Susan Flora Kelly
Mother’s father was known as Popaw to all his grandchildren because my brother, Billy, named him. The oldest grandchild always names the grandparents it seems. Even though Popaw died when I was 14 years old, I remember him so clearly that I can recall his face, his voice and some of his favorite sayings as if hearing them only yesterday.
Popaw's full name was James Kellum Vardeman Walley. He was the youngest son of James Sylvester Walley Jr. and Sarah Rayner Walley. My grandfather was at least 1/8 Choctaw Indian and he looked like it even though some of his brothers and sisters took after the Walleys and the Rayners and were blue eyed, extremely fair and had orange red hair.
My earliest memories of Popaw are a collage of different scenes. Granny and Popaw lived in Laurel, Mississippi in an old house that we would later live in. My mother was the oldest child and was married with three children before her sister married and my cousin Faith was born. For many years it was just Bill, Perry who is my younger brother, and me. Mother had a baby brother, Danny, who was just a couple of years older than Bill and he was more like an older brother to all of us than an uncle. Popaw had nicknames for everyone; Danny was Elephant, Bill was Lead Bottom, Perry was Como, Faith was Reno and I was “Que”.
One of the earlier memories was of an accident which happened when I was two or three years old and Billy and I were staying with Granny and Popaw. Billy and Danny were playing outside throwing a Mason jar filled with pebbles back and forth to each other. Now, I know that was a stupid thing to do but keep in mind that they were young too; Billy was about five or six and Danny about eight years old and I am positive my grandparents had no idea what those two were doing. The boys didn’t want me to play because they were afraid I’d get in the way and be hurt.
Well, I wouldn’t listen to their chastisements to stay away and kept trying to get in the game. I remember seeing Danny throw the jar filled with pretty little smooth rocks and I made a run to catch it and I did . . . with my face. The jar shattered on impact and cut my face pretty bad. The odd thing is, I really don’t remember much about the pain, perhaps it knocked me out, I really don’t know. What I do remember is my Popaw rushing me into the car and taking me to the hospital. I remember being terrified of everything that was happening to me. But my Popaw was there always talking to me. I was later told that a plastic surgeon was flown in from New Orleans to sew me up. At this point all I can now remember is that pain was trying to take over my face and the nurses were trying to keep my hands from touching my face and to keep me lying down.
Evidently, that was a daunting task because I remember one of the nurses brought in a straight jacket! Popaw had had enough of their nonsense at this point and asked them why they couldn’t give me something to put me to sleep while they sewed me up. Later, I understood that with head injuries doctors don’t like to give anesthesia because they want to be sure there was no brain damage. Well, the nurses started trying to put me in the strait jacket and I suddenly morphed from Homo sapiens to Homo insapiens.
My wonderful Popaw pushed those well intentioned ladies out of the way and held me down with his body. He told the nurses that no one was going to put his granddaughter in a straight jacket! Since both sides of my face were involved, he whispered soothing words to me first in one ear and then the other as the surgeon sewed me up. I remember only snatches of what he said to me that day. He told me stories, and when I cried out, he said, “Huuuuush” as only someone from Mississippi can and it sounded like it a really long word.
I don’t know how long the surgery lasted, but mother later told me I had the tiniest stitches she had ever seen holding my face together. I barely have any scars today so the surgeon did a great job, but it is my Popaw that I remember most. I remember the clean smell of him and the deep rumbly voice whispering in my ears until I wasn’t afraid anymore and I don’t even remember the pain. I don’t remember ever seeing my face after the surgery, but I wasn’t a child that looked in the mirror a great deal.
Popaw wasn’t always nice. He was a very strict man and sometimes when he was angry he looked like his eyes were made of black rocks. He was part Native American, an eighth I think, and he had dark eyes and dark hair and eyebrows. I always knew he was Indian because he told me so. There wasn’t much foolishness about my Popaw. After we moved to Laurel, Mississippi, we lived in their house in Laurel and they moved out to the country and lived in a wonderful house from a child’s perspective. I suspect, any place your grandparents live is probably wonderful to a child. My cousin, Faith, was born after my younger brother, Perry, and for a time it seemed that Popaw didn’t like us as much as he liked Reno. When we came over to visit Reno was allowed to stay in the house and play but Perry and I were made to play outside in the dirt under a walnut tree.
My granny gave us pots and pans to play with and truthfully, I really didn’t mind all that much because I loved Perry and was happy outside where we played well together. Billy was off with Danny as usual so I don’t have many memories about them. But, I do remember it seemed there was definite favoritism shown to my cousin. I don’t remember Popaw ever being overtly mean to us or spanking us or anything but he just put us away from him and showered affection on my little cousin. I don’t remember having my feelings hurt about it or anything; it seemed things were just the way they were.
I do remember telling Popaw when I had a loose tooth - once. It only took once to teach me what an exceptionally bad idea it was to tell Popaw about a loose tooth. It seems that he felt that the moment a tooth becomes loose it must come out immediately. It wasn't a very good day for anyone in that household, especially me. Even so, when I'd go to visit my Granny and Popaw, I would start to worry about how much time I had to visit with them the very moment I arrived. One time, Popaw said, "Que, you worry so much about leaving, you don't even enjoy being here."
It was during these times I became very close to my granny. She was wonderful, kind, gentle and always made fruit cocktail in little jars just for me to find in her canning safe. She made it into a game where I would ask if there were any more jars of fruit cocktail, and she would ponder that and say, "Let me look and see". Of course, there was always one more in the safe. I never even thought to look for the hiding place where she kept the magically appearing "last jar".
There was no more wonderful place to be as a child than Mississippi. We went outside to play and stayed all day. There were fruit trees growing everywhere, so we didn’t need to even go inside to get a snack. My granny was an organic gardener before it was fashionable and so we ate the very best vegetables and fruits all the time. We had fresh milk, cream and butter. Popaw raised cows and corn. He was always hot and sweaty in the summer but he never smelled sweaty. I still wonder how he got around that. In the mornings he milked his cows, they were Jerseys and mean. He taught me to milk them and once you learn to milk a cow you never forget. Granny, Popaw and Danny had a horse named Daisy and we rode her often, bareback of course. I don’t think they even had a saddle for Daisy. She was such a sweet horse.
Then, we moved far away to Anchorage, Alaska, and those halcyon days of our youth seemed to be over. We lived in Anchorage for two years and then we moved to Toowoomba, Queensland, Australia. In total, we didn’t see any of our Mississippi family for over five years. Young memories are very strong though, and while we vacationed in the Fiji Islands on our way back to the United States, all we children wanted to know was “when are we getting to Granny’s and Papaw’s house”? We were totally focused on getting to our grandparents as quickly as possible.
I remember when we drove up in our sky blue Buick and when we arrived on the road to our grandparent’s house, Daddy started honking the horn. It was so much fun. It was also very strange. Everything was different. Danny was all grown up and at least 16 years old. Billy was almost 14 years old and shy. I was at the extremely awkward age of eleven; which to a girl is like being in the middle of nowhere. Perry was still a little boy really, so it was easier for him to slide back into being Como. I remember I had an Australian accent and kept quiet so I could listen to the soothing sounds of my grandparent’s distinct Mississippi accent and dialect.
My Aunt Merle, Uncle Frank and Faith came over to visit that night. Faith was a big girl now, not the little girl she had been. She had begun to refuse to be called Reno and would not answer to that name and so she trained all of us to call her Faith. Faith was beautiful in my eyes. She had dark hair that was long, thick and wavy, green eyes with long curly eyelashes and the most beautiful porcelain white skin I had ever seen. She looked like a young Elizabeth Taylor. On the other hand, as I mentioned before, I was at the awkward age of eleven. I was tall and strong from swimming in Australia. My hair was quite short and several different colors, mostly gold, my hazel eyes looked gold and green and my skin looked gold as I could not tan, so gold was the best I could do. My favorite color was pink which probably was a sad choice for me at that time. I was a big pink and gold thing.
I also remember that before we left for Alaska Popaw didn’t seem to like us much. So, I undertook the task of making Popaw like me again. Whatever it took, I was willing to do it and in my immature mind I really believed I could make Popaw love me best. Slowly, I began my campaign of catering to him. Soon, catering to him became a habit and then it wasn’t a campaign any longer. I just loved my Popaw so much I’d help him with whatever he’d let me do. Unlike many men of his generation, and sadly my own, my Popaw was never a male chauvinist. I’d ask him if I could do this or that and his usual response was “if you think you’re big enough”. In his eyes, I could do or be anything I wanted to do and had the resources to do. I’ve never forgotten that and lift my eyes to heaven every now and again and say “Thanks, Popaw”.
I realized as time progressed that my beautiful, sweet little cousin wasn’t more favored than I had been at her age. Popaw just like to make over his little grandchildren. Popaw was a good man. He was smart even though he never finished elementary school. He had a great memory and could do math so fast in his head it was amazing. He was a Christian man and always said grace before every meal. He did not go to church, but I found him reading his Bible many times. My Popaw was honest to a fault and was one of the worst businessmen I’ve ever heard of. I’m not certain if one thing has to do with the other, but that is just the way it was.
My Popaw died in January and the summer before that I was allowed to spend that summer with my grandparents. Popaw was cranky and he seemed very serious during that visit. But, he told me things that I remember to this day. When I said something with authority that I didn't have he'd say, "Que, who pulled on your chain?” Think about it . . . I remember him teaching me how to fix a lawn mower and he taught me how to take it apart and put it back together again. He was so pleased when I could do it by myself. In Mississippi it rains every day and in the summer the grass grows so fast you almost need to mow every other day. I remember mowing the lawn for him and singing Elvis Presley's "Suspicious Minds" at the top of my lungs while doing it. Popaw supervised my mowing from the front porch with a jar of water in his hand. Because I am very fair, my Granny came out and jumped on him for making me mow the lawn in the hot Mississippi sun. She said I was turning purple. It's the only time I recall Granny getting mad at Popaw. He never told her I insisted on mowing the lawn and took the scolding quietly. This is a bigger deal than one might imagine because Granny was one of the sweetest, kindest people in the world. She was like Mrs. Santa Claus - only better.
There are so many other memories, I can sometimes remember them and sometimes I can't. My Popaw could look at someone and make them feel like they were going to burst into flames, but he never looked at me that way. However, one day he and I got into a squabble over Granny. I thought he wasn't being nice enough to her and I started following him around fussing at him. I thought I was skating on very thin ice. Finally, he sat down in the living room in his rocking chair and watched me accelerate. Evidently, and much to my surprise he found my anger extremely amusing. He told me later he watched me walk out of the room only to come back and put my finger up and fuss at him then turn around and leave only to come back a moment later and repeat the process and I became angrier each time. After that, he didn't call me "Que" anymore, he called me "Dynamite"; actually, he called me "Dynamite - four on the floor" but it was shortened to just "Dynamite". He said I had four speeds of mad.
I missed him calling me "Que". There is no particular reason why I am sharing these memories. I was simply thinking about my Popaw. Even though he has been gone for many, many years; I still think about him. The fact that he is always a thought away should tell you the most important thing about my dear Popaw. When I left for home at the end of that summer, I didn't know I was saying goodbye to him for the last time on this earth. But I now realize that he IS the kind of person who stays with you for a lifetime and you are a better person for having him your life.
Time is often a great judge on the good of things. There are many things in my life that I no longer remember. Time is kind that way. Those special summer days with my Popaw will linger in my memories forever. Time is generous that way. Thanks, Popaw.
©Susan Flora Kelly
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