The grandfather is one of the South’s most appealing myths. Appearing in works ranging from novels to country songs, grandfathers appear often as kindly protectors, sources of wisdom, and after they’ve passed, figures who are missed greatly. In this essay, Ray crafts a narrative of her grandfather, giving glimpses into the man he had been, and savoring her role in his life— and his role in hers.
Watch the Throne
by Jasmyne Ray
Had someone told her as a child that she and my granddad would end up together, my grandma says she wouldn’t have believed them. Having grown up together and their families being as close as they were, I guess the thought never crossed her mind until the letter came.
He was in the Army, stationed in Germany at the time, when he sent her a letter asking her to marry him. I like to imagine he was a little nervous, trying to find the right words to write, waiting for her to respond. Eventually she did— saying she’d give him an answer once he got back and asked her in person.
My favorite story to hear my grandma tell is about her original engagement ring. He’d bought it in Germany, but it needed to be resized. When he hadn’t mentioned the ring in a while, she asked him when it’d be ready. Unfortunately, the ring melted while getting resized and he had been too embarrassed to tell her.
What happened next, I feel, set the tone for the rest of their lives together: she laughed and, as embarrassed as he was, he started laughing right along with her.
For decades, an obnoxious, green flannel recliner took up a corner of the living room in my grandparent’s house. According to Grandma, when my grandad saw it in the store, he sat down in it and said he just had to have it. The best parts of my childhood were spent in his lap in that chair.
“You gonna watch my chair for me?”
He’d asked me that as he’d walk toward the door, smiling over his shoulder at me.
“Make sure no one else sits in it.”
Reclining the chair all the way back, I would stretch my little limbs out as far as I could. I took my role as watcher of the throne seriously. Roped off, reservation only. ‘You must be this tall to sit here.’ Ah oh, was he tall.
With my sister and cousins so much older than me, and my little sister not having been born yet, my granddad became my playmate by default. I wasn’t the type of kid who got excited to play outside, but when he would hit golf balls in the front yard, I would be right out there with him, running to see how many of them I could find.
As precocious as I was, I never felt more like a child than when I would look up at him smiling at me. The edges of his mouth curling up, wrinkles folding in on one another making the corners of his eyes crinkle.
I committed every line, every crease to memory. My smile takes shape the same way.
“Paw-paw, what’s your name?” I remember asking him.
“You just said it, it’s Paw-paw,” he replied looking away from the TV, always turned to a golf tournament, to look at me in his lap.
“No,” I poked his cheek, determined to get an answer. “I mean your real name.”
“My real name is Caphone.”
“Caphone.” I repeated. It rolled off my tongue like a hymn. Kay-fawn. Caphone.
Adults seem indestructible to children, especially the ones they’re closest to. Being only 8 years old at the time, I’m not even sure when he started having heart problems.
The last time I saw him was in the hospital. He was asleep with wires connected to patches on his chest, crisscrossing into the beeping machines next to him. No one spoke above a whisper.
One of the machines was making a low, hissing noise that scared me, but I didn’t say anything because I didn’t want to leave him. Standing at the foot of his bed, I wanted to crawl in with him and lay my head on his chest the way I always did. The way I used to. I wanted to move closer and hold his hand, so he’d know I was there, but I was afraid of hurting him by accident.
You hear about close-knit Southern communities where everyone knows everyone, but in Melvin, Alabama, you’re most likely related to them by blood or marriage. My grandparents getting married brought two already large families together.
There’s something comforting in being surrounded by so much family, a sense of safety and wholeness. Filling every corner of a house during the holidays or nestled side by side in the church pews on Sunday morning. At cookouts, the older aunts, uncles and cousins sit in the shade of Aunt Nanny’s pavilion, content from having everyone together.
Even funerals feel a little less austere when the family is together. We make the most of our sadness as we celebrate someone’s life. The grief of losing them gives away to gratitude for having been able to know and love them at all.
I’d met enough of my granddad’s friends as a child to understand know how well-liked he was, but it wasn’t until the day of his funeral that I understood how loved he was. My dad’s high school dedicated that year’s homecoming game to him, their loudest cheerleader with the biggest sign.
I stayed with a family friend while my parents went to the service. I can’t remember whether or not I had the choice to go, but I do remember seeing all the cars packing into the church’s small grassy lot as we passed by. More parked on the hill next to Aunt Nanny’s store, others lining both sides of the road in front of the church.
Seeing all the people crowding the entrance waiting to get inside – people he worked with, served with, old classmates, friends, family – made me realize he wasn’t just mine.
His chair is gone now, well-worn and falling apart from the weight of our love and nostalgia. A few years ago, I got into the habit of going through the closets at Grandma’s house when we’d visit. My excuse was my interest in vintage clothing, but eventually I found myself looking for anything that belonged to him.
It’s been almost two decades since he passed, but I still hold out hope that I’ll come across his old army jacket, a sweater, or a t-shirt. Evidence that he existed, he was real, and that I was lucky enough to love and be loved by him.
Jasmyne Ray is a native of Alabama where she works, writes, and reads multiple books at a time. In early 2020, she started the Deliberette blog as a long-form creative project for her personal interests.
Lesson Plan: NH-MSF Lesson Plan Personal Narrative