A few weeks ago, I got to spend Father’s Day with my dad and his father.
My dad has lived states away from me since I was a young girl, so our relationship has spanned about half of the Eastern seaboard for the bulk of my memories. Since his father remained further west in the Appalachian Mountains, I think I can count on one hand the number of times the three of us have gotten together.
I’m ashamed to say it, but my paternal grandfather is probably the one member of my family with whom the relationship is most distant. Sure, geography and timing are to blame, but so are softer factors, like the fact that my grandfather, to my knowledge, is a mountain man filled with a love of sports and the Cherokee Nation.
Since my interest in sports — especially as a spectator — is fleeting at best, and my knowledge of the Cherokee is limited to my visits to the Great Smoky Mountains, we’ve never seemed to establish a lot of common ground.
We’ve tried to change that in recent years. My grandfather attended my graduation from the University of Florida, and he’s taken to calling me every couple of weeks just to ask what’s going on.
“Well, glad to hear you’re doing well,” he’d say to me before hanging up about five minutes into the conversation.
I always wish we had more to share with each other, so visiting together with my dad as a conduit was a great way to spend Father’s Day.
But there are some pretty big caveats to the statement. See, my 80-year-old grandfather — whose privacy I am trying to protect while writing around him — took a couple falls a few weeks ago, and he’s been placed in an in-patient rehabilitation facility, where therapists are working with him in the hopes he will get to return home.
Dad and I already planned to rendezvous in North Carolina before grandfather was hospitalized, but the trip became even more urgent upon hearing the news.
When we saw Papa J in the rehabilitation facility, I was surprised to find he was in good spirits. My dad and I slyly pulled stories out of him and got him to confess that despite being served meals like chicken, mashed sweet potatoes and collard greens, he was indulging only in desserts.
And my, were they nice: strawberry shortcake, pudding and pie. It made me realize just how honestly I come by my sweet tooth, since they’re prevalent on both sides.
It took Papa J about an hour to really warm up to us on our first visit. It probably didn’t help that we were urging him to devour his lunch.
As he took small bites of pudding, Papa J began addressing my dad.
“I have some advice for you if you’re willing to hear it,” he said. “I’d have taken better care of myself if I knew I’d live this long.”
We all laughed, but Papa J was pretty serious. He instructed dad to walk two to three times a day and asked if he could smell dad’s chewing tobacco.
Dad pulled a can of Skoal out of his pocket and took the lid off. The room filled with a sickly sweet smell.
“Put that thing back on,” Papa J said. “I don’t want to smell it that much.”
Dad handed the can to his father. Papa J slid it underneath a box of tissues on the other side of his bed, revealing that asking to smell his son’s dip was a ruse to get it away from him.
“Ninety-nine percent of my problems are right there,” Papa J added, recalling that he smoked and dipped for years while coaching youth athletics.
One of the funnier moments from that visit included Papa J calling dad a “sissy” for preferring sour apple and peach-flavored tobacco, despite the fact that he was trying to deter dad’s nicotine usage altogether.
In his younger years, dad was known for playing softball and refereeing basketball, despite having documented injuries. He’s also got a notorious diet that consists of cherry cordials, saltwater taffy, Pepsi and sweet tea. He is known for eating at odd hours like 2 p.m. and 10 p.m., though he holds a 9 a.m.-5 p.m. job.
But Dad vowed to Papa J that he would clean up his diet and rededicate himself to exercise — the positive kind, not wearing down his knees in the name of fun — if Papa J would promise to eat more of his proteins and vegetables and stick to his own exercises so he could go home.
Watching the exchange brought tears to my eyes, and I had to walk out of the room under the guise I was coordinating a visit with other relatives. I was overwhelmed with emotion.
Seeing the exchange between my father and his made me realize just how much I didn’t know about my grandfather.
With his mortality staring all of us in the face, it angered me to know we’ve both neglected a relationship that most people foster. It saddened me to think his humor and knowledge won’t live forever. But it also gratified me to see Papa J was intent on teaching us to learn from his mistakes, especially since these are lessons I’ve been cementing over the past year and a half.
I cherish that weekend not only for my time with dad and Papa J, but also for the time we spent with other extended family members. Those lessons, as well as the value of family, will stick with me for years to come.