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Nov 15

The Dirt Path

The anniversary of my Papaw’s death was this past Monday, so I’ve spent some time reminiscing about him this last week.  I looked at a lot of pictures, told a lot of his stories, and added some of his memorabilia to my family tree.  While I was going through my files on him I ran across a story that I wrote in a Creative Writing class shortly after he passed away.

The story was supposed to be a “creative non-fiction” piece about a transitional moment in my life – I chose to write about the day I found out my Papaw was going to pass away.  Reading the story again is rather sad, because when I wrote the piece my daddy was still alive and I could see him slowly learning his place as the patriarch of my family.  Though the subject of the story is sad – it was written about the metaphorical passing of torches that occur in families and it is full of unspoken hopes for the future.

In memory of the two men I have loved the most in my life, I thought I’d share my story with all of you today:

I stood crying on the path halfway between my grandparents’ house and my father’s house.  I looked around wondering how such terrible news could find its way into my little world on such a beautiful summer day.  The mountains that surrounded me looked like an endless sea of emerald-green waves and the sky above was cloudless.  Roses grew beside the babbling creek that ran beside the two homes and the scent that swirled about me was intoxicating.  In my sorrow I cursed the beauty of the world around me.  How dare the world keep spinning today?

I hated the world for a bitter moment and gave myself over to the sorrow.  After a few minutes I found my inner-strength, took a deep breath, and wiped my tears.  I thought of my predicament and laughed at myself.  There I stood halfway between two homes.  This was a predicament that I was all too familiar with.  Growing up I had always been stuck somewhere between two homes.  Now I stood on a dirt path feeling alone and helpless; just out of reach of any kind of comfort.  I found it stingingly funny, because it suddenly dawned on me that the more things change that the more they stay exactly the same.

With my new-found strength I drug my heavy feet up the dirt path.  I found it hard to concentrate on the issue at hand.  My mind was spinning from one thing to the next.  I found myself wondering how many times this path had been taken.  Surely many feet had walked up this hill.  The grass had worn away long ago; long before I was born.  I stopped just before reaching the porch and wondered how long the path had been there.

The Cochran Barn and Home, 1998 by Cassie Sanford Clark

The Cochran Barn and Home, 1998 by Cassie Sanford Clark

My great-grandfather had bought the property when my mamaw was a young girl.  He had raised Black Angus cows, grown an orchard of apple and cherry trees, and grown a small garden to provide his family with fresh vegetables.  The barn still stood as a reminder of these forgotten days in the field across the creek.  This piece of his farmland had been purchased by my grandparents.  My papaw built the house in the fifties for my mamaw after the birth of their second child.  My grandparents raised my dad and his three sisters here.  I figured the path must surely have been worn away by their feet, or maybe even by the feet of my great-grandfather who had walked up this hill to visit them.I remembered when I lived with my grandparents I had run up and down the path at least ten times a day.  I went down to the flat and picked wild flowers for my mamaw, played in the creek, or climbed trees.  Sometimes I sat in the middle of the lot and built castles out of the clouds.  It had been a place to sit and stare at the mountains in the distance.  It was a place to soul search and day-dream.  I hoped it had been as special to those in my family who had enjoyed it before me.I’m not sure what sparked the thought, but I found myself reminiscing about the lightning bugs that hovered over the flat during the summer.  I often caught lightning bugs down there, and ran them up the path to the house to show my papaw.  We put them into Mason jars, and poked holes in pieces of tin foil to use as lids.  Sometimes I would have four or five jars on the back porch full of lightning bugs.  The jars glowed like magical green lanterns.  Just before bedtime I took the jars back to the flat and let the lightning bugs go.  I stood and watched them fly away before I made my way back up the path to go home.

The flat eventually became the lot of land my father decided to place his home on.  His two children, my half-sisters, were the ones who ran up the path in more recent times.  After the birth of my first sister I knew that my father would end up back at home.  I was surprised that he was taking the initiative to raise my sisters, even if he was only a stone’s throw away from my grandparents.  I had to admit it was a shock that my sisters weren’t living with my grandparents like I had.

The sound of the wind blowing through the trees broke my thoughts.  I took a deep breath and looked down at my dirty New Balance tennis shoes.  It seemed like a lifetime ago that I had run up this path to share my lightning bug lanterns with my papaw.  I felt a deep sense of loss wash over me with this last thought.  I thought to myself very bitterly that being grown means your simple childish pleasures become nothing more than a memory.  For a split second I wished I could rewind time.  I wished that I was six again, and that I running toward the future with a jar full of fireflies.  Instead I was walking toward the beginning of an end.

I looked up at the porch, and saw him sitting in his favorite chair.  He stared out into the field behind the house.  For the first time in my life I realized how old he was.  His button down shirt was tucked into his navy blue pants, and the outfit seemed to be dangling from his body the way it would from a hanger.  His skin looked as if it were merely draped over his bones.  His face was solemn, and his eyes glazed over.  I stood there stupidly without any idea of what I should say.  So, I said nothing.  I just stood there for a moment wondering if he even noticed that I was there.

He snapped me from my thoughts with a faint cough.  I looked back down at my shoes, and forced myself to make them move forward.  It only took seconds for me to find myself standing before him.  I wanted to reach out with both of my arms and cling to him as I did when I was a small child.  Not sure how I was supposed to handle this particular situation I asked, “Papaw, are you okay?”

He didn’t answer for a moment.  He looked up at me with teary eyes and said, “Yeah, I guess.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Why?”

When he asked this question I felt tears fill my eyes again.  I did not want to cry in front of him.  I did not want him to see my pain.  I knew if I responded my emotions would get the best of me, so I stood in front of him in silence.  I stared down at my shoes and kicked at dirt with my foot.

“Sit down, Booger,” he said.  His voice never let out any hint of the pain that could be found in his eyes.

I obeyed and took the seat to the right of him.  I stared off into the pines that stood just beyond the field behind the house.  I wanted to reach out and hold his hand, and tell him that he had no reason to be afraid.  I wanted to tell him that people lived for years with cancer; to tell him he was not going to die.  I felt the need to tell him how much I loved him.  Instead, I slid my wedding ring on and off my finger.  I tortured myself by sitting silently while I thought of all the things I wanted to say.

“Cassie, my life has been a happy one.”

“I know.  Papaw, I know.”

He looked at me with tears sliding down his cheeks.  I had only seen him cry two other times in my twenty-two years.  My heart fell into the pit of my stomach, and I could no longer fight back my own tears.

“I tried so hard to protect you when you were little.  I loved you as one of my own.  You are one of my own.  I didn’t have a lot, but I tried to make you happy.  Did I?  Did I make you happy,” he asked as he reached over and wiped the tears from my eyes.

Claude and Cassie milking Molly the cow, 1990 by Daryl Wayne Sanford

Claude and Cassie milking Molly the cow, 1990 by Daryl Wayne Sanford

My mind spun with different responses.  Here sat the man who had taught me to bait my hook, ride a bike, and drive a car – wanting to know if he had made me happy.  Memories of making homemade ice cream, milking cows, and picking strawberries were brought clearly to the surface of my mind.  I thought about how he made sausage gravy on Sundays and how I had tried so hard to learn, but cooking was out of my comprehension level.  He never gave up trying to teach me how to make that gravy.  I thought of how he had never given up on anything.  Maybe that is why I still found myself in the kitchen with him on the Sundays that I was in town trying to master his culinary art, because I wouldn’t give up.  He hadn’t just shaped my past, I thought, he shaped me.  He did so much more than make me happy.  How could he even be thinking about something as trivial as my happiness at a moment like this?

I looked up to find his eyes still searching me for an answer.  I didn’t know what to say, so the first words that fell out of my lips were simply, “Yes.  Papaw you made me very happy.”

He shook his head in approval.  I wanted to say more, but I felt it had been summed up well with just one sentence.  My response seemed adequate enough to please him, and to me that was all that mattered.  We sat in silence for a long time staring out into the woods beyond the pasture.  My sister yelled for me breaking the silence.  She called out to me to say the baby was up from her nap.

I stood up and hugged my Papaw for a very long time.  He pulled away from me and said, “Alright, go take care of my great-grandbaby.”

I gave him one of my best smiles and assured him, “I’ll make sure Alana is taken care of.”

Claude, Eva Nell, and Alana - 2004 by Cassie Sanford Clark

Claude, Eva Nell, and Alana – 2004 by Cassie Sanford Clark

I threw him a small glance over my shoulder as I walked back down the dirt path.  I thought to myself that this was how I wanted to remember him.  The thought caught me off guard.  I was not ready to lose him.  I dismissed the thoughts.  I couldn’t think of things like that now.  I didn’t want my daughter to see me upset.  I slowed my pace and tried to think of something different.

I could see my daughter with her hands and face pressed against the screen door of my father’s house.  Her little curls bounced as she jerked about on her not-so-sturdy legs.  My dad stood protectively behind her.  He laughed as she smacked the glass shouting, “Out!”

I stood for a few moments watching them.  I wondered how many times her little feet would take her up and down this walk way.  I wondered how many times she would make green lanterns with my dad.  I wondered if she would love him the way I loved my papaw, but the way she gazed into his eyes, smacked his face, and laughed when he picked her up was a sufficient answer to that.  It was like torches were being passed that day, and despite all that I was losing – I had to feel pleased about that.  I smiled to myself thinking that her little feet would be the fifth generation that would walk up and down the hill.  Her feet would be the ones that kept weeds and grass from filling in the dirt path.

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