Most people have some sort of name for their grandfathers — mine is “PawPaw”. He has been in my life for as long as I can remember, a big man and a big presence. He stands about 6 foot, 4 inches and has always been at least a little overweight. His real name is Bernard Newton, although most of his friends call him “Yank” — he moved from New York down to Savannah, GA when he was kid. I guess his accent was pretty foreign to the kids around him. Curiously, he met my grandmother when they were both kids and she still calls him “Yank” when she gets upset or excited.
PawPaw was 82 and recently diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer.
For most of my life, up until college, I knew my grandfather as, well, a grandfather. He was always a bit mysterious — big, strong and loud. I knew he loved me, he’d give us great gifts at Christmas and birthdays. But, really there was a bit of distance there, he was a figure, not a person. This all changed when I wound up moving in with my grandparents after my first year of college.
If you want to get to know someone, probably the best way to do it is to live with them. It pretty quickly strips away any mystique as you see them all hours of the day, in sickness and health, etc. Getting to know PawPaw as a person, not a grandfather, was never dull. He spent 20 years in the Air Force as a NCO, spanning from World War 2 through the Vietnam War. After retiring, he then took a job with Delta Airlines and did ANOTHER 20 years of service there. By the end of his career he could literally take apart just about any flying thing from a jet engine to a helicopter and put it back together. He was brilliantly smart…and boy did he have a LOT of ribald jokes. Along with the jokes, though, he had a lot of wisdom. He taught me everything from how to negotiate for and buy a car to how to build up credit to what’s appropriate to drink when you’re late to a party and need to catch up. I’ve not used that last bit of advice very much, but the other things have been very useful.
I think, though, that the most important thing I learned from PawPaw was how a man carries himself when interacting with others. He is unfailingly polite, even when he might not like the person, he stands tall, he speaks softly but firmly. For me, he embodied this idea of strength — restrained, controlled.
PawPaw passed away this morning, quietly and comfortably.
We are all broken — spectacularly shattered humans. PawPaw was no different. I saw him argue with his wife, be petty, self-centered and prideful. But, I am a better man for having known him as a person, in all his beautiful brokenness.