EDITOR’S NOTE: Welcome to the A to Z Challenge, an exercise in self-flagellation we bloggers inflict upon ourselves to teach us discipline as writers and to build audience. During the month of April, I’ll be posting 26 times, once for every letter in the alphabet. Looking on the bright side, we can each be thankful this is an English language exercise and not Khmer, the language of Cambodia, which sets the world record with a 74-character alphabet! After some misgivings, I’ve decided to proceed with my initial idea of blogging about the special people in my life whose names begin with the appropriate letter. There will be difficulties, like having more than one special person whose names begin with the same letter, forcing me to choose. And then there are those letters — O, Q and X among them — where no name springs readily to mind. What will I do then? We’ll have to wait and see!
P is for Pawpaw
In a dresser-top box designed to hold all the cufflinks, tie tacks, rings and other jewelry I don’t possess rests one of my most-prized possessions. It has a segmented body made from hard plastic and a green cord. Its exact purpose in life is unclear, and it’s utterly worthless to all but two people on this planet.
The Minna-man — for such is his name — might have been a toy, or perhaps a key fob, but in discussing him with my sister, she had the best answer when she said, “The Minna-man is just something that IS.”
In my essay on B, I discussed objects or gifts that take on talismanic importance. The Minna-man is one such talisman, and the reason he’s so precious to me and my sister is because of his association with a most-revered man in our lives, our Pawpaw.
To say someone is revered is a bold statement, but that’s how we feel about our maternal grandfather, who would bring the Minna-man out of hiding whenever we visited.
When you revere someone, you can dash off a long list of their admirable qualities, and while I can make such a list about my Pawpaw, it wasn’t his qualities, per se, that made him so special. Pawpaw was the grandfather I wish I could be, but if you were to ask me what Pawpaw did that made him so great, I’d be hard-pressed to put it into words.
Like the Minna-man, Pawpaw just IS, even though he’s been dead since 1980.
I can easily describe what he was: His name was Alvin, and he was a blue-collar artist, or perhaps a magician. A carpenter by trade, he could do in 20 minutes with hand tools what a modern contractor couldn’t do in three hours using power equipment.
Several people in my family own intricately designed wooden table lamps that Pawpaw turned on a lathe, and I also have a wooden bowl that he made by the same process. He made twin rocking horses for me and my sister when we were children, and we passed them on to our own kids, and then to our grandchildren. I’ve written about it before, and it still makes me teary when I think about Evan and Lillian riding my old pony.
As a child, when I needed a drum for school, Pawpaw made one out of bent wood, canvas and part of an old steel grease can. When I needed a pair of geta — Japanese block sandals — for a school play, Pawpaw made them, too, from wooden blocks and a twisted pair of women’s nylons for the straps.
His artistry wasn’t confined to woodwork. Remember the old mantle clock I wrote about in my N essay? Well, when its mainspring broke recently, I took it to a professional repairman, and he told me about finding soldered pieces deep in the guts of the clock, which could only have been Pawpaw’s work. The repairman said the pieces shouldn’t have been soldered, but hey, money was tight for Pawpaw, and though he was no licensed repairman, he kept that clock ticking for god knows how many years before I finally broke the spring by winding it too tight.
Twice he helped me produce science projects — a wave generator and an aeolipile — that were beyond my ability alone, and that no ordinary carpenter could even spell, much less cobble together from piles of worthless scrap.
Pawpaw wasn’t the kind of grandfather who would get down on his hands and knees and play cars with me, but he just might make me a car, which would be better than anything I already had from a toy store.
But it wasn’t so much what Pawpaw did, but what he didn’t do that made me revere him.
Pawpaw once told me he’d teach me everything he knew about woodworking. Oh, how I wish now that I had accepted that offer, but I wasn’t interested, not then. But Pawpaw didn’t act disappointed or tell me I was making a mistake, he merely accepted my decision, and we moved on from there.
That’s it in a nutshell — Pawpaw accepted me for who I was. He kept just the right amount of distance, and subtly enhanced whatever I wanted to do. He was a keen observer, one who offered to teach me everything he knew, but when my interests led me elsewhere, he accepted my path without a hint of bitterness.
I remember my last conversation with him like it was yesterday. I was married by then, and was visiting Nana and Pawpaw at their house. By then he was sick with heart disease, and weakened by a devastating surgery to explore a spot on his lungs, which turned out to be nothing more than scarring from a childhood bout with pneumonia. For the first time, Pawpaw talked to me not as his grandson, but as an equal, two men — one young, one old — sharing a private moment.
“I’m just not worth a shit anymore,” Pawpaw said, sitting down heavily on a metal footlocker he kept on the edge of the driveway. “I’m so weak, I can’t do anything. Might as well stick a broom up my ass so I can at least sweep the driveway when I go back in the house.”
It was shocking. I’d never heard Pawpaw talk like that, but he was sending me a message, man to man, and the message was that he knew he would die, and soon.
That was 1980, a long time ago.
Today, when I hold the Minna-man, I ask questions an adult would ask: How did it get its name? Why were we so mesmerized by it when we were kids? What IS it, exactly? It’s the same with my Pawpaw, that blue-collar tradesman who was somehow greater than the sum of his parts. He, too, simply IS.
He had the magic, the Pawpaw Magic, but even he was wrong about one thing: There was never a day in his life that he wasn’t worth a shit.