It’s more than just a box to me. It’s simple, not adorned in fancy jewels or designs, but made from a sturdy stock of old-growth southern pine. Several layers of stain, varnish, and paint have been applied, stripped, and applied again over the years, but I still see that beautifully simple pine toy box that I first knew as a child some 20 plus years ago.
It represents my grandfather’s legacy.
It was a present for me, though I can’t remember my age at the time or the occasion for the gift. There was a time in my life when all my childhood treasures could be found within that box… Everything from my favorite teddy bear, to arrowheads scavenged from the woods and fields, those good shooter marbles that I won in games at school, to a short-lived Stretch Armstrong… As it turns out, when you figure out what’s inside Stretch Armstrong, he doesn’t survive long afterward. Oh, the treasures and lessons that box has held over the years. It’s a simple thing, but it is a comfort to me every time I see it.
My grandfather, Pawpaw as we knew him, was a lot like that box he made with my Dad all those years ago. He was a simple man, honest and hardworking, not too much different from the others in that great generation.
He lived a life cursed by famines and blessed by feasts of many forms, in cycles lasting the better part of a century. Those plentiful and lean times applied and stripped layers to and from the man that few would ever be able to see.
He was a very quiet man, never saying much more than what needed to be said. When he spoke, we listened. Partly due to our ingrained southern respect for our elders, but also because he normally only said what was worth saying. He didn’t teach and instruct very often. He just did things, it was up to you to watch and learn. Now, in my thirties, I’m just beginning to understand my grandfather’s legacy and the lessons I learned as a child and teenager.
On some hot sunny days as a child, he would tell my cousin and me to go find some worms for fishing. Once we’d collected enough, he would gather up the cane poles and take us down to the small pond in the field by his home. We’d spend what felt like an eternity down there fishing, intently watching those bobbers for the slightest movement, hoping to haul in a fish for Pawpaw. I only discovered in my later teenage years that there were never really any fish in that pond worth pursuing. It was just a ruse in order to spend time with his grandchildren, in a pastime that spans the divide between generations.
He was a man of habit, to say the least. In the early hours of the morning, you could find him at the dining room table, reading his paper and sipping coffee while Mawmaw fixed breakfast. In my teenage years, I loved going hunting in the woods behind their home, partly because I knew that there was a delicious hot breakfast waiting for me before I headed out. I’d catch them up on what was going on in my world, Mawmaw would fix me an extra sausage biscuit to take with me into the woods, while Pawpaw would tell me where the deer had been moving and what tree stand would be best for the weather that morning. In the evenings, he would be sitting in his easy chair, drinking sweet tea and watching the evening news.
I remember those times well, though it’s possible that I’m reflecting upon my grandfather’s legacy with rose-colored lenses.
Life wasn’t perfect for any of us back then, although it was definitely a simpler time. I look back upon those years with fondness. That’s probably because in his last years, Pawpaw’s health began to decline. His heart problems worsened, and a lifetime of smoking inhibited his ability to breathe. By far, however, the most heartbreaking of his conditions was the onset of dementia, which attacked his memories and his ability to function. My military career had carried me to the far reaches of the continent during most of his battle with dementia, but the effects of his condition sent waves that crashed through our entire family. It was crushing to hear the tales of his struggle and the effects it had on my family. Ultimately, Pawpaw succumbed to his many conditions, leaving a vacancy at the head of our family that still aches in our hearts today.
For years I have carried a guilt in my soul for not being there with him in his final days, a burden I still carry to this day. I’m constantly at odds with myself because how could I, the grandchild named after him, not be there for him in his time of greatest need?
I know all the standard responses to this dilemma… “He wouldn’t have wanted you to remember him like that,” or, “He understood why you were so far away and he wouldn’t have wanted you to worry over him,” and similar statements… They’re all likely true, but that doesn’t make it sting any less; that I wasn’t there for the man who had been there for me so many times before. Not that I could have done anything to help him medically, as I’m certainly no healthcare professional.
I suppose ultimately, selfishly, I want to know if dementia robbed him of his memories with me. If he remembered helping me drag my first deer out of the woods, sitting at the table drinking coffee together, all those afternoons chasing fish that weren’t there, teaching me how to shuck corn and peas grown in his garden… Did he remember ME? I know he couldn’t control how the disease targeted his memories, but I will always wonder if seeing my face could have provided solace to him with a memory of our time spent together. Would that have given him comfort? Would that have made his eventual death more peaceful? I will never know, at least not in this lifetime.
I have a couple of his woodworking tools in my shop, which I look upon often and smile as I carry on his passion for turning rough lumber into useful and beautiful, yet simple items. That toy box which used to hold all my childhood treasures now sits in my children’s playroom, performing the same job for the four of them as it did for me so many years ago. It’s had layers added and layers stripped away over the years, much like each of us. However, I still see the same pine box that was handcrafted with love and care by my Pawpaw and my Dad all those years ago. Each time I see my children playing their games and puzzles on that box or storing them inside it, I wish I could somehow give each of them some time with Pawpaw. I wish that I could give him a chance to hold his great-grandchildren again and impact their lives the way that he impacted me.
Sadly, it is not to be, but I will joyfully carry on his memory and try to teach my children and (one day) grandchildren the most important lessons that he taught me… Live simply, love earnestly, and stand for what is right, always.
Whenever I see that toy box, I see my Pawpaw and experience that same flood of emotions I’ve poured onto these pages, and wish for a time when I can hug him one more time, tell him how much I love him, and how much his life shaped my own.
It is so much more than a toy box to me; it represents my grandfather’s legacy.
Guest Author: John Gallagher
John is originally from Carmack, Mississippi and is the proud father of four amazing children. He married Jade, who was his teenage sweetheart, shortly before entering the military in 2006. He can most often be found working in his garage turned woodshop, or on the back deck watching the kids play while tending to supper on the grill/smoker. He and his family currently reside in their little slice of heaven in Fairfax, Vermont.