I wrote this essay in 1999 as a freshman in college. I don’t remember what the assignment was or what made me choose to write about papa but I now cherish these words.
September 21, 1999
I could always depend on my Papa Lee when I was growing up. To him his grandkids were one of the most important things in his life. Whenever one of us kids wanted to go to the candy store, he was right there to take us. He was also willing to take us wherever he was going. All of us grandkids have spent many days sitting at the local café with him, standing right beside him at the auction, or picking blackberries up and down the old dirt road he and Granny lived on. His favorite thing to do with the last two of his grandkids was to take them to see the camels at Panther Valley Ranch.
Papa Lee was not a big man. He was short and skinny with hunched over shoulders that tended to run in our family. I also never saw him without his mustache and only recently have I noticed the small brown streak in his mustache from his many years of smoking cigarettes.
My very first memories of Papa Lee are of him sitting in his usual chair with his legs crossed like a woman’s. He was always drinking a glass of “Papa Tea” with one hand and smoking a cigarette with the other. He also always had a smile on his face. Especially if he had one of his grandkids snuggled up in his lap. To this day I can still count on walking into his house and seeing that very same sight.
Papa was very proud of all his grandkids but since I was the oldest he tended to point out the things I did most often. I can remember him standing in the doorway of the gym when I would be playing basketball.
“Rebound, Sissy,” I would hear him yell at me. “Get a little bit tougher! Knock her down if she is going to play like that!”
No matter where I was on the court I could hear him yelling. I would just look up and give him a smile. Papa always smiled back and kept on yelling. After the game I always went over and talked to him.
“This is my oldest,” he would say every time to the men standing around him.
“Hi, Papa, how do you think we played?” I always asked.
“You played good, though you need to get a lot meaner.”
I heard this every time I saw him. It made me feel really good whenever he made those comments. I knew that he cared and that he wanted me to play my best.
There has been only one time when I’ve ever seen any kind of sadness in Papa’s face. It was the day of his mama’s funeral. I saw Papa Lee after the service started. He was sitting in the front of the funeral home with his head bowed as if he was praying. At the end of the service he got up and walked to the coffin to see his mother for one last time. As he turned to walk out I saw his face. He looked as if he were about to cry. Seeing this look on Papa’s face made me cry. I did not cry because Granny Hamilton had died, I didn’t even know her that well. I cried because my Papa was sad.
After the service, everything was back to normal. I walked outside the funeral home and found my Papa, Dad, Dad’s brothers, and my cousins outside talking and joking around. It was as if nothing had happened. No one thought any more of the funeral or the look on Papa’s face. Instead, we went on being the family we were and before the day was over Papa had made plans to take the youngest of his grandkids to Panther Valley Ranch the very next day to see the camels.
As a grown woman, I see many things in this essay I would change. Some changes are strictly grammatical as this was written during my first semester of my freshman year and my writing was obviously that of a teenager. Mostly though I now see Papa through the eyes of a 42-year-old woman, with a bit more life experience, raising a family of my own. Many things have changed since I was 18 years old writing about a grandfather I adored, who I thought hung the moon.
In the last twenty-four years, I have watched my cousins grow up and watched Papa (or Pops as they called him) do the exact same things with them, standing on the sidelines (yelling from the stands), and supporting them in whatever they chose to do. I have seen him stand by our sides, smiling with that same mustache smile, as each of us has gotten married. I have seen that brown streak on his mustache disappear after he gave up smoking, which he replaced with pockets full of DumDum suckers. I have seen the pride and joy on his face as each of his many great-grandchildren has been born. I have seen the hurt and worry in his eyes when Granny was in a car accident that almost took her from us in 2005. And I have seen him go from a man who she always took care of to a man who took care of her when she couldn’t. I have seen his heart break as he watched her take her last breath and as he attempted to figure out what his life was without her by his side. And, I have watched him slowly fade away from us as time and heartbreak have taken their toll on his body and mind.
As a grown woman, I can now see the struggles he has gone through, I can see the burdens he likely carried as a husband and father, as a provider to his family. I can see the imperfect man he was through the stories I’ve heard many times but now understand from an adult perspective. But, I can also see the importance he placed on his family and the love he showed each of us. No, he wasn’t perfect, but he was the perfect grandfather for us.