I rode, as a passenger, by the little white stone cottage today. There were people sitting on the porch in those white, wooden rocking chairs; but papaw was not there. He has not been there for a few months now; but every time I go by that cozy little dwelling I look. I look longingly, and I feel a loss that was never really mine to feel in the first place. No one waved to acknowledge me, or even noticed that I was in the vehicle. No one sitting there in the fading light of the day had any idea of the loss that overcomes me when I see that white wooden chair with the green cushion sitting there unoccupied. I suppose it is still too soon for anyone to be sitting in his place. How do you adopt someone into your heart that you do not know, have never spoken to, or have never actually met? It can be done. Yes. It has been done. The funny thing is that I still do not even know his name. He will forever be known in my heart as “papaw.”
The essence of this “relationship” has more to do with my dad and the empty space that was left in my heart at his passing, over seventeen years ago. I understand that all little girls do not have the kind of relationship with their dads that I was blessed to have with mine. We were close and I was his girl. My dad was a gentle giant. He towered at six feet, six inches tall, but had a heart that was so tender. He also, the same as me, was a person of few words. It would drive my mom crazy sometimes that he and I could sit companionably in a room for hours on end without engaging in more than a few words. Who needs words when your hearts are in sync?
My dad was born April 18, 1931, in a little, bitty place named Black Berry City, Kentucky, and ended up spending his early years across the river and over the mountain in south-western West Virginia. This region was known as “The Heart of the Billion Dollar Coal Field.” By the mid-1940’s there were not a lot of opportunities available for young men in this region, outside of the deep, dark caverns of coal, or fleeing toward the big city factory jobs that were seducing southerners northward during that era. My dad chose another option, to enlist in the military. His choice was the United States Air Force. He spent his time “in the service” as it was known, with a tour in Korea during the Korean war. He then came back to little ole Mingo County, West Virginia and met, fell in love and married a curly haired, blue eyed girl who is my mom!
The family grew first with a son, then their only daughter (me, of course,) followed by two more sons. We lived in a small house on my great-grandparent’s farm until I was seventeen. By that time, my dad had gotten a job in Kentucky and was working about three hours away from us. My mom made the decision that the split living situation was not going to work. So the whole gang packed our bags and headed west….well, a little bit west anyhow. It was an interesting move, as I was just starting my senior year of high school. You would think it would not be easy to make friends quickly, being the new kid at the last minute and all; but God orchestrated my placement and put me with just the right home room group. Within that last year of high school, I had my first lesson in stepping out of my comfort zone, and I made lifelong friends that I am still in touch with even today (nearly 40 years later!) My mom likes to say that we became a family in that little pink farm house in eastern Kentucky – out in the middle of no where! That “middle of nowhere” living arrangement only lasted a year or so and then my mom decided enough was enough. She found us a place in town, closer to civilization anyhow! We lived in that little town for another year or so and then came the big move to Tennessee. Tennessee was where the family finished growing up and my dad finished his working career. Tennessee is where they remained; it had become home.
After my dad retired, my parents bought a little white, three bedroom rancher with black shutters in a quiet neighborhood. I was working in Washington DC at the time they made this final home purchase. I spent a couple of years in the big city and then came home to Tennessee. It ended up that I was able to purchase the house right next door to my parents. This came with definite perks. Of course there were the free dinners most evenings, and the pleasure of spending time with my family. Another perk came in the form of one of my dad’s favorite things – being outside in the bright, warm sunshine and working in the yard. He took care of his lawn and mine. Actually, he managed to take care of ours plus the elderly lady next door, the elderly lady next door to her and the elderly lady across the street from us; and these were not small yards. It was the sweetest thing. He would work for hours, because he was a perfectionist, and though he did not want any payment, they would pay him five dollars. He would accept it and probably go to Hardees and get a couple of sausage biscuits and a cup of coffee, which he would then bring to his front porch and enjoy! He became the “go-to” guy for the little ladies on our street. On any given day, if he was not on the lake with his fishing buddies, he could be found outside taking care of someone’s lawn, or sitting on the porch of one of these sweet little old ladies whittling the day away in conversation with a cup of coffee in hand. It was not unusual for my mom to come home for lunch and find a note saying that he was gone to either take one of them to the bank, or to the grocery store, or even to visit family if the need arose. He was someone that was “there” and could be counted on for them. He became quite the social butterfly within our little neighborhood. (And you would just HAVE to know my dad to understand HOW hilarious that actually was!)
The next biggest thing that shaped how my dad spent his retirement days was another curly haired, blue-eyed girlie. He took one look at his first granddaughter and was forever lost to her. He spent many, many hours giving her what ever her heart desired. I believe, when she came into his life was when he finally learned to love absolutely. Then four years later a tiny, (really, really) tiny bundle of delight, in the form of another granddaughter was added to his heart. She did not live as close, so he did not get as much “spoiling” time as he would have wanted; but he would sneak up that valley every chance he got! He loved them both boundlessly, more than he had ever loved before. Ah yes, he found the loves of his life and was completely smitten by both of them.
Shortly after his second granddaughter was born, he was diagnosed with lung cancer. He was a pretty tough cookie. He waged a strong battle, and sometimes I even thought he was going to beat it. But he didn’t. During the first part of his illness he got fussed at a lot for continuing to picking up that ugly thing called cigarette. He would always go out on the porch to smoke, spending hours sitting on the porch, just watching the traffic go by. Toward the end, we didn’t even fuss at him about that any longer. One thing we were able to find some humor in was how seriously worried he had been about the “Y2K” destruction that was predicted as the year 1999 was to turn over to 2000. Well, he nipped that in the bud as he left this world on December 29, 1999. My sister-in-law and I were with him. I was holding his hand, tears streaming and telling him that it was OK to let go of this world and go on and how very much we loved him. It was not long until he took that last deep, struggling breath and passed on to new life. It hurt, but he was ready. He was no longer suffering. At the funeral home, when I saw him, the thing that will be forever etched in my mind and on my heart was that his hand – that I had been holding – was still curved as if it were still holding onto mine. Yes, he is missed…greatly missed.
But it is true that the world does not stop at our deep loss and life does go on.
So then, a few years after my dad’s passing, I was driving on a road that I traveled most every day This particular day I happened to notice this white, stone house that was graced with a front porch that looked like it was made for settin’, (which is southern slang for lazy days of iced tea and sunshine spent with family and friends just hanging out on the front porch.) There were three white rocking chairs and one stationary, white wooden chair with a green cushion. There, seated in that wooden chair, perched atop that green cushion, crouched forward with a cigarette in hand, was a thin, dark-haired, older man. Just something in the way he was sitting there, the way he held his body, something in his presence, just something, caused me to catch my breath. The moment instantly brought my dad to mind and the many times I saw him sitting on the porch in the exact same position. In an instant he reminded me so much of my dad that I could almost feel him close to me. So day-by-day, as I would drive by the little white house I often looked to see if he was sitting there. Most days he was there, sometimes surrounded by family and friends and grandchildren. That porch looked to be a busy, happy place.
As off the wall as it sounds, I started becoming attached to this person, to this busy, happy porch. I would find myself driving a little slower so I could see if he was sitting there. Then at some point my heart started calling him papaw. I got brave enough one day to lift my hand and wave at him. (Heck, I might as well. He could probably tell by this time that I was stalking him anyhow!) He waved back! Thus started our hand-wave relationship. Oh my goodness, I’d have some of the best conversations with papaw – in my head – after the cursory wave. (They were mostly about the weather and why in the world he was sitting out there in the freezing cold or the insane heat.) I think there is a small possibility that he might have gotten to know me a little bit, sort of , maybe. There was the time after I’d gotten a different car that I think he even recognized me first (possibly) and he did the papaw wave before I did! Yes, as insane as it sounds, all my papaws were gone and I became very attached to my adopted “papaw.”
Then toward the end of last year, I noticed that papaw was not sitting on the porch quite as much. Of course, I wasn’t driving so I would not be on that road as often. Even so, papaw sightings became very infrequent. I was concerned. I missed him. I wondered about him. I worried about him. I worried that he might be sick. He was pale and thin (and that, too, reminded me of my dad,) and I just knew that something was wrong. Then finally, a few months ago, he did not come back to the front porch, at all. I found out that he had passed on to his new life also. Sad. I miss him. I miss the reminder that he always brought to me of my dad. I felt great loss in his passing. Even though I never spoke to him, there was a closeness that I felt with our little “car-to-porch wave” relationship. I think I also miss the feeling of having another human to care about in this world, even if they were oblivious to that caring.
So, no, I won’t see papaw on the porch any more. I see the empty chair. I see the green cushion. I see the seasons change and family and friends spending time on that front porch. I have not developed a relationship with any of those other “porch people.” I don’t even know them well enough to let them know that I feel their loss. Their loss is so much more than mine, but I do feel loss. In that loss I do see hope though; and I pray that they see the same hope. In my sentimental mind, I see him spending time with my dad somewhere beyond, settin‘ on a great big ole white-washed front porch, watching the world pass by, talking about working in the yard, fishing adventures and grandbabies, and looking forward to the time when we will all be together again.
So we’re not giving up. How could we! Even though on the outside it often looks like things are falling apart on us, on the inside, where God is making new life, not a day goes by without his unfolding grace. These hard times are small potatoes compared to the coming good times, the lavish celebration prepared for us. There’s far more here than meets the eye. The things we see now are here today, gone tomorrow. But the things we can’t see now will last forever. ~2 Corinthians 4:17-18 (The Message)