Da Fam-ly Part III

Posted in Events, Life in general at 10:03 am by Marion

Today we come at last to our family’s patron saint.

If you’re lucky, your family has one … indeed, having a hallowed, benevolent figure may be the very definition — and hallmark — of what we consider a family.

Meet Grant Blackburn, my grandfather.

The first memory I have of my grandfather, or Papa, is when I am 3 years old. I have crawled under the dining room table to hide from him. I have knotted his tie around my neck and I’m trying to get it off. He finds me and we have a laugh about it. That morning, I had seen a large red-yellow sun blaze through the window of the bedroom where I slept. It was that kind of day.

Each summer I spent at least a week with Papa and Grandmother, running through the pasture, catching salamanders and crayfish in the Little Creek, and brushing the ponies and donkey. Papa spent hours with us … showing us how to build dams on the creek, carrying us around in the back of his pick-up truck, saddling us up on the donkey, Pedro or Big Chubby, who good-naturedly allowed it.

One summer, Papa linked a cart to his small tractor. He’d fixed up the metal cart with wooden boards, giving it the appearance of a little wagon.

Now I can’t imagine how small it was, so that gives an idea of how young I must have been: My crazy cousin Chuck and I installed ourselves in that wagon and went to pick blackberries with Papa, who drove us all over the pasture.

What an awesome time we had! We painted the sides of the wagon blackberry-purple, painted ourselves purple and ate our fill of the yummy ripe fruit.

Papa raised goats, ponies, chickens and ducks in addition to Big Chubby and his faithful lab, Tar Boy.

In the late 1960s, he and my grandmother began a project that in many ways defined my childhood. He purchased rough-hewn pine boards and built us a cabin in the woods.

Grandmother and Papa hand-set the chimney to begin, and he spent every off-work hour building that cabin.

When it was completed, we spent many nights there — cold winter nights, when Papa would keep the fire going for us while he slept upright in a chair; warm summer ones when we’d fall asleep after eating hot dogs grilled outside.

He played endless games of Rook with us, carted us around with him as he fed the animals, gave us tastes of goat milk, which he sold.

All in addition to working in a textile mill … yes, you heard it right … both of my grandparents are the archtypical “textile workers” — giving me authentic blue-collar cred. (My grandmother’s family were also coal miners for a time in West Virginia.)

There were trips by car to the Blue Ridge Parkway, with roadside picnics; trips to Tweetsie Railroad, fish farms, Roaring River and waterfalls.

He also had a hillside lined with fruits and vegetables, which my grandmother canned.

He never spoke a harsh word. Yet you knew it when you disappointed him. He never lectured, either, but his spare words and simple, noble mien gave the best, and fullest lessons.

Think how a hook feels in a fish’s mouth, he said when I wanted to fish in the goldfish pond; Ever heard of the Land of Milk and Honey, he observed, eating said foods for breakfast one day.

Papa died in 1976 after a brief, but horrible, struggle with lung cancer. His early death, at 56, has indelibly marked us all and in some ways become a benchmark, sort of like A.D. and B.C.

These days, when I’m at my Grandmother’s, I’ll often walk over to the cabin, where I’ll talk to Papa. A time or two, I’ve cried a bit, but mostly I just feel fortunate to have known and loved such a person, even briefly.


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