“Take care of people whenever you can, Doc,” Granddaddy said to me, “And they’ll take care of you whenever you can’t.”
They were words that Granddaddy lived by. They had been somehow etched deep in the root of his character,
and that philosophy had shaped his entire life. Whenever Granddaddy could, he took care of people, whatever that meant. I don’t know when, or where that mantra came from, but I heard him say it more than once.
The instance that always stands out most in my mind, though, was a hot August afternoon when I was maybe thirteen or fourteen. I couldn’t drive a car yet, legally anyway, I remember that much. We had spent the morning in the garden as we did most mornings in late summer and early fall. It was the height of the garden harvest, and things were busy. Tomatoes to pick, tomatoes to wash, other tomatoes to wash again…. And then there were the tomatoes to can. So many that the brass lids from the jars filled the counters all the way around the kitchen… they lined the kitchen table, the dining room table, and even the tops of the freezers in the laundry room. And still, we’d picked more this morning.
Nanny had finally stood at the low metal tables in the back yard, counting the tomatoes laid out to dry and finish ripening. She nodded to herself, and counted again, just to be sure. Finally, we had enough tomatoes.
“C’mon Doc,” Granddaddy said, grabbing his walking stick, and heading for the old Dodge pickup. He very rarely used my given name. Granddaddy had a nickname for just about everyone. I was “Doc.” My brother was “Scooter”, or “Scoot” in a hurry. Mom was “Tinker,” or “Tinka,” or “Tink.” I’m sure she knows which ones mean what, but I’ll leave her to tell that.
Nanny was always Blanche, her given name. He never, that I remember, called her “Blossom.” And my father was always Joe. I always wondered why neither of them had a nickname, but I never asked. At this point, I don’t think I want to know, though. The answers I’ve created in my head are satisfying enough for the moment. Maybe one day that will change, but I’ve found we hold onto the small parts of our childhood years that we can keep whole and pure. And as the years between us and our memories grow, the tighter that grip becomes.
Granddaddy climbed into the old blue Dodge, and I had no choice but to follow and climb in as well. Granddaddy drove the pickup down to the field in front of the old hog-house. He had planted watermelons there that year, and that stood out as odd to me. We didn’t normally grow watermelons, and suddenly we had way more than we knew what to do with. Apparently the field he planted them in was a good one. At the edge of the field, Granddaddy stopped and rolled down his window. He pointed at the oversized berries in the field. “You pick ’em up and put ’em in the bed o’the truck. I’ll drive along. Stack ’em careful so they won’t bang an’ bump around.”
I got out, and started picking up the watermelons, and carefully placing them in the bed of the truck. True to his word, Granddaddy drove the old rusted Dodge just ahead of me, zig-zagging to keep the tires from crushing any of the watermelons. I was confused, but didn’t ask questions. The berries were large, and very ripe. One layer covered the bed of the truck from front to back in about ten minutes. I stacked a second layer….and a third…and a fourth… I began to wonder if Granddaddy meant to empty the whole field in one load. But after the fourth layer was done, he stopped the truck and got out.
Granddady looked at the pile of watermelons in the bed, and nodded approvingly. “Okay, Doc,” He said nodding his head towards the cab. “Hop in. It’s time for dinner.”
By “dinner” Granddaddy and Nanny typically meant “lunch.” Though as it often does, in the South, that idea gets a little vague at times. At the house, we ate a quick meal of hotdogs and oven fries (thick wedges of potato baked in the oven so they eat like fries). Nanny, Granddaddy, and I sat around the kitchen table and bowed our heads. I said the blessing, as I always did when at Nanny’s.
“Thank you for the world so sweet, thank you for the food we eat. Thank you for the birds that sing, thank you God, for everything. Amen.” I still remember that little rhyme. I heard it the first time in kindergarten. We said it every day before lunch. I don’t recall anyone being offended, or bursting into flames. I was young at the time, though, so you never know.
In any case, lunch that day was over almost as soon as the “Amen” was said. Granddaddy pushed his chair back from the table and nodded to me. “C’mon Doc,” he said, grabbing an old tobacco market cap off the back of his recliner, and heading for the door. Again, I didn’t have much choice but to follow. The old Dodge was parked in the back yard in a huge shadow cast by an ancient live oak with a massive canopy. Granddaddy climbed in the cab, and cranked the engine.
We drove for a while in silence down the quarter mile long driveway. We finally hit pavement some time later, and Granddaddy turned towards town. His window was rolled down, and the wind whipping through the cab made it difficult to talk. I rolled my window down as well, and the sweat rolling off my neck quickly cooled.
The cab of the truck smelled like old dust and dried grease. It was a workman’s truck, with a full compliment of tools in the cab, as well as in the back. Small bits of metal wire hung from the rearview mirror, twisted so they wouldn’t fall to the floor. Random washers and nuts were in the ashtray. In the back were various tools that a skilled mechanic could use to take an old Farmall tractor apart, clean the parts, and reassemble it. I’d seen it happen before. And there were watermelons.
Lots of them.
I hadn’t counted them putting them in, but Granddaddy counted them as we took them out of the bed to give to people. Some of the people, Granddaddy knew, I could tell that much. He didn’t think to really explain them to me, and I didn’t think it was my place to ask. Every once in a while, he’d introduce me as his youngest grandson, but not often. I didn’t recognized the people we visited, and I don’t recall ever seeing any of them again. After a while, we ran out of people to visit, and we started giving the watermelons out to strangers. Granddaddy gave four to a woman that had five children with her that were all at least four or five years younger than me. She almost cried when he wouldn’t take her money. We had three watermelons left in the bed of the truck when we started home.
The sun was low in the sky, and the warm sunset light that only comes in late August, right before summer’s grip begins to slip into fall was warm on the side of my face as we left town. My arms were tired, and I was sweaty again. As we drove down the road, Granddaddy turned to me and said, “You take care of people when you can, Doc. And they’ll take care of you when you can’t.”