(Author’s Note) : This article is written in honor of all those Grandparents who didn’t get to have as close a relationship with their Grandchildren as they would have liked. Also, for the Grandchildren who feel regrets that it is too late to know their Grandparent. As most of you know Grandparents can be a blessing and should be cherished when the opportunity arises.)
Running through the hills of Ashe County, digging through the black dirt in the woods, playing in the streams, I couldn’t imagine a more perfect place to live. It was even more perfect for me because I lived near to my Grandma. She was a good woman, who fried chicken, made dumplings, baked stack cakes and sugar cookies. All those were a big plus in a grandma. Grandma wasn’t a pushover, and if you did wrong she told you in her serious, firm voice. She spoiled us with her time, never bought us a toy every week, and we all adored her. I had nine Aunts and Uncles who could double for parents and a million cousins, some of who were like extra brothers and sisters. So I wasn’t lacking for family. My Grandpa in this family had died before I was even born, and I didn’t know about Grandpas.
I had a Grandpa on the other side of the family, but he lived about 50 miles away in a little place called Seven Mile Ford, Va. It took an hour to get there and it seemed we never made the trip often. There was no particular reason for not going to visit, just life was busy, sometimes vehicles were undependable or money was short. I was several years old before I remember a trip there, though I am sure that I had been before. What I remember most about the trip was the sickness. I found out I suffered from motion sickness and it was severe when we made a trip to Seven Mile Ford. An hours trip being sick and then another hour trying to get to feeling better after I got there. It just seemed like too much to go through to reach some people that were suppose to be your family and you didn’t even need a family.
I met my Grandpa and he wasn’t even my Grandpa, he was my Poppy. Everyone called him Poppy, all of his children and grandchildren. I protested that all my friends had grandpa’s, papaw’s pipaws, pa’s and many variations, but no one else had a Poppy. But that was what he wanted to be called and so I must call him that. In return, he would give you a nickname that he would call you, it might be a word, it might be a sound, it just seemed to be whatever came into his mind at the time. One day when looking at me, he called me Soggy and so from then on I was known by him as Soggy. I didn’t like being called Soggy, but apparently I had no choice in the matter.
It just all seemed so different from my Grandma’s and from home. I didn’t fit in, in this place even if it were only a short distance from home. The dirt was red clay, and the rocks all limestone. There were sink holes everywhere, which meant you might have a nice little pond to throw rocks in, but when you returned the pond was all dried up and only a sunken place in the land remained. There was limestone water, which tasted terrible to me, and sulfur springs which spewed yellow, foul smelling liquid out of the ground. But most of all there were snakes, or at least in my Mother’s mind there were snakes. She had memories of poisonous snakes biting her dogs when she was young and the dogs rolling in the mud trying to heal their wounds. I never actually saw a snake there, but I didn’t go out to look for one either.
The people seemed different too, even though they were suppose to be my kin. They were loud, they were colorful, they were plain spoken. They were all the things I was not. I was shy, a reluctant speaker and only wanted to blend with everyone else. I felt so uncomfortable around them, even though they did nothing bad to me, I just kept feeling the weight of not belonging.
Once when we went to visit, my mouth almost dropped open when I noticed brightly colored gates going into the yard. My aunt, who lived with poppy kept the over 200 year old house as nice as she could. At the time there was a white picket fence with iron gates. But on this visit those iron gates were “convict” orange, as I call the color orange that is the color of many suits worn by those in jail. The gates had large iron balls attached for a weight and even these were painted orange. To say it looked shocking, amidst all the pristine white is an understatement. My first thought was maybe poppy. Later when I saw Poppy, I asked if he had gotten his gates painted and he smiled a huge smile. “Yeah. I was walking to church and I kept seeing this can of paint setting there on the side of the road. Nobody seemed to be wanting it, so I told it, it could come home with me. Got my gates painted and it didn’t cost me a dime.” My Aunt didn’t talk so nice about the gates though.
Poppy loved bright colors though. He had horses for plowing and everyone gave him cow tails when they killed a beef. He dyed them all red. He had a daughter who worked in a buckle factory and got rhinestone, gold and silver buckles. He decorated the cow tails with the bright buckles and then hung them on his horses. If he was noticeable then all the better was Poppy’s way of thinking.
The differences in families always seemed to stand out to me. We just didn’t understand each other. Once we had poppy a birthday party at the lake. When we arrived at the party, part of the family had arrived and sat at a table, then another part of the family arrived and sat at another table. The two tables were too far apart to have a joint party, but neither side would give up and move closer to the other. Poppy became aggravated and threatened to “tear them damn tables up and throw them in the lake”. He stomped off and left the party. I heard some of his daughters say, “he probably went down to the beach to look at the women in their bikinis”. No, this wasn’t my grandma’s. Grandma never left her birthday party and she would give us a stern warning if we used that type of language in her presence.
That is one thing I learned about Poppy, if nothing else, he talked a lot, but seemed to have little action to go along with it. The things he would do were terrible and fierce and sometimes funny, but nothing ever became of them. All his children and grandchildren loved to laugh about his threat of “kicking them in the a** with both feet”. Along the same line, a man came from the local paper which published old time traditions. He wanted to speak to Poppy because Poppy plowed and cut hay with mules and old equipment. Poppy told the man he would like to be plowing at that time, but only had one mule. “I need another mule,” said poppy, “as trying to plow with one mule is like a one legged man going to an a** kicking.” My Aunt was mighty upset that now this man would publish poppy talking his bad language, but poppy wasn’t phased. “I didn’t do nothing,” he said. “A man come and asked questions and I answered him.” That was true. He was just being poppy. Poppy was always doing something outrageous, or saying something outrageous. Outrageous was just part of Poppy.
Poppy had a nickname among his children, W J Poison. They found him one day trying to paint his name on his mailbox. Poppy hadn’t attended school very much and he could read or write little. So instead of writing his name W J Robinson as it should be, he had written W J Poison. Whenever, he did or said something outrageous, then his children would say something like, “You never can tell what W J Poison will do” or “don’t mess with W J Poison”.
Not being educated in the conventional sense, didn’t ever seem to cause problems for Poppy though. Maybe he knew how to hide it well. He gave me a piece of advice once, the only piece of advice I had from him, and when thinking upon it later I think it may have been the whole key to poppy. Finding out I was bashful he said, “No that won’t do for you in this life Soggy. That won’t do at all. You got to be like the town cow. You got to take a bite of grass out of everybody’s yard. Let them know who you are and what you are doing there. Everybody will know you, if you are the town cow.” That was poppy alright. Everyone knew him. He didn’t live on the opinion of others. He talked the way he talked, he said what he had to say and he didn’t worry about what anyone else would say. Town cow or W J Poison, he stood up and let people know who he was and why he was there. He accepted himself, was comfortable with who he was and felt comfortable in any situation.
I have one last memory, the one that actually made me feel like I might be a granddaughter. As usual we had made a quick Sunday visit to see Poppy and I was extremely sick. It was decided that I would lay down in Poppy’s room and recover.
Poppy had a basket of peppermint candy on his dresser and peppermint candy was my favorite. On most visits I only got two pieces of candy because my mom would say, “No more candy”! after I had two pieces. As I begin to recover I got up and got a piece of candy. Lying there on the bed I thought about how nice it was to have candy whenever you wanted it. I sure would like to do that. I finally decided that maybe I would get a couple pieces of extra candy to take with me and enjoy at home. No one could see me going in and out the door because I was in the room. I got a couple pieces of candy and put them in the toe of my shoes since I had no pockets. I kept thinking and convincing myself to maybe have a few more pieces of candy.
Next thing I knew I had almost the whole basket of candy in the toe of my shoes. Putting me in that room was like putting the mouse in with the cheese it seemed. I rationalized that they had said I could have some candy, but no one said how much. It got time to go and no one had noticed, but we had a rough walk out through the meadow road. My feet were tender and the rock, thistle and rough places hurt them. My mom kept calling for me to, “put on your shoes.” But I would just shake my head no.
When I finally arrived at the car and went to place my shoes inside they turned upside down and all my candy spilled out in the floor board of the car. My mom saw that immediately. “No wonder you couldn’t put on your shoes. You stole all poppy’s candy.” I was so embarrassed and ashamed. I didn’t say much on the way home, but my mind kept going to the candy and what poppy would say. My parents gave me a stern lecture and I dreaded to hear what he would say. I didn’t know him all that well and he might just go over the edge. I really didn’t want to go back and see him.
It didn’t seem long until we went back to visit this time. I was nervous all the way there. I didn’t know what was waiting for me, but whatever it was I guess I deserved it. I entered the house and the Aunt made an ugly face at me. What was going to happen? I heard Poppy coming through the house and he marched right up to me. He had a kind of a silly little grin on his face and he handed me a paper bag. I opened the bag and it was peppermint candy for me. Every time I visited after that, I got a bag of peppermint candy. Later when I told mom how amazed I was, she told me a secret. Poppy liked candy as well as any kid did and she guessed he understood a little girl that had wanted candy so badly. Poppy had understood me and I don’t know if even Granny would have understood that. If we had of spent more time together I think we could have been the best of friends.
Time marched on and I had little time to spend with Poppy. I never heard his stories or about his childhood. I had only a few scattered memories here and there, which I admit were better than no memories at all. One day when dealing with my husband who had lost a package I had given him ten minutes before, I was surprised to hear my mouth saying, “and you don’t have any more sense than a milk cow…” I stopped and watched my husband roll his eyes and hide his grin. I had to smile too. I thought to myself, Poppy I didn’t know you well on this earth, but you are still here and with me. The older I get the more Poppy becomes a part of me and I of him. I guess on some level we came to understand each other after all.