POST 14: Grandpa Roby

Growing up living next door to my grandparents was a clear advantage over living in the care of Bud and Frances alone. Bud struggled to find and keep employment, usually only getting work for a few weeks in the summer to crop tobacco. Frances remained distant and mysterious, leaving us at the whim of a pleasure; preferring the company of strange men and dark motel rooms to the company of her own children. Grandpa and grandma were constants – a source of steady pleasure in a hostile and ever changing world.

Grandpa was by far the more pleasurable of the two. He was a hard worker and dedicated his family. I can recall one time when Frances had left us (Again.) only to return a few weeks later anticipating a warm and open welcome, which she received from an eager and foolish Bud. Grandpa Roby on the other hand was not as happy about it. In a fit of disgust he chased Frances around the backyard yelling at her, "How you gon' leave these kids and then just up and come back?! You are the sorriest piece a trash I ever saw! If you EVER leave these young'uns again I'll make sure you don' come back no more!" I was torn by this never-before-seen display of anger and frustration by my grandfather. On one hand I was upset he would speak to my mother like that, but mostly I was going "YEAH!" on the inside cause it was the first time I had ever heard anybody tell her what she was doing to us was wrong. I loved him for that.
Grandpa was strong and steady, patient and kind. He took time to show me the ropes in taking care of his birds and taught me to drive his truck when we took the trash off to the dumpster. Grandma was less patient and kind than grandpa. Don't get me wrong – she was okay – but no one could match grandpa. No one ever has.
Grandma's heart was in the right place, even if her attitude wasn't always. She was never intentionally unkind or mean-spirited; being gruff was just kind of her way. She wasn't the overly affectionate, nurturing type of grandma. Religion was her pious duty and she was too quick to point out the flaws and sinful nature in everyone and utterly convinced that almost all people go to hell. Most disturbing was her belief that my grandpa might be one of those, which in my opinion would be impossible.
On a positive note, grandma was an excellent cook. Sundays after church always ended in the same way when I was a child – lunch at grandma's house with fried chicken, rice and gravy, mustard potato salad, and on rare occasions a delectable chocolate eclair. Grandma made everything from scratch. I have lovable memories of sitting at the kitchen table watching her use her old metal flour sifter, mixing flour and lard to make biscuits. She canned her own beans. She froze her own corn. Instant mashed potatoes never made it past the doorway of her kitchen.
Grandma Pauline sang church hymns to me in the evenings before I went home and I loved for her to tell me stories about when she was a little girl. Grandma was born in 1918 and I found it fascinating to listen to her talk about a world before T.V.; before a car was in every garage; when pictures only came in black and white. And she was a good story teller too. Not an especially good singer, but a good story teller.
My grandmother did her part, in a small way, to try to keep my soul on the right path. Attending church was never optional and I parked my rear beside her on Sunday mornings during the sermon; Sunday nights during the Fifth Sunday Night Gospel Sing; and Wednesday evenings for prayer meeting. Of course, there was also the mandatory Vacation Bible School in the summers (the best part of the whole church deal.) and the annual Christmas program. I think grandma saw it as her Christian duty to try and instill in me good ol' values, and she took this business very seriously.
It's funny how two people can take two different approaches at saving the same soul, both with the best of intentions. Grandma's approach was Church-Church-Church and she displayed impatience and irritation with the world at large. Grandpa displayed compassion mixed with firm but fair discipline, though the matter of church never passed his lips. He only darkened the doors of a steeple topped building for the rare funeral or wedding (and then it was selective), but I always had this notion that he was a deeply spiritual person. No one can be that good and not believe in something.
One of the best ways to sum up the differences between grandma and grandpa is this: grandma nurtured my growing body; grandpa nurtured my dying spirit. Which is the harder to do? You can decide. Perhaps you think grandma's persistence that we attend church was an attempt at soul nurturing. But honestly I question her motivations. In my heart I think she was like a lot of people who embrace the idea of faith but only ever stick their toes in the water. And was perhaps like people from every faith sect who can sometimes get so caught up in following the letter of the law that they forget about following the spirit of the law. And I guess you can decide which of those is more important, too.
Grandma was a good person and a type of mother figure to me, but grandpa wasn't just a "type" of father figure – He was father, friend, companion, teacher, nurturer, comedian, and a joy to know. Just being in his presence was a gift, even in bird pens that reeked of bird doo-doo.
Grandpa Roby was also a man of impeccable habit. He and my grandma shared separate bedrooms and his room was always tidy and had the pleasant smell of Old Spice and after shave. His room was hallowed ground and there were actually only a few times I was allowed to go in it. You see, grandpa kept guns (shotguns and rifles) in his room and he wanted to make sure that we stayed away from them (and for good reasons which you'll learn about in the future). But on the rare occasions that I was given permission to cross that threshold, I was greeted with pleasant smells and many times cookies or some kind of candy. He kept a steady supply of glass bottle Cokes in the laundry room refrigerator. A few times I tried to sneak and take one without his knowing but that rascal could always catch me when I was up to something.
Every day for as far back as I can remember grandpa got up at six o'clock in the morning, drank a cup of black coffee and then indulged in a juicy plug of Red Man tobacco followed by feeding the birds. Then he came inside and got his bath and dressed for the day in the same outfit – a blue long sleeve buttoned shirt and khaki pants with a belt and a tobacco farmer's hat. Every day. The same clothes. He owned probably a dozen or so of those shirts and pants and it was a rare and almost newspaper worthy occasion that you saw him in anything else. Dressing for the day was followed by more coffee and tobacco. Next came lunch and an episode of The Prices Right and the twelve o'clock news. After this he piddled around in the yard doing this and that until late afternoon when he went out to feed the birds again until grandma called him in for supper. After supper Grandpa Roby picked his teeth at the dining table with a toothpick and then retired to the living room for his dose of the six o'clock evening news and Hee Haw or some other show of equal comedic and intellectual value. Of course he couldn't sleep until the ten o'clock evening news came on and then finally he went to bed. Every Thursday he went to the grocery with grandma; every other Friday he went to the barber shop and got a haircut. He life was nothing if not routine.
And so this is how our years passed: grandpa and me spending time together working with his birds; passing time in his old blue and white Ford pick-up that had decals of quail on both doors; talking on the front porch drinking sweet tea out of paper Dixie cups. My life with him was so ordinary. Sure, Bud and Frances were still a disaster. We were still dirt poor. The sexual abuse was still ongoing. I continued to struggle daily with depression and feelings of self-loathing. Life was hard, but when I was with Grandpa Roby all of those things seemed to pass from my mind and I loved him for that in ways I can't even try to tell you. It's true what they say: Love covers a multitude of sins.
Then one day in sixth grade, I came home from school and there was a strange car in our driveway. Grandma's health was in bad shape and she was in the hospital with a collapsed lung, so I assumed someone had come to see about her. When I got off the school bus I recognized it was an older lady from our church.
"Hey, Crystal and Buddy. Listen now - your grandpa was in an accident today and he's at the hospital. Y'all have to come home with me for a little while."
Where was Bud? What do you mean an accident?
Buddy and I mechanically loaded our things into Mrs. Huggins' old Buick and made the short drive to her house. We had never been there before and we only knew her in passing as she was fairly new to the community, but she tried to make us comfortable. She gave us a snack and then let us watch television for a little bit. But my heart and mind were racing.
I found her in the kitchen.
"Mrs. Huggins? How bad was my grandpa's accident? Do you know what happened?"
"Well, Sugar," Mrs. Huggins said in a caring and patient voice, "I don't really know every thin' to be honest. Bud called me about noon time and said Roby's been in a car accident and he had to go meet the ambulance at the hospital, but that's all I know right now."
"Is he going to be okay?" I thought by just asking the question aloud my heart would shatter. Losing him would be more than I could bear. Oh please say he's going to be okay. Please.
Nothing bad would happen; I knew it. He would be okay. He was so healthy. So wonderful. So energetic. Grandma was the one with health problems. She was the crabby one. She should be in trouble, not grandpa.
I was a ball of nervous anxiety and sadness. Just the thought of losing the love most precious to me was something I had never thought of. I never imagined that I would be sitting in a strange woman's house, eating her store bought cookies, and hoping with all of my beating heart that Mrs. Huggins was the biggest LIAR who ever lived.
The hours ticked by the slowest of any hours I have ever experienced. I looked at the clock every two minutes. I scrambled to the window at the sound of every passing car. I jumped with each ring of Mrs. Huggins' phone. I pestered her a number of times to please call the hospital or someone to find out what was going on. She assured me each time that Bud had promised he would call as soon as he knew something.
And so I waited.
I never prayed so much or pleaded with God as fiercely as I did those hours waiting to find out about grandpa. Maybe it was nothing. It could have been a minor thing. I convinced myself that it was so minor they just forgot to call and grandpa would be picking us up any minute.
Finally early in the evening, almost supper time, Mrs. Huggins got a call from the family. I stood beside her and tried to decipher from her expressions what was being said on the other line.
When she hung up, she called Buddy and me both in the kitchen.
"Well, now y'all know Grandpa Roby's been in an accident. It's pretty bad. He's in a coma and they have sent him to a hospital in Wilmington. Bud's gon' come get y'all in a little bit and take y'all back to the hospital with him. Go on and get your things ready."
I imagined my sweet, strong grandpa lying in a hospital bed, something he had never done a day in his life. I imagined noisy, plastic machines hooked up to him. I wondered if he was in pain. If he was sad. If he was alone.
When Bud and my Uncle M.S. finally came to get us they tried to sound as honest and cheery as possible, more for them than us. We all needed to believe that he was going to be okay. Grandpa was the glue of the family; the one whom everyone adored.
"We're gon' go by the house and get some clothes and head on over to the hospital. Your grandpa had a brain aneurysm today while he was drivin' and his truck got hit by a tractor-trailer. He's still in coma and it don' look too good right now."
Oh God.
I felt sick. I wanted to vomit. I wanted to scream. I wanted to punch something. I wanted to run. I wanted to turn back the clock and start the day over and stay home with him and tell him not to get in the truck. But all I could do was cry.
Tears ran down my cheeks in the car. Tears ran down my cheeks while I threw a few things in a grocery bag for an overnight stay at the hospital. I soon traded my hot tears for body numbing fear. I couldn't think straight. It was past supper time but I wasn't hungry.
When we finally walked into the lobby of the hospital the entire family was there. All of grandpa's children and grandchildren were gathered in a waiting room, luggage spread across chairs like everyone was intending to stay until… Until what? Until Grandpa came home? Until he didn't come home?
I think just the thought of losing him was more than any of us could stand. Used tissues littered the floor like tiny crumpled snowballs, and everyone was a mess like that day's events had really happened days and days ago. Just the very threat of losing such a precious person had brought everyone away from their homes, jobs, and responsibilities to rally around one another and be there to hold grandpa's hand. If love can save someone, there was enough love in that room to save a dozen people.
None of us slept that night, only mildly dozing here and there. The grownups were especially sweet to me. It was no secret that I was grandpa's favorite. Or at least I like to think of it that way. He and I had a special relationship that was evident to anyone and everyone. He was my best friend. The great love of my childhood.
His prognosis worsened with the sunrise. The fluid on grandpa's brain was not going down and he was not responding to any treatments. Each family member took turns going in to talk to him in hopes of rousing him from his deep, lonely sleep. The adults took him photos of his grandchildren. They talked to him about the birds. They told him he better get well or else.
Every half hour a new saddened face walked out of ICU with tears in their eyes and a red puffy face and you knew they had just been crying their heart out at the feet of the one they loved most in the world.
The rest of the day we waited. I watched cousin after cousin, uncle and aunt one after another make the long walk down that sterile and foreboding corridor towards grandpa's room in Intensive Care. I wanted to be with him. I needed to be with him. With tears in my already puffy and sleepy eyes, I approached my favorite aunt Mary Beth.
"Aunt Mary Beth? Can I go see him?"
She looked at me so tenderly. She knew I needed to be with him but she also knew that his condition was bleak. She was afraid it would scare me to see him so ill.
"No, baby. I don' think you should go in there." Then she took a deep breath as if to muster the courage to utter the hope of all our hearts, "You can see him as soon as he wakes up. Okay?" She managed a sweet smile but even I could see the fear that hid behind her sweet voice. I had it too.
Children are normally a handful in hospitals, bored and restless, but I was still and somber. All I could think about was Grandpa Roby. How could I watch TV? How could I play cards? Take a walk? Everything felt hollow. I managed to tuck myself away in a corner hidden behind a silk palm tree and opened a book, forcing myself to get lost in the pages of a story about people with cares worlds away from this moment. Every now and then I stopped my reading just long enough to gaze at those ominous aluminum doors dividing me from the man I loved most in this world. And waited.