I have been putting this off. Every day since Pop died, I have thought about the fact that I haven’t written about it, and I have put it off another day. It has kept me up at night. Some nights it has almost made me sick. I know that it is normal to have some kind of delayed reaction to grief, and for grief to come to me in phases is normal. But I don’t think that is the problem.
Don’t Puppydog It.
That’s what Pop used to say to me when I was learning to hammer nails. Don’t Puppydog It. It meant that you needed to aim true, hit the nail on the head, not miss and hit the wood around the nail, causing indentations where the hammer head hit. A few indentations around the nail gives the appearance of a dog’s footprint. Don’t Puppydog it means “take pride in your work.” You didn’t want to Puppy Dog it when Pop was watching. You didn’t want to hear, “You’re puppydoggin’ it!” in an exasperated voice.
And I think the reason that I haven’t wanted to write this is that I don’t want to PuppyDog it. But I also know that fear of failure is almost always worse than the doing of that thing. So here goes.
I’ve written quite a lot about Pop here on Dogwood Girl.
I wrote about him and Matilda and their bonding and his strange depression-era ways. I wrote about him reading a post I wrote on his 90th birthday. My Mom printed it out so he could read it, and he thought it was his obituary. I wrote about my heavy-hearted drive down to Warner Robins the day before Pop died. And on the day that died, this is all I could muster.
But there is more to say. I loved Pop, and as a child, I probably respected him more than my other Grandparents. I think I thought he was perfect back then. Of course, we grow up, and we learn that people are not perfect and that sometimes the people who seem perfect are the ones that are trying the hardest to cover up that they aren’t perfect. Pop wasn’t perfect. He was vain and stingy. He desperately wanted people to like him, I see now, but most people just thought he was the nicest old man they had ever met. But he could be hardest on those closest to him. He would sometimes share with friends and neighbors what he never would have shared with his own family. In later years, when I had children (and the new perspective that children bring to life), I still vacillated between anger at his disapproval, his inability to show pride and approval to my father, his tight-fistedness, and forgiveness for his ways; After all, he had never had a mother and father to teach him about right and wrong and trusting others, and to demonstrate love. He had an Uncle who beat him, and an Aunt who surely loved him, but had a son of her own and two other nephews to care for also, in a time when women were surely not able to speak up about things like unfairness to an orphaned child taken into the family.
Words of kindness from my Grandfather carried more weight with my family than those from other folks. As a child, when I left my Grandparents’ house, my Grandfather would stand rigid when I threw my arms around him for a hug. I would hug him. He would uncomfortably pat me on the back or head. He would say, “Stay off Dope” instead of “I love you.” I still remember the first time he wrote “Love, Pops,” instead of just “Pops,” on a card.
There were good things, though – he was not all cold and thrifty. He and Grandma gave us Hope Chests. I think that these used to be for a girl to keep things she made or was given, to take with her when she got married: Linens, china, silver, etc. I am not sure, because all I ever kept in mine was junk from childhood – Dead flowers from high school boys, my diploma and cap and gown, my Varsity letter, adoption dolls and Madame Alexander dolls, class photos, costume jewelry, and the blue and white blanket my grandmother crocheted for me. Very little of this would actually be useful in a marriage, and I am sure Todd thanks his lucky stars that I brought this trunk full of junk to our holy union; Every man needs a wife who keeps her baby Snoopy stuffed animal from second grade, her childhood diary, and every note ever written to her by stupid schoolgirls from 7th through 10th grade.
One year, Pop gave us a doll case. It was a handmade, wooden case, painted blue, with quilted material inside in a floral pattern. Tiller has it now and it still spills out the Barbies of my childhood. (My sister and I still want to ditch the kids one Friday night, open a bottle of wine, and play Barbies.) Another gift was a girly gilt mirrored tray, with matching brush and hand mirror. I did not keep mine, but kind of wish I had, despite the fact that I can imagine exactly what Todd’s face would look like if I brought it into my house today.
One Christmas in Alpharetta, my sister and I got a Barbie Dream House. I remember Pop and Daddy trying to put the damn thing together, and I was telling them how to do that. I did that a lot. One of their favorite stories is of me, at about age five, telling them how they should cut down the fallen pine trees on our house and porch, after the 1978 ice storm. I think of that every time one of my children tries to direct me or Todd in a task today. Kids are funny – they really do think they know how to do everything!
My other memories of Grandma and Pop were mostly of their house or the Lake. We would be at the lake for a weekend and after breakfast on a Saturday morning, Grandma would get dressed to “Go to town.” This involved putting together a well-matched ensemble of pantsuit, fancy polyester dress shirt of some sort, with corresponding matching jewelry: A necklace, “earbobs,” and a pin (she said it kind of like “peon”) which was a brooch. She would put on her lipstick and her powder and then we girls (her and Lisa and Me and sometimes Mom) would go to the Milledgeville or Houston Mall, where we would walk around and look at stuff, usually in Belk’s. By the time we got home, i would be rarin’ to go outside and hang out with Dad and Pop.
In my mind’s eye, it is cool, maybe Fall. I am wearing a navy windbreaker, with Garanimals, probably the pants are plaid, and a solid red or blue ribbed turtleneck. I am pony-tailed, and wearing Zips. I am tagging along with my dad and Pop. I am maybe six. I am the Gofer. “Mouse, fetch that bowsaw,” Dad would say. Or Phillips screwdiver. Or awl. Move that sawhorse. Get that level. Hold this piece of wood. One time, I was holding wood while Pop sawed it. The saw skipped and caught me across the finger. I was bleeding. Pop told me to hold the wood while he finished cutting and then we would go in and get Grandma to look at it. That’s how Pop was sometimes – Unsympathetic. Cold. When I catch myself being this way with my kids, telling them to “suck it up,” I try to remember that it’s okay to teach your kids to be tough, and to stick things out, but not to be unfeeling about it.
But I loved being a kid and hanging out with them, and learning to mix cement, or measure wood, or build stairs. And sometimes, after we worked, we fished, and I remember learning to clean fish with him and Dad. Or we would walk around the yard, surveying our day’s work, and Pop would point out little things for me to do, like trimming a shrub, or digging up a stump, or deadheading something, or digging up potatoes. Pop never sat still. Even when he did sit, I can remember him sitting in the middle of the grass, pulling weeds, using a pocket knife to get the stubborn ones. He would always have a pocket-knife in his pocket, for pulling weeds, or cutting electrical tape, or sharpening a pencil, or paring a pear, or cutting up meat for the dog, or cleaning dirt out from under his nails. I have his old Case pocket-knife now, and I used it a few weeks after he died to cut a piece of carpet, and then I cried. That’s the only time I’ve cried over Pop. I was like that when both Grandmas died, too. I cried over Grandma Smith when I found bottles of Early Times in her closet at Mom and Dad’s house.
I used to love to walk around the yard with Pop, him pointing out the names of plants and shrubs and trees. I owe my love of growing things to Pop. I think of him, wearing his pants and long sleeve shirts even in the dead of Summer, every time I walk around and look at the things growing in my yard. I think of being in the yard at the lake one weekend during college, wearing his old flannel work shirt, and a pair of cut-off jeans with tights and Doc Martens. He laughed in a kids-these-days way, and shook his head and told me, “We never cut up our dungarees like that.” He eyed my boots. “Those look like sturdy brogans.”
Pop started slowing down a lot in the last ten years. He didn’t go to the lake anymore. He stopped saving bread for the birds. (He still saved leftovers mom and dad brought for him in styrofoam takeout containers on the stove. There was a learning curve for Todd and the kids, where they had to learn that if pop offered you food, you probably shouldn’t take it unless it was pre-packaged. Fried chicken on the stove could have been there for a week or more.) He got to where he would only eat certain things. Canned baked beans (cold), Vienna sausages from the Dollar Store, a cereal bar, homemade pimento cheese, and some diet soda. (Generic store brand, of course, like Big K.) I am not kidding – he almost lived off this stuff for the last five years of his life.
He also got to where he would tell the same stories, over and over. Even todd could recite them: When forgetful, he would say that he “needed to download new software.” He thought it was funny when I yawned and made a loud yawning noise. He would say, “Well, you don’t have to holler!” after my yawn. He would tell a story about him telling Grandma that he was going to write a book one day when he got to be an old man. She would retort: “You’re an old man now!” He thought that was the funniest thing. He would say, “meer” instead of “come here” to the dog. He called Grandma “Ezlynn” instead of Evelyn sometimes. And she called him “The Goat Man.” “Ooooweeee! You look like the goat man, she’d say to us, when we came in muddy or dirty.” Pop and Aunt Lena Mae, his sister, and i were the three Goat men. We were the ones who always got the messiest, although sometimes Aunt Lessie was a goat man, too. Or my Daddy. I think people think Lisa and I are nuts when we use the term Goat man, but it is forever part of my vocabulary. I got my Goatmanishness from my Pop.
We knew Pop was dying. It was slow. He went from the hospital to the hospice. He was there a couple of weeks. They were about to send him home, because he wouldn’t eat, and he wouldn’t rouse, but he wouldn’t die either. Mom and Dad were freaking out about how they would care for him. And then he seemed to take a turn for the worse, almost as if he knew that going home would cost a pretty penny for his family, and he wasn’t going to waste that money on extra dying time!
On the 4th of July, Todd and I took the kids to fireworks at Chamblee. I remember looking up at them, looking over at the wonder on my children’s faces at the fireworks, remembering another time – one of my most precious memories of my Grandma Palmer – that I watched fireworks with her on Tybee, tears rolling down her cheeks. She had alzheimer’s by then, and I thought she was crying over the beauty of the fireworks. And she was, but when they were over, she turned to me, still crying tears of happiness, and said, “I haven’t ever seen fireworks before!” Of course, she had, but she didn’t remember that.
I sat on the blanket at Chamblee, and I realized tears were rolling down my own cheeks. Partly for the love of my children and their sense of wonder and the thought of their whole lives ahead of them. Partly knowing that an era in my life was gone, a whole generation was dying with the coming death of my grandfather. I was not long for the world as a girl with Grandparents. I was becoming more a mother, and a daughter, and a wife. In the big picture, the passing of my last grandparent signaled that the next generation was my own Mother and Father. It signaled that I was taking my parents’ place in the world. I was 37 years old, watching fireworks, and i was not a child myself, no matter how much i still felt like one.
I drove down that Sunday, July 5th. I went to Hospice in Perry, GA. My father, still recovering from heart surgery, could not stay. My sister and I spent the night with my grandfather, and we all thought that he would go that night. He didn’t. His breathing came shallow, but it marched on through the night.
In the morning, Lisa went home to mom and dad’s to take a shower. I stayed with Pop. I held his hand and read a book. I don’t know if he knew i was there.
Mom and Lisa came back late morning. Mom went outside and Lisa read aloud to Pop from the bible. She went outside with Mom
I was alone with Pop.
I had read in the literature that hospice gives to families that sometimes people who are dying will “hang on” out of some sort of obligation to their family, and that they need to be told it is okay to let go. It almost seemed that was what was going on with Pop. Or maybe, as we had joked a million times, he really didn’t want to leave his savings behind.
But to tell someone that it is okay to let go? He had been on this earth for 93 years. Almost a century. I had been here barely over a third of that time. Who was I to tell him how to die, if it was okay to let go? It just felt so . . . presumptuous. But I knew that it had to be said. Somehow I knew that was what he was waiting for. He was a complete control freak in life, and he needed to know that he could relinquish control.
I am a person who spends too much time thinking. Too much time typing and writing. I do not tend to voice my feelings aloud. I will tell you what I think of YOUR problem, or if I don’t like someone, i will say so. But I rarely say the big things, the heavy things, the things that will really hurt someone I care about. Spoken words have so much power for things that are so impermanent. You speak a word, and it disappears at once into the ether, but the echo of it carries on in your head after it is spoken. I have always struggled with voicing the difficult things aloud.
I sat in that room with my Grandfather, and I talked to him. I told him I loved him. I told him he had lived a good life and that he should be proud of all the things that he accomplished in his life. I told him that if his parents had lived to see him become a man, they would have been so proud of him. I told him that he was a good husband, and a good father. I told him he was a wonderful Grandfather and that I loved learning about plants and work from him, and that the moments I spent traipsing around the yard with him, getting dirty, were invaluable to me, and that one day i hoped to do the same with my own grandchildren, and that I would tell them all about him.
I told him that it was okay for him to go, that when he got to heaven, he would get to see Grandma again, and all of his siblings who passed before him, and that he would finally get to be with his parents again. I told him that Princess and Tiny, his dogs, would be there, too and would be so happy to see him, and Princess would run in wide circles around him like she did as a puppy.
I told him that we would meet him there some day, too. I don’t know if we will meet him there, but i said it anyway. Excepting possibly saying “I do” on my wedding day, or the first time I said my children’s names aloud while gazing into their brand new faces, these were the most important and heavy words that I have ever said to another person.
I sensed the peace that came over him, that came into the room. Or maybe it just came over me. I sat with him in silence after that, holding his hand, until mom, Dad, and Lisa came back in.
I left to go home and change, and get some lunch with Dad. Dad had left and “said goodbye” to Pop, and he did not want to go back to the hospital. We knew it would not be long, though, and I could tell that Dad was torn – part of him did not want to be with Pop when he died. Part of him felt he should be there. He grappled with it all during lunch. I finally told him that I was going back, and that I wanted to be there, and that everyone understood if he didn’t want to be there. He looked almost like a child as he struggled with whether or not he should go. I could tell that he wanted someone to tell him what to do, but I knew that I couldn’t tell him, and he had to decide himself.
I told him i was going and could drop him off at the house, or he could go back to Perry with me. He decided to go.
When we got there, it was apparent that Pop was letting go. We sat with him, watching his breathing, in and out, like a terrible ticking clock. Then, the nurses needed to check on Pop, and we all moved to the family waiting room, which is so nice, it’s like a parlor – Couches and a television, coffee tables with magazine and flowers, and clean bathrooms with brass fixtures.
The nurses came in and said that we better come back in. Dad went in, and he was near to losing it, I could tell, as if he was an animal trapped in a snare and he was starting to panic. In the end, he could not stay till the end. He had to leave. I thought of that scene in Steel Magnolias where the men just can’t take it and have to leave the room while Julia kicks it.
In the end, it was me, and lisa, each of us sitting with Pop. Mom was in the room, sitting on the couch, and leaving the hand-holding to us. I sat on his right, and held his right hand. Lisa stood on his left. We talked him out of this world, whispering that we loved him, stroking his head, holding his hands. It seemed that he was not in any pain when he went. He was peaceful. And somehow I felt at peace, too.
I kissed his forehead. I said goodbye.
Afterwards, we collected his things, things with an owner no more. A person can be dead and still have shoes, and you look at the shoes like they are out of place, and all the while, those shoes are screaming, “I am Walter’s shoes!” Lisa and mom got some papers and things, and i sat out on the picnic table and looked up at the sunny sky, a sky over a world with no more Pop in it.
That was back in June. I started writing this in July or August and just couldn’t quite finish it. I would work on it, and then get to missing Pop, and missing the feeling that I had a grandparent still with me, and I would put it away to finish later.
But I knew I had to finish it this year, that I owed it to Pop, and to myself, to get it all down, so that I would remember it all. Pop, I hope I got this right.
I hope I didn’t puppydog it.
And some photos of Pop’s life:
And Pop’s mother’s father, John Thomas Knowles, served too, with Pop’s great-grandfather, Benager Birdsong Knowles. They served for Georgia. John Thomas Knowles is pictured below, with Pop’s grandmother, Sarah Patience Hood Knowles.
Sarah died when Pop was a teen, and I asked Pop if he remembered her, but his memory was gone by that time, and he couldn’t. If you still have grandparents around, ask them everything they can remember about the old folks who were around when they were children. I wish I had asked so many more questions of my grandparents!
And Pop with his siblings at their home in Broxton, Coffee County, GA.
Pop is the baby. Not pictured is the youngest sibling, Carl, or their older half-siblings, Leta Estelle Palmer and Curtis Lee Palmer. This was not long before Pop’s parents died. A relative told Dad that someone bought this old house and is renovating it.
Pop, probably around the time of his high school graduation, Martha Berry School for Boys, Rome, Georgia. 1930s. Pop left the home of his Aunt and Uncle, Wiley Byrd, and Bettie Knowles Byrd, for Berry at age 11. He took the train from Jeff Davis County, Georgia, to Rome to go to school there and stayed until his graduation. He heard about the school from a traveling preacher who visited the farm in Jeff Davis.
My mom with her mom, Vivian Dunstan Smith, and Pop and Grandma. 1969, the year my parents married.
Me and Pop, sitting on the couch in Roswell. Christmas, some time in the early 90s. I didn’t just post this because it shows you that I used to be a waif, but also because you get a good glimpse of Pop giving me the “Kids these days” look. And I was a waif. Not sure what i was doing with my hair here. Must have gotten crazy and chopped it off and died it black.
Pop with me and the kids. God, I forgot how cute Rollie was at this age! Pretty special to have so many pictures of them with their great-grandfather. I hope that they will remember him, but i doubt it.
I think this was my longest post ever. Hope you don’t feel like you wasted your time if you got this far. Thanks for reading.
I still love you, Pops!