I called my grandfather “Papa” because that’s what my dad had always called him. Papa had a baldhead on which he usually wore an old red cap. His eyes were sparkling blue. I don’t think I ever saw him wear anything but dark blue overalls over a white t-shirt. I loved him and the highlights of my year were when I could stay with him.
Papa ran an old country store out of his house. It was just a block building that had a large front room for the store and a couple of bedrooms, a small kitchen and bathroom in the back. He lived alone as my grandmother, Mama Ida, died soon after I was born. She was part Cherokee. My favorite picture of her was taken when my mother was about six months pregnant with me. Mama Ida was small and had dark brown skin. Her hair was black and long with streaks of gray. She is standing just behind my mom in the picture. I have often looked into her dark eyes and wondered what she was thinking at that moment, if maybe it was of me. I wish I could have known her.
I did get to know Papa quite well. I loved being at his house. What kid wouldn’t want to stay in a store with a bunch of candy and other goodies all around? The store had a potbellied black heater in the middle. On top of it, especially during the winter, he kept a kettle of water simmering day and night, hissing and sending a column of steam to the ceiling. Sometimes it almost sounded like a song. One of my jobs was to keep it filled.
On the right side of the store as you walked inside was a long and rather high wooden counter. Papa had an ancient cash register resting on top of it at one end. The back of the counter was hollow and he kept supplies there for replenishing his stock on the shelves which lined the walls around the room. Also resting on the other end of the counter were large glass jars that had various kinds of candy in them. Once in a while he would let me pick one. One piece of candy from Papa’s store seemed to last all day!
Papa’s store was kind-of the gathering place for the community, especially the retired guys whose wives had chased them out of the house or who were taking a break from what they called the “honey do” list that they said it seemed to get longer and longer. A “honey do” list didn’t sound so bad to my young ears. I loved honey, especially on a biscuit. Of course, life, as it has a tendency to do, would later educate me about the dreaded “honey do” list.
Not far from the heater was an old stool with a square top. It had been painted black but had places where the paint had been rubbed down to the wood surface. Resting on top of it was a checkerboard that had some of the checkers missing, replaced with bottle caps. The checkerboard, too, was worn out, a fold in the middle barely holding the two sides of the board together. Around this stool those old escapees from the “honey do” list would sit, play checkers, complain about the government and price of just about everything and sip from small Coca-Cola bottles. Sometimes they would let me play a checker game with them. Papa, too. He was the best. I only won once and I’m pretty sure he let me win.
I loved being around all those odd assortment of characters who came to Papa’s store throughout the day. A favorite was Mr. White. Everyone called him “Old Man White,” but not me. That didn’t sound respectful coming from a kid. He probably wouldn’t have minded but to me he was always “Mr. White.” He was one of Papa’s best friends. He lived just a mile or two from the store down an old gravel road. His was one of the oldest families in the county. He came to the store so often that he was about as much a part of it as the counter or that old potbellied heater. But what I liked best about him was that he told great stories. Some of them were even true or partly true – so said Papa. Papa himself was also a good teller of tales. So was my father for that matter. So I guess I got my love of storytelling from them. One of these days I look forward to sitting around another heater in heavenly places and continuing the tales with them. I got a few more to share with them now and bet they do, too.
Papa didn’t have a television. He did have a huge radio sitting on a table in the corner but it didn’t work most of the time. So we entertained ourselves with stories. Looking back, there was something about that which was far more meaningful than all the technological gadgets we have now that take so much of our time and attention. Storytelling brought us together and made us feel closer. Funny how actually sitting and talking together still can do that. Of course, togetherness isn’t always great, as I was about to find out when I first met two of my cousins.