— Author Unknown
Whoever coined the phrase “angels on earth” must have been writing about grandparents.
Mine weren’t wearing wings during their time in this old world, but I know they do now. Both grandmothers earned their tools of flight from long decades of raising kids, farming, never missing the church doin’s, living blue-collar days, loving slow family nights and doing what grandmas do best — loving their grandchildren.
I’m pretty sure the two grandpas of my boyhood are doing some fancy cloud-hopping as well, but fitting them with wings was most likely one of Peter’s — or whoever runs the wing warehouse — most challenging heavenly chores. It was probably the first time in saint history that somebody north of the stratosphere slapped his, or her, forehead like in a V-8 commercial and asked rhetorically, “What am I doing up here? Don’t these old geezers understand the clout behind a pair of wings?”
Considering the alternative, I’m fairly certain it’s not a question that gets asked very often ... in spite of incoming grumpy old grandpas whose hearts melt for only two causes — their grandmas of choice and their flocks of grandkids.
I lost all four grandparents as a young man, not far removed from college. Two were lost to cancer, one to complications from diabetes and a stroke, and another who was just “... wore out.” That was my dad’s description of the passing of his father and my grandfather, Grady F. Norton of Faulkner, Miss. Dad called me late one night at the college dorm three hours away to report the news. It was the middle of exam week and he knew I wouldn’t be able to attend the funeral, but like all good fathers he wanted to be the one to tell me.
In my boyhood, I was not as close to Granddaddy Norton as I was Papaw J.D. Denson of Booneville, Miss. But Granddaddy helped to raise me so the memories I hold dear. With Granddaddy, it was a tough love, but a love nonetheless.
Being the youngest of three kids, my elder sister and brother were already well into school before I stepped foot for the first time onto one of those big yellow buses as a budding first-grader. Back then, we didn’t have kindergarten, pre-school or even diaper-dandy day cares; at least, not in the rural lands of north Mississippi in the late ‘50s. In those days, the youngest was left with babysitters or willing grandparents while the parents worked and the siblings went to school.
Granddaddy and Grandmother Norton were my school-season caregivers by day because they lived right next to us; or more accurately, our aged and rusting tin-roof house stood on their farm property. Granddaddy owned the house and we lived there rent-free in exchange for my Dad, brother and me helping tend the farm.
That’s where I learned agrarian life — planting, chopping (weeding) and harvesting the gardens and fields, driving a tractor, hauling hay, picking cotton, feeding the chickens, slopping the hogs, milking the cows (that’s a future column unto itself), carrying buckets of fresh milk from the barn to the house, shucking corn, helping Mom and Grandmother can vegetables, collecting eggs from the hen house, herding cows on foot from the bottom lands, killing snakes, cutting firewood and helping with the butchering of pigs and chickens. We butchered beef as well, but that was on another farm on the Denson side of the family.
I called Granddaddy’s and Grandmother’s a “tough love,” not in the sense that they were mean, but strict. They were farmers who lived a farm life. They read their Bibles, said their prayers and attended church regularly. They worked hard Monday through Saturday on the farm, but the Sabbath was their day of rest. They hosted potluck Sunday dinners after church almost every week. Theirs was an old-time lifestyle that demanded discipline, hard work, long nights of sleep, and lots of blisters and sore muscles.
My chores were varied depending on the need of the day.
Many mornings and afternoons I helped Grandmother churn butter until my arms ached so badly she’d have to take over. I don’t remember how long we churned. It seemed like hours.
Other days Granddaddy would take me with him on the tractor and wagon to mend barbed-wire fences, repair rickety old wooden bridges that spanned wide creeks to connect fields or pastures, and sometimes we’d collect pecans or walnuts from the lower forty for shelling back at the house. On a farm, rest came at night and supper was a prelude to sleep.
It comes with great irony that I was closer to Papaw Denson than Granddaddy Norton. You’d think just the opposite. I saw Granddaddy every day. I visited Papaw every few months. But maybe that was the key. Absence made the heart grow fonder.
It doesn’t really matter. Both were heroes in my eyes and legends deep within my heart. Yet on this National Grandparents Day, it is memories of Granddaddy that take me back to a simpler life, a slower pace and an innocent time.
Maybe that’s just what we do when we get older. We think about golden days and younger years.
Happy Grandparents Day ... Granddaddy and Grandmother Norton, and Papaw and Mamaw Denson. Mortality has kept us apart, but your memories still warm my heart.