I don’t have many distinct memories of my grandfather since I was in first grade when he passed away. Yet I cherish the recollections I do have. Details provided by my mom as she’s spoken lovingly of her father over the years complete my mental portrait of this kind and gentle man.
Born July 31, 1890, James Alton Phillips was a short fellow, about 5’ 3”, who weighed in at 125 pounds, give or take a few. No doubt genetics played a part in his slight build, but a lifetime of hard work farming his land surely contributed to his wiry physique. My mom was the baby of her family, the youngest of eight siblings and her father’s darling. He called her “Babe” and warmed her clothes by the fire for her before she went off to school on cold mornings. Occasionally my grandmother, a bit more stern in her demeanor, would delegate the task of disciplining a wayward child to my grandfather. He would take the offending party outside beyond her view and tell the child to cry out while he used the switch on some inanimate object instead of their legs.
As for me, I recall walking hand in hand with him to the small general store, stopping by the post office to check Box 73 for mail, and waiting for the train to come by so we could wave to the conductor and count the cars. But my favorite activity was eating apples with him. “Papa” as I called him, would sit me on his lap, produce an apple in one hand and his pocket knife in the other. He’d cut a slice for me, then a slice for himself. Back and forth the ritual would continue until the tasty fruit had been consumed. For as long as I can remember, I’ve eaten an apple almost every day. And when I do, I always think of my grandfather.
“Mr. Jim”, as the people around town knew him, was a man of faith, a deacon in the tiny country church where he worshiped. He embodied the fruits of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, kindness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. When he suffered a heart attack a few months before he died, the doctor told him he had to limit his physical activities. For a man who loved his garden and was used to being outside, it was like a death sentence. He’d sit in the kitchen of the home he shared with my grandmother, his wife of 55 years, turn his gaze toward the little church and comment he’d rather be in the cemetery than just sitting around. Fifty years ago today, on October 25, 1965, he was called Home. He had gone outside to check on some work being done for him, work he would much rather have done himself. In a fitting end to his earthly life, he died in his garden. I can still hear my mother’s anguished cry, “No, not Daddy!”, when she received the phone call telling her of his passing.
Although our relationship was brief in terms of time, Papa’s love impacts me to this day. Years after his death, the large corporation I worked for sent me to a training course, one of many I attended during my career. But this one, a self-awareness workshop, was different. It was facilitated by a team of psychologists and it was intense. One of our first exercises involved closing our eyes and imagining a safe place. I immediately envisioned myself in my grandfather’s lap, sharing an apple with him. The physical nourishment we’d partaken of paled by comparison to the bonds of unconditional love and acceptance that were formed.
Today I’m privileged to be a grandparent to two precious children with another one on the way. Sharing snacks, especially apples, while snuggled close, is one of my favorite things to do with them. It connects me to them and them to my grandfather.
It’s been much too long since I last visited the small graveyard where my grandparents and a number of other maternal relatives are laid to rest. My husband is resting there too, alongside my sister who died in infancy. But when I worked, my job frequently took me to that area of North Carolina and I’d visit the cemetery as often as I could. As I gazed at the tombstones, each representing someone I love and miss, I’d think about how glorious it will be when we all rise to new life, a life that will never end. For the love we share now is but a shadow of the Love that awaits when the Everlasting Arms reach out to embrace us and welcome us Home.
Until then, I’ll remain thankful for little rituals and rock-solid faith, lovingly shared, that can reach across the decades, blessing one generation after another.