember being twenty-six, twenty-seven. I was lost, crazy. He was still … there. Offering solace. Safety. Love. A place to stay.
And when I was forty-three, he went away.
This photo is blurry because I stole it from my cousin Kayla’s Facebook post and cropped it (that’s her oldest child’s hand PawPaw is holding).
There was nothing blurry about PawPaw.
Didn’t he live a vivid life? Didn’t he run, as a boy, barefoot through the piney woods of Beauregard Parish looking for mayhaws and muscadines, being stung by bees and bitten by snakes? Didn’t he crawl down into the well to retrieve the milk for his mother when she ran the boarding house for the loggers? Didn’t he set the mattress on fire in the jailhouse? Wasn’t he a prisoner of war–twice? And like any piney-woods boy deserving of the name, didn’t he escape the prison camps? Didn’t he come home to a young wife and children and a new baby he’d never met and didn’t he work in the shipyards, post war, hitch-hiking to work when his kids wrecked his car? Didn’t he raise peanuts and roast them for his kids to have as a treat?
Didn’t he till the poor soil, negotiating with the dust and the mud depending on the season, and plant potatoes and snap beans and tomatoes and squash and cucumbers? Didn’t he give most of it away when it was harvested? Didn’t he teach his grandkids how to make a fire in a wood stove?
Didn’t he take me in a rowboat, at thirty-five and newly pregnant with my third child, into the Bancroft slough, where he had roamed as a child?
Didn’t he love me?
Didn’t he welcome his grandchildren and great-grandchildren into the world with all his heart? Didn’t he jiggle them on his knee, singing his nonsense song, to amuse them and give their mothers a few minutes reprieve?
Didn’t he love each and every one of us, no matter what we were doing or where we were going, no matter if he approved or not?
Yes, he did. He loved us. All of us. No matter what.
I am one of the most fortunate and most blessed people ever to have lived, because of PawPaw. I know what it is to be loved unconditionally, because of him.
I will never forget him. I will never stop missing him. I will always keep trying to be like him.