Sunday, August 21, 2016

Two Steps Back

(c)Melanie Goodman Deal, August 2016

For August 2016, I am hosting a guest blogger, my daughter Melanie Goodman Deal. I remember both Melanie's and my father's versions of this story. He loved to tell Melanie stories. The photo at the bottom of this blog is my father, Theodore Alexander Wright; my mother, Ida Pauline Tackett Wright; and my daughter, Melanie Goodman Deal.

As a kid, I didn’t have much confidence in myself. I was an only child who spent most of my time with adults, rather than with kids my own age. I was extremely shy and afraid of everything around me.
A lot of my time was spent with my mom’s parents, as my mom was a single mom who worked retail and she couldn’t afford daycare. My grandparents were my daycare. My Papaw and I became especially close as a result of this.
By the time I was born, my Papaw was 67 years old and already retired from his career as an electrician. Some of you might think that a 67 year old retired guy is OLD and just piddles around all day. But not my Papaw!
My Papaw was like a big teddy bear! He was 6 ft. 4 in. tall, with a rich baritone voice that captured the attention of any person in the vicinity, and he always wore a smile on his weathered face.
From the time I was a baby, my Papaw loved to hold me on his lap and sing his favorite country songs to me. He especially loved singing “The Gambler” by Kenny Rogers, and I walked around singing it all the time after learning it from him.
He also loved to tell me stories. These were stories about his childhood and coal mining days in the Appalachian mountains of Virginia. My Papaw was born in 1905, so hearing his stories made me feel like I was hearing about an important piece of history. He was such a great storyteller, I could easily see in my mind’s eye all the people and places he told me about.
My Papaw also loved to walk. Cars were so new to people during his childhood, and his parents wouldn’t have been able to afford one anyway, so my Papaw walked everywhere. It was such a huge part of his life that it never occurred to him that he should consider learning how to drive when he became an adult. I can remember him saying, “If it’s somewhere I can’t walk to, then it’s not somewhere worth going to.” 
Because I was over at my grandparents’ apartment so much, I went on lots of walks with my Papaw. My Mamaw didn’t walk with him, and I never really knew why. She always seemed to be sitting on the couch watching her soap operas. Come to think of it, I never saw her go outside. Ever! Hmmm…maybe she was some sort of strange vampire or something!
Anyway, on our walks, my Papaw told me story after story. Some were about his childhood, some were about the time he spent in the military, some were about coal mining, and sometimes he just made up a story on the spot about something we encountered on our walk. It felt like we sometimes walked for hours, but neither of us ever tired because we were so enthralled in whatever story he was spinning.
Eventually, I was old enough to go to school, which meant I didn’t have to be at my grandparents’ apartment every day. My mom thought I’d do best in a private school since I was so afraid of everything. I hated that school! The teachers were always grumpy and yelling at us, and the kids were so mean to me. By Second Grade, I was getting beat up every single day, so my mom decided to pull me out and enroll me in public school.
The school I’d be going to was in my grandparents’ neighborhood, but my mom had to leave for work too early to take me to school. My grandparents said she could drop me off at their place and my Papaw could walk me to school.
I was so excited! I’d missed our walks and hearing his stories, so I was so happy he’d be walking me to school.
On the day I was to go to my new school for the first time, I was SO scared. I didn’t know any of these kids, and there would be so many of them compared to what I was used to. What if I got beat up at this school, too? My stomach was in knots as I went to my grandparents’ place.
As always, my Papaw had a big smile on his face, and his voice immediately put me at ease. When it was time to leave for school, he grabbed my hand and said, “Alright, Mel. It’s time to go. Everything’s gonna be OK, you hear me?”
I looked at him with tears welling in my eyes, but put on my bravest face and said, “Yep. I’m ready. Let’s go.”
One the way to school, my Papaw told me a story that totally distracted me from my fear. I wish I could remember what it was about, but all I know is that by the time the school came into sight, I was no longer afraid. In fact, I was getting excited and actually looking forward to making some friends.
Suddenly, a new emotion hit me. I looked around and saw other kids in front of me walking to school, but none of them had adults with them. I was the only one. Embarrassment washed over me, wondering if these kids would think I was a “baby” because I had to be walked to school by my Papaw.
All of a sudden, I stopped and let go of his hand.
“Papaw, I’m good. I think I’m big enough and responsible enough to walk by myself the rest of the way.”
Even though I said these words to him, I was still scared inside. I didn’t REALLY want him to leave, but I didn’t want to be made fun of, either.
“Papaw, if you REALLY feel like you need to, though, why don’t you walk two steps behind me. You know, to test out if you really think I’m ready to walk on my own like a big girl. And if I think there’s a problem, I’ll give you a hand signal so you know I need help. How’s that?”
He broke out into one of his huge smiles. Those smiles I loved so much. The smiles that always put me at ease.
He winked at me as he said, “You know, Melanie, I do believe you ARE ready for this. But yes, just to be safe, I’m gonna hang back by two steps and keep walking with you so I can be here if you give me the signal. And I’ll be here when you get out of school, standing by that tree over there. Just give me the signal when you’re ready and I’ll follow you home the same way.”
He knew. He knew I needed him, but he also knew how much I needed to get through my fear. So he gave me exactly what I needed. It’s one of the important memories of my life.
Years later, at the age of 82, my grandfather was dying. I was 15 years old and was living in Connecticut at the time. I hadn’t seen my grandfather since the year before, as it wasn’t easy to get to Virginia often.
When we arrived at the hospital, my Mamaw and other family members warned us that things didn’t look good. They warned us that my Papaw didn’t know who anyone was, so they wanted us to be prepared.
My mom went in to see him first, and she came out a few minutes later, sobbing. He didn’t recognize her at all, and it just broke her heart to see him that way.
Then it was my turn. I was scared. I didn’t want to go in there if he wasn’t even going to know who I was. But I knew it was important and that I’d never forgive myself if I didn’t, so in I went.
As I walked to his bedside, my heart felt so heavy. To see this once vibrant man look so weak and feeble just wasn’t fair! To see him in a bed instead of outside walking in the sunshine was an injustice! Too see the confusion on his face as to where he was broke my heart! Anger started to fill me in a way it never had before.
But as I reached my Papaw, I reached out for his hand, like he’d once reached for mine on that long ago first day of school.
He looked at my hand, and then he looked up at me. At first, he gave me the same confused look he had probably given to everyone else. But then he broke out into one those huge smiles I remembered so well and said, “Hey Melanie! How did your first day of school go today? Do you need me to walk behind you on the way home?”

Yet again, he’d given me exactly what I needed. Peace. Comfort. And knowing that that day was one of the most important memories for him, just like it was for me.