Sunday, August 30, 2009

Why Grandpa Was a Sharecropper

This is a story passed along to me, filled with the frailties of our human condition. It seems important to tell such tales. If we only focus on a past through rose colored glasses, we miss the true human drama that our ancestors experienced that in many ways are exactly the sorts of things we encounter today.

First a note about my grandpa on my daddy's side. He was not a tall man, and mostly I remember him with his white hair, and the dark glass which covered one eye he had lost when he was young. I remember us sneaking into the bedroom when he was sleeping to stare at the empty socket where an eye once had been.

Grandpa had a fierce temper and would argue with a fence post. My mama was the same way, and they tell the story that everyone was walking on pins and needles over what would happen when the two first met. Well true to form, he snapped at her, and she snapped right back. What followed was a ferocious battle of pure stubbornness of epic proportions. Suddenly they both broke out laughing and were as close as any two people ever could be after that.

But this story is about a much younger grandpa, a man who did not get many breaks in life, spending much of his younger years as a share cropper trying to eke out an existence raising and picking cotton on shares with the landowner. How had he come to this place? The story began with his father, my great grandfather.

Grandpa Jimmy had been part of a large family as were most in those days. His daddy was fairly well to do, with real estate holdings in the Paris, Texas area. He loved my great grandma by all accounts, and all should have been well for him, but for a sometimes cruel fate. Great grandma took ill and died soon after. Grandpa was terribly lonely when a young woman in the area began to pay him some attention. The story I heard was that she was 16, which would be shocking now, but not so much back then. He was totally infatuated by her and soon they were married.

Now his new wife had her own family to worry about. Quietly and carefully she began transferring resources over to her family members. Then great grandpa died and a young grandpa Jimmy was on his own. Without education or resources, the only choice was sharecropping, and that is what he did. He later met grandma Ollie and they began raising their own large family not too long after.

One story of note I've always held onto. My grandma Ollie was generally a quiet woman. Most of my memories of her were of her insistence in her later years of not having anyone interrupt her when her soaps were on. Also of the great family gatherings where she and the women would be busy in the kitchen, the men sitting around the table swapping lies, and us kids crawling under the large dining table between legs, both chair and table legs, and the humans jabbering above us. It was our fortress or our getaway, depending on what the game called for. Then we all would gather around for a wonderful dinner, much of the produce raised in the garden and chickens slaughtered from the back yard.

Well there was a younger grandma too. On one occasion, they had been told to vacate the shack where they were living. Grandpa left to try to find work elsewhere. While he was gone, grandma heard a noise outside. A crew had arrived and informed her she had to get out that moment because they were going to tear the place down. She reminded them the boss had given them two weeks, but he was not interested in negotiating.

"Just a minute then," said grandma Ollie. She walked into the house. Out she came, a shotgun under her arm. "If you don't git out of here right now, I'm going to pepper you," she warned.

The crew leader's eyes got really big then. "We...we'll be back soon. With the sheriff!"

"Couple a days and I'll be gone anyhow. Just leave us be." As they told the story, her voice never raised, but was cool as a cucumber. Grandpa found another job and soon they were gone.

Later in life, grandpa Jimmy and my uncle Hilyard went into business together repairing shoes. We used to visit my grandparents about once a month or so. Then one day, grandpa went to the doctor because of severe headaches. It turned out to be brain cancer. They found it too late and he was going to die. I'll never forget those days. We visited him in the hospital, and then he was out for a time before going back to die. There was an old custom that I think really had value all its own. We all gathered, then he called us in, one at a time. This was not an ordinary visit. This was a ritual, one where he thought carefully what he wanted to pass on to each one of us.

My turn came. "Yes grandpa?"

"Come here and sit on the bed beside me." I walked over and sat down as he instructed. I was ten years old. "Won't be long, you'll be growing up and going to work."

I nodded.

"Your work is a piece of who you are. Take pride in the job, no matter what the job is. If you're working for a boss man, make him look good by the work you do. There's more rewards to work than just a paycheck." I thought he was done, but he motioned for me to hold on a moment. "You got some of the stubbornness of your mama. I like that." I grinned and so did he, then he motioned me to send the next one in.

When he died, we all took our turn sitting up with the body. It's an eerie feeling sitting in a mortuary late at night with a body all alone. But there I was, ten years old, doing my duty. The casket was open and most today would be worried what it would do to the child. But I'd seen my other grandpa and slept in the room adjacent where I could see his body stretched out on a kitchen table when I was five, so this was small stuff. I remember the drive to the cemetery, then all of us gathered around.

At that young age, death was still something uncommon. I'm much older now. Death is no longer such a stranger. So many since have died. Aunts, uncles, cousins friends, my parents, my soul mate. From each I've learned and grown however. I remembered grandpa's advice. It served me well in my working years. Seems it really was good advice.

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