Michelle Lansdale: “Sassafras Jack and Louise”

“Yesterday’s gone on down the river and you can’t get it back.” ~Larry McMurtry, Lonesome Dove

When I was born, my parents brought me from the hospital to my grandparents’ house. Of course I don’t remember that happening, but maybe that day has something to do with the peace I still feel when I step through the threshold of that old house—which, by the way, my husband and I own and lease. I think if I could sit alone in the house for a few hours, the memories of my childhood might slip under my skin and settle in for a while. I’d love to relive every moment I ever spent with my grandparents.

Louise, my grandmother, was taller than average, and as a child I remember hoping that I’d grow to be as tall as her. I barely remember her with the red hair I’ve seen in some old family photos.  She’s dyed her short, curly hairstyle silver for decades now. For me, the word Avon and my grandmother are synonymous. For as long as I can remember, Louise smelled like various Avon fragrances—and the bathroom always smelled like Skin-so-Soft.  Louise would try every new Avon fragrance, and she always saved the colorful, pretty bottles and put them on a shelf in her bedroom. I remember hoping that one day I’d inherit her collection. I wonder where it is today.  I’d pay good money for that collection.

I can’t remember a time when Louise was angry with me. I’m certain I disappointed her on more occasions than I can count, but I’ve never been afraid of my grandmother or ever felt that I’d experience any sort of consequences for anything I’d ever done wrong in my life. The fact is, she made an effort to give me an easier, happier, more comfortable life.

I believe my earliest memories of her are when she would rock in her rocking chair with me on her lap and sing to me. I once asked her about the songs she’d sing and how she came up with the words. She confessed that she made up most of the tunes. I would have sworn those tunes were passed down for many generations. I wish I had recordings of her singing those folksy, relaxing songs.

I was well into my teenage years when I found out Jack was not my biological grandfather. By then the officiality of mine and Jack’s kinship did not matter—to me, he was my “Paw-Paw,” and for me, Paw-Paws are better than fathers.

Jack stood over six feet tall, and while he was not an obese man, he was healthy.  He was mostly bald, but he always visited the city barber for a trim. I think the barber shop was a place where men went more for camaraderie than for haircuts. And that was a good place for Jack to visit since he was surrounded by women—his wife, four daughters, and five (including me) granddaughters.

Jack was not intimidating; he was warm and friendly with a great sense of humor. On most days, Jack wore denim overalls with a white undershirt, but in the winter he’d add a long sleeve flannel. He always wore brown, lace-up, work boots that were blackened around the toes. After work he’d sit in his recliner and ask one of us grandkids to unlace and remove his boots.  As soon as I’d slip the boot off his heel, he’d let out a big “Ahhhhhhh,” and lean all the way back into his recliner like he belonged there and everything was right with the world.

He loved to pick on people— especially my sister. I think he picked on her the most because she would get mad so easily. He would sneak up behind her and poke his finger in her side or pop her butt with a rag. For some reason he loved startling her.

“Cut it out; you’re not funny!” she’d shout. Jack would just wail loudly, mimicking my sister. Then he’d wander away chuckling, and my sister would pout for half an hour. Strangely, my sister and I and our cousins would think something was wrong if Paw-Paw wasn’t picking on one of us—it was his way of showing us attention and having fun, and we loved his playful nature. We just didn’t admit it to each other, or to anyone else.

Today, I realize that making us laugh was a form of stress relief for Jack. He’d work all day at the machine shop or at his friend’s automotive shop; then he’d go home to his family. I think Jack needed children laughing and playing around him. I think it reminded him of why he worked hard all his life—to take care of the people he loved and provide a happy home. I think his family’s happiness was his reward for all his hard work. He couldn’t buy happiness, but he could create it.

I stayed many weekends with my grandparents until I was nearly an adult. According to my mother, on more than one occasion she pried me from my grandmother’s arms just to get me to go home.  I think my grandparents’ house was more of a home for me than anywhere else I’ve ever lived. It wasn’t that I didn’t like my mother’s home, I just needed to be with my grandparents. My grandmother spoiled me, as grandmothers will do. She always made sure I had everything I wanted. I spent many hours of my life circling toys and clothes in the Sears and Montgomery Ward catalogs—I kept a running wish list for my grandmother’s convenience. I think my times with Jack and Louise were the happiest times of my life. I wish I could bottle contentment. I wish everyone could bottle the feelings they love the most.

When I would visit their house as an adult, I immediately wanted to nap, and I always thought that boredom caused this. It wasn’t until I tried—but failed—to be an adult when I figured out that my grandparents’ house was the one place on the planet where I felt complete harmony with life. Walking through the front door of their home was an unveiling of the happier me, the untainted me, the truest me. My superhero grandparents had somehow built an invisible shell which protected me from worries, stress, and anything that wasn’t pure, happy goodness.

On weekdays Jack left for work before the sun rose, but on Saturdays he stayed around the house before heading out to help a neighbor or family member. Jack belonged to a generation that helped one another, and all the neighbors knew each other and actually liked each other’s company. When I finally decided to get out of bed, I’d go looking for my grandmother (she was always around the house doing some domestic chore), then my grandfather.

“He’s helping Mr. McGuirt patch his roof,” my grandmother would tell me, or “Mr. Glover’s car is not running,” or “the Simpsons are building a new porch.”

Sundays were Jack’s day of rest—most of the time (by rest, I mean that he worked in his own yard or garden or on tasks Maw-Maw asked him to do instead of working for someone else). After he ate his usual breakfast of fried eggs smothered in grits, he’d make his way outside.  He’d pull the truck around to whichever part of the property he was working on and tune the radio to zydeco music.  Every once in a while he’d let out a Cajun holler. I thought he was nuts, but Jack loved this part of his life.  I can’t tell you what tasks he worked on, but I can tell you that the grass was watermelon-rind green, the sunlight was bright enough to burn ants, and the air smelled like freedom and unconditional love.

He loved planting and tending vegetables and flowers.  He planted every season. He planted flowers of all varieties, and he had several fruit trees: fig, lemon, pear, and persimmon. I always understood that planting things was Paw-Paw’s way of enjoying life. Being outdoors and digging in the dirt was something spiritual for Jack. Maybe this is why I still feel the need—no matter how busy I get—to stick my bare feet in the dirt every once in a while, or to purposely stand in the rain. It’s been a while since I’ve done either of those things.

When I think of my childhood and Louise, I usually visualize her cooking or sewing. There is no other food on earth more comforting than Louise’s. No matter how hard I strive or how carefully I follow her recipes, I’ll never be able to make chicken and dumplings or collards like Louise. If she has a secret ingredient, it’s likely love, or contentment, or belonging. How do those feelings make food taste so good?

She always ate last. I used to think that she did that because she was tired, but now I know that she did it to let everyone else have as much as they wanted; then she would eat from whatever amount was left of whatever dish was left. She didn’t work outside the home, but these were the ways Louise provided for her family. Jack and Louise were a dynamic duo. I know Louise misses Jack more than anyone else ever will.

When I was older, Jack began sharing stories with me about his life. For example, he told me about his time as a Merchant Marine during World War II. When he told these war stories, though he appeared solemn and humble, he did not appear depressed or ruined. To be honest, I never knew that he was in a war until he started sharing these stories with me.

He would say things like, “one time, we were in the middle of the ocean, and our job was to rescue the crew from another ship. But our ship got hit too, and we had nowhere to go but down—down into the water. Men were dying and drowning. I couldn’t save them, and I thought nobody could save me either.”

“Well, how did you get out of the water?” I asked

Jack grinned and replied, “I guess Uncle Sam thought he needed us for a bit longer because a ship came and rescued all of us who were still alive. Good thing, huh? Who else would bug you all day if I were not here?”

“Was everyone rescued?”

“No, not everyone.”

“Did you see dead bodies and stuff?” I asked.

He replied, “Sure, and it was hard, and I would not want to do it again, but I also knew that even though I couldn’t save my friends, I was not going to go quietly. I would go kicking and screaming. I was not going to give up; why in the world would I do that?” Then he would just grin at me and raise his eyebrows up and down until I smiled back at him. I don’t think he liked telling me about such things, either because he didn’t know how to talk about them or because he didn’t want me to think about such dark things.

Through leading by example, Jack taught me about self-sufficiency. He told many stories about living during the Great Depression.

“We were so poor that we could not afford salt,” he said.

“Come on! Salt? Really? You’re full of it, Paw-Paw,” I replied.

“Chelly, I’m not kidding you! But, we did not go without salt.”

“Now you’re just not making sense. You could not afford salt, but you had salt. Whatever.” I knew he was teasing me somehow.

“Down the road from our farm, the neighbors put out salt blocks for their cattle. I’d crawl through the wire fence and use my pocket knife to chip off just enough salt to get us through the week. I knew a boy who got shot in the butt with rock salt for trespassing on a man’s property, but I took my chances. We needed salt.”

I never mentioned stealing to him. I don’t think he needed me to bring that up, plus I would probably do the same thing in his shoes. Can you imagine not having salt?

Jack always said that if another Great Depression ever occurred, he and Louise would be prepared. They knew how to pack dried beans in five-gallon buckets so they’d last for months. My mom says that Louise sewed all their clothes from potato sacks, and I believe that because I remember Louise making me try on dresses that she sewed. She’d make me stand on a stool while she hemmed the bottom of the dress. I never understood that I was posing as a model; all I knew was that my playing outside was interrupted just to stand on a stupid stool. I never thought that she was doing something nice for me, and she never pointed out my self-centeredness.

Another one of Jack’s stories that sticks in my mind is also about the Great Depression.  One day when I was eating lunch, I made a comment about the iced tea and how it tasted too sweet.

He replied, “Just be glad you have tea. I remember when we had to make tea from plants.”

I’d roll my eyes and say, “Right. Sure. You made your own tea. So you grew tea leaves I guess?”

“Nope,” he said, “We made sassafras tea. We went into the woods and found sassafras plants, pulled the roots off and boiled them. Haven’t you ever had sassafras tea?”

“Gross,” I said. “No way.”

“OooooEeeee,” he’d squeal, “You don’t know what you’re missin’! I wish I had some now. Ya’ know, you’re not always going to have everything you want. Besides, no one owes you anything. “

Everything that Jack endured in life seemed to be a lesson learned, or he turned it into a way to teach his family about values. And I Thank God for Jack and his life, for I truly think that I am a better person because of all he endured and experienced.

Jack’s health began to decline about ten years ago, and he had one leg amputated after his knee problems finally caught up with him. Because of this, Jack could not get outside as often as he wanted, which meant he could not tend to his gardens or flowers, which meant he wasn’t getting his required dose of sacramental sunshine. He never complained, but I knew that the inability to do the things that he loved was killing him. The plants needed watering, and Jack needed time to enjoy the outdoors.  I remember seeing a huge patch of Jack’s wildflowers turn to brown, dry out, and eventually disappear with the fall breezes.  I knew those flowers were the last we’d see of Jack’s green thumb.

Jack actually had to start depending on other people to help him, and this was not something to which he was accustomed. In fact, I’d say it was one of the biggest struggles of his life.

Jack died in a hospice.  All of his daughters and Louise agreed to put him there in order to try and make his death as comfortable as possible. I visited him during his last hours on earth, and I still remember how hard it was for him to let go of this life.

In and out of what seemed like a deep sleep, he cried out, “God, please help me!” I felt his desperation, and nothing since has made me feel so powerless. He didn’t go easily or quietly.  He went begging, screaming, and holding on to at least one of his family members at all times.  Many of the family members were there to ease his pain and tend to his needs, but those kind deeds seemed like such minute things compared to all that he did for us during our lives. He showed me more good things about life than anyone else ever has, and I hope and pray that one day my kids are able to say something similar about me.

Since he’s been gone, holidays are not the same, weekends are not the same, and my life is not the same. Some have said that he’s still here with us—with his family—but the truth is, I don’t know that.  I’d rather have him next to me where I can smell the Old Spice soap and watch my grandmother prepare his favorite lunch—a peanut butter and fig preserve sandwich.

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