by Bob Strother
I never saw my father until I was six years old, and then only briefly. My mother and I lived with her family following the divorce until she remarried about the time I turned seven. I didn’t miss having a father during those early years. Aside from the neighborhood kids whose families were intact, I had no frame of reference for what it was like to have a father around. The one man who was around was my Grandfather Kelly, whom I called Granddaddy. I suppose it was only natural under the circumstances for him to become my surrogate father and protector, a role he seemed to cherish and I took for granted.
That he sought to keep me from harm’s way and the emotional and physical bumps and bruises associated with everyday life must have come naturally to him, for his quilt of protection extended to all the members of his immediate brood. When his son and son-in-law were stationed in Europe and the Aleutian Islands during World War Two, my two aunts moved back in with my grandmother, grandfather, and another maiden aunt. Following my mother’s divorce, she moved back as well, with me to sweeten the deal.
I never once felt as though I were anything other than a member of our close-knit family. My mother assumed her maiden name after the divorce and, while our adult neighbors most likely understood the complexities of name changes associated with marriage and divorce, my peers did not. We lived in that house for several years, and from the time I was a toddler through the first grade I was known by my playmates as Bobby Kelly. I imagine Granddaddy never tried too hard to dissuade anyone from that assumption.
Each weekday morning, he drove my mother and three aunts to the bus stop so they would be able to get to work on time, and once I started school, I occupied the sixth and last seat in his 1937 Ford sedan. One morning the bus pulled away before the women could board. My mother ran after it, waving her arms, but broke the heel of her shoe and tumbled ungraciously to the concrete. Granddaddy lifted her, sobbing, from the street and carried her back to the car and then on to the house so my grandmother could tend her wounds. Afterward, he drove the rest of us he drove to our respective destinations. Also indelibly tattooed on my memory banks is the morning I couldn’t hold my water any longer and he let me pee on the floorboard of the car. To my knowledge, no one but he and I ever knew of this embarrassing but endearing event.
Another time, one of my aunts missed a job interview because the building’s elevator operator was nowhere to be found. Several minutes later, as he strolled laconically back to the elevator, a newspaper folded under one arm, my distraught aunt lashed out at him for making her late for her appointment. His response was that a man has to go to the toilet every once in a while. On hearing my aunt’s recollection of the conversation later that morning, my grandfather drove to the building and confronted the operator, making sure he understood that was no way to speak to a lady.
Granddaddy loved holidays and always made the most of them, especially for me. He bought me blue- and orange-dyed chicks for Easter, firecrackers and sparklers for the Fourth of July, and costumes for Halloween. His most lavish efforts went into Christmas—arrays of fresh fruits and nuts, licorice twists, and butterscotch hard candies wrapped in cellophane. Picking out the Christmas tree was typically a family affair, but for whatever reason, two weeks before the Christmas of 1950, it was just him and me. We traversed the tree lot together, appraising the various attributes of cedars, spruces and long- and short-needled pines, drinking hot apple cider and listening to carols on the lot owner’s radio.
I’m sure he had a good idea of what he wanted in a Christmas tree—he’d always been partial to cedars for their pungent scent—but when I spotted the pink snow-flocked pine my eyes must have given me away. I thought it was the most stunning tree I’d ever seen. I don’t know what Granddaddy thought, but the tree was tied to the top of the Ford when we pulled into the driveway.
The ladies of the house came out to greet us and were properly stunned and stricken mute by the sight. My grandmother, always gracious, eventually said, “I guess I don’t need to ask who picked out this tree.”
Granddaddy, mimicking the sales promotion jargon used with practically any product designed for kids my age at that time, jerked a thumb in my direction and replied, “He’ll be the first kid on his block to have one.”
* * *
My grandfather died four years later, at age sixty-two, on December 14th. It is the only year I can remember when we didn’t have a Christmas tree, and the holiday was never quite the same thereafter.
I wonder sometimes why it takes so long for us to fully appreciate the gifts provided us by others, especially our older family members. Did they know we appreciated them? Or were they denied that gratification? Is it our destiny to live so completely inside our own little universe that we recognize its enablers only when it’s too late to let them know?
I hope not.
I hope the reflection of that pink Christmas tree and the joy I felt that night shone bright enough in my eyes for my grandfather to see it, and that he experienced that same joy, and that the tree was only one of many times he felt my love for him even when I was too self-focused to tell him so. To think otherwise, I would live a life tinged with guilt and regret for things done and undone—things that would vanish only with the last thump of my time-worn heart.
A two-time Pushcart Prize nominee, award-winning author Bob Strother‘s work has been published internationally and adapted for film. Previous publications include a collection, Scattered, Smothered, and Covered, and the novels Shug’s Place, Burning Time, and A Fire To Be Kindled. He is also a contributing writer for Southern Writers Magazine.