Not many people are lucky enough to know their grandparents all that well. And I mean really get to know them. Even fewer get to know their great – grandparents. My cousins and I can be counted amongst some of the luckiest people on the planet because we had the chance to get to know ours. I’d like to tell you boys a little about your great great grandfather. We called him simply “Grandpapa”.
His name was Hubert Oswald Liles and he was born in 1906 in Georgia. That’s pretty interesting because he lived through some of the most famous events in history and told me about a few of them from the perspective of someone who didn’t make the headlines. His life was simple, but that isn’t to say that it was uncomplicated and I’ll tell you more about that later.
Anyways, so he was born in 1906. I remember once he told me about the Titanic. The Titanic sank on April 14, 1912. He was only 6 years old at the time, and he really couldn’t read all that well yet. But they had plastered the news of the Titanic sinking everywhere. Headlines in huge bold caps were in the paper. It left such an impression on him that he actually remembered seeing those headlines when he was only 6 years old at breakfast one morning. I’m not sure if this is the paper he saw, but I bet it was pretty close. I used to watch people in the media scour the world to find Titanic survivors. They are pretty much all gone now. I always thought it was even more interesting to know that my very own Grandpapa was kind of there too.
He once told me that he only went to school through the 8th grade. Back them, school was in a single room and all of the grades were together. They actually covered a fair amount of information despite the limitations. He told me there were 4 people in his age group. Of these 4, the only one he could remember was the “meanest ugliest girl that ever lived”. Those were his EXACT words. I once saw a picture of his “class” of 4, and he made sure to point out that he always stood as far from her as possible every year when they had their picture taken. No, he didn’t marry this girl. But I want you boys to remember this. How you treat people leaves an impression on them – forever. Eighty years later, he still made sure to point out what a horrible ugly and mean person she was. I have no idea what she did to get such a gentle man so riled up, but after all this time, he still hated her. Which is kind of funny. And yeah, there’s a lesson to be had there.
I once asked him what happened to him during the Great Depression. I don’t remember all of the details, but he told me that he worked for the telephone company in Jacksonville Florida back then. Like so many others, he was laid off. He and his wife eventually moved back to Georgia for the duration of the depression to stay with her parents. I don’t remember him telling me this but his son was born in 1928 so obviously that played a role in their decision to pack up and move in with family. It wasn’t until after the Depression ended and I think during World War II that he moved back to Jacksonville. At that time, the railroad was really getting serious about setting up telephone lines and he went to work for them again. He worked for the telephone company and eventually retired from it following a heart attack.
When you look back into your memory, and you try to capture these stories, it is just so hard to remember the details. I remember snipits of information and pieces of stories. As a kid, he once tied the tails of two oxen together to see what would happen and they both pulled off. He was in so much trouble with his father because tails are needed to keep the animal comfortable by shooing flies. One house he lived in with his wife burned to the ground and they lost everything. He was two young for World War 1 and too old for World War II but he never ever forgave the Japanese for the attack on Pearl Harbor.
The man had a love of fishing. Apparently, his wife thought it was a love affair with fishing. Once he was supposed to buy a car, and instead he bought an old boat. His wife was furious of course. He had a few fishing stories to tell. He once told me a story about getting oysters during World War II. At the time, there were a lot of ships being sunk by German U-boats and it put a sheen of oil along the coast. He and a buddy were fishing and pulled up some oysters. It took a long time to get them open but when he did, he put it into his mouth. It was the most rotten and disgusting thing he ever tasted but he sure wasn’t going to be alone in it so he waited for his friend to get his open and eat it. I think they both hurled.
The man had a green thumb. My mom always said he could put a stump in the ground and it would grow. I pulled up a picture of his old house. You see this tree here. Grandpapa planted this tree. It’s a big pear tree but really it’s two pear trees in one. Early on, he decided that the fruit wasn’t as good on one side so he grafted a different type of pear tree on the other side. You can clearly see the “V” shape in the body. Years and years before I was born, that’s when this was started. There’s a big limb that seems to shoot out almost perfectly perpendicular to the tree on the left side. When I was a kid I learned how to climb that tree. I would kick my shoes off and use my toes to help grab the branches and swing up into it. I would sit up on this limb and he would always get onto me. He said I would kill the limb because I was rubbing the bark off of the tree. He even once told me it was against the law to climb that tree – and HE was the law! I remember once when I was sitting in the tree as he gave me this speech – and he did it every time – that I asked him this. “If you are the law, and I’m sittin’ up in this tree, it makes me taller than you. So does that mean I’m above the law?” He got a kick out of that. I probably needed a lesson in manners. I continued to climb that tree for years. It was my favorite spot when I stayed with him. The last time I climbed it, I was 18 years old. Your father and I were about to get married in a few days. Your Dad probably thought I was extremely silly, climbing barefoot in a tree at 18 years old. But I did silly stuff like that. Looking back, I think your Dad cherishes that memory because it’s as if he got to see some of the last bits of my childhood.
That house was very small. It had 2 bedrooms and 1 bathroom, a very small kitchen, a dining room and a living room. Let me tell you boys – it was tiny! The reason I tell you about this house is because I want you to know about the greatest thing Grandpapa ever did. You see, he only had one child – a son. That son and his wife weren’t doing so well after they married and had three children. It got pretty bad and the State decided to step in and remove the kids. At the time, my father was five, Kathy who four, and Mike was about two. When the judge was going to put them all into the orphanage system, Grandpapa and his wife stepped up. The judge tried to intervene and discourage him. The judge reminded him how old he was, that he had raised his own son and he and his wife were getting on in years. But Grandpapa said he told the judge “I don’t see that I have a choice”. He would have been about 52 at the time.
So in this very house lived Grandpapa, Grandmama, my dad, his sister and brother, and even their own father who moved back in. For a while, Grandmama’s mother lived there too. At one time, four adults and 3 small children lived here. In fact, just before Grandpapa passed, I lived there for a while too. In all, five generations lived in that house. I kind of miss it.
After his son died, and his wife two months later, I started to stay with him on weekends. After my own father died a couple of years later, spending time with him became something I just needed. You see, he was a bit silly. Being around him allowed me to be silly and giggly. He didn’t force rules on me like bed time or cleaning up. He was just happy to have me there. Once I wrote him a letter telling him how he was helping to fill a space in my heart and I tried to tell him what he meant to me. I imagine it was mushy and overly dramatic and emotional (as 12 year old girls are likely to be). But he kept it. Not only did he keep it, he seemed to keep it on him all of the time. I once saw him re-reading it and putting it back in his pocket. I like to think that I helped him fill some of the emptiness too. From a home that once crammed 7 people in it, it was probably a bit big for just him.
My cousins and I fixed that. You see, once I started going, I started inviting my cousins to come too. There were many times that there were 4 teenage girls sleeping on a single pull out ancient couch. We talked and giggled all night long most nights and tried to sleep in late the next day. But Grandpapa was old school. He got up with the sun and wanted us to do the same. He had this old cow bell that he would come in clanking to get us out of bed. Bell is probably not the right word. It was just a hunk of metal with a striker and seriously, I can still hear it clanking when I think about it. When that didn’t work, he had the most obnoxious alarm clock that was ever made. This thing actually had the bells on either side – very old school and very very loud. Grandpapa ate out pretty much every meal. He liked to go to breakfast and he would take us all out at the crack of dawn to get it. I still remember going to Rewis’ and getting biscuits and gravy and hot tea. He would insist we eat all of it too. He didn’t like to throw food away. Sometimes, we would drop our leftover food into a napkin and take turns going to the bathroom to get rid of it.
There’s a whole lot that I didn’t think to ask him about, and sadly I don’t remember very much of the things I did ask him. I’ll try very hard to remember more and tell you. He really was worth remembering. I wish you boys could have known him. He was a prankster. He loved a good laugh. And he would have loved you boys.
There was one more thing – he had gray-blue eyes and I’m pretty sure he was the only one in the family to have them. It’s nice to see that feature show up again in you, Graham. It’s like God winking back and smiling.
I love you boys!