He smoked Salem Lights cigarettes and drank Budweiser from a can that was wrapped in a white napkin. The napkin was an effort to trick the neighbors into thinking this was soda he was drinking barely past noon. He was an avid animal lover, practical joker, and bawdy story teller. And growing up with him both shaped and corrupted my beliefs in such a hopeless way that kept my Grandmother praying in church every Sunday.
I believe it is still possible, even on the heels of the year 2008, to believe in somebody, and I believe in my Grandfather.
He was the first to let me drive his car: A huge Chevy Impala that the insurance salesman in him called “the green moneymaking machine.” You could barely see his grinning face over the wheel as he eased down the street, belts screeching, on his way to or from the Piggly Wiggly. And he believed in shortcuts; often driving down the one way streets of Natchez the wrong way. When I pointed this out to him, he’d say “Well Brother, I’m only going one way.” To this day, when I sit at a red light or see a one-way sign, I’m tempted to go for it. If nothing else, I think of him and laugh, and wonder how he had such a clean driving record.
He taught me to believe in the importance of friends and neighbors in this life.
In true southern fashion, he’d tend the grill all day smoking a chicken or pork shoulder for barbeque if a friend of his was sick, and then we’d load up the lawnmower in the trunk of that Impala and cut their yard. He taught me how to cherish friends, often reminding me how lucky our family was to have so many wonderful people around us. I remember him reaching up to the bookshelf one day for the old Webster’s Dictionary, sitting my sister and me down, and reading aloud the definition of the word “friend.” I carry this memory with me always and never forget my best friends: those who know everything about me and, yet, still call on a daily basis.
He taught me how to pull off practical jokes. When the kids of the neighborhood got tired of hiding in the bushes with string, pulling an old bicycle tire tube across the road after dark, scaring the block into thinking it was a snake; my Grandmother found my Grandfather, a sixty year old man at the time, alone and crouched in the bushes, pulling the snake trick himself. She later found him rolling in laughter on the kitchen floor when the other men of the neighborhood formed a posse with shovels and machetes to go after the snake that was terrorizing the street.
A product of the Depression, he used to say, “I came into this world with nothing, and I’m leaving with nothing.” Not true. He left so much to so many. This I believe: Brother Ray Charles has soul, Jim Dickinson ain’t far behind, and Granddaddy’s in Heaven prank calling Jerry Falwell.