A Man Named Joe

Everyone called him Joe.  His engineering co-workers at Exxon, my grandmother, and my mom.  No one ever told me not to call him Grandpa or Granddaddy.  I knew to call him Joe.

I have strung together my memories of my maternal grandfather, using each fragmented, hazy scene to construct a three-dimensional Joe.  As a young girl, his height so impressed me that I told my kindergarten teacher he was the tallest man alive.  Every time we visited my grandparents in Baton Rouge, I couldn’t wait to ask Joe the same question: “Can you touch the ceiling?”  When he reached up and touched the paneling over our heads, I delighted that this marvel was my Joe.

The built-in bookshelves at my grandparents’ house were packed with pulpy paperbacks Joe was always reading.  I understood that there was something vaguely “adult” in those pages when I saw the cover pictures of old-fashioned women wearing layers of skirts and riding black horses with bare-chested men.

While he read, he also drank bottled Coca-Cola that he poured in a glass.  He told us it was “pine cone” juice so we wouldn’t ask for some for ourselves. I endlessly wondered which part of the pine cone held the syrupy drops that Joe liked to sip.

When I plumb my memory, a scene plays where he watched me roller skate up and down the driveway, long after the sun set behind the magnolia trees.  Everyone else was in the living room watching The Facts of Life.  I don’t remember him saying much to me that night as he stood watch over me as stern as the old farmer in American Gothic.  I knew he appreciated my obsessive drive to learn how to skate the turns– foot over foot in one smooth motion.

Grant Wood's iconic painting, American Gothic (image found at www.pbs.org)

Grant Wood’s iconic painting, American Gothic (image found at http://www.pbs.org)

His taciturn nature scared me, the young girl who grew up trying to read people’s minds.  What was he thinking that day in the New Orleans airport when he found me and my brother looking at Playboy?  He did not speak– he simply came up behind us and closed the magazine.  I watched him walk slowly back to his seat where he was waiting for my mother’s flight.  Plumes of shame threatened to consume me.  I wanted to scream, “It wasn’t my idea! I didn’t know!  Please say something, Joe.”

I once found him on the couch with one of his books.  I was supposed to be napping.  He clearly preferred his book to my company, but I insisted on engaging.  I lifted his pant leg and pulled his leg hairs. He asked me to stop, but I didn’t.  How else could I play with this giant, quiet man?  When I pulled his leg hair again, he slapped me.  Cowering on the far end of the couch, cradling my stinging cheek, I waited for him to speak.  “I asked you to stop, and you didn’t.  That’s why I slapped you.”

It was the most he had ever said to me.

Years later, Alzheimer’s scrambled what few words he had left.   I didn’t care anymore whether he could touch the ceiling.  As he grew ever more addled, I mourned the lost opportunities to ask the question that loomed over us.  If I thought he could understand, I would have asked, “How come you didn’t want me to call you Granddaddy?”

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63 thoughts on “A Man Named Joe

  1. Great piece! He reminds me of my maternal grandfather. Papa never said much to me either. He’s quiet, shy, and a homebody….not unlike me. I always wondered if he ever spoke to his own children.

  2. So many characters or experiences of your past remind me of my own but this one especially. Do you think it could be my John McCullough (changed to Colormore by his mother when she arrived in america) reminded me of your Joe? He worked for the Daily News and I have been thinking of him a lot as I applied for an editorial position on a whim last week (part time!). He died when he was 55 and I was 9 – old enough to be his daughter in these times. I have so many questions, first of which would be: “what the hell were you thinking when you married a tough bitch Puerto Rican right off the boat?”

    This was a beautiful post. Your writing makes me all heady and dreamy – sorry for the digression.

    • I love that you have these characters in your history too! My Joe married a very proper Convent, Louisiana woman. Your John sounds spicier than Joe. And HELLO??? I love that you applied for that job on a whim. You are a get on the horse kind of woman. I am a think about the horse, delve into deep-seated horse fears and spend time in therapy about horses before doing jack. Go you!

      • This job was begging for me to apply. Begging. Part time, editorial, paid, short term with room to grow for a site that has a ‘ridiculing the stork’ voice to it. The ad popped up on Twitter and DARED me not to apply. I love a challenge.

  3. I am also really curious as to why he preferred to be called Joe!
    You told a great story here, Christie. You described him so well that I feel that I can picture him when I close my eyes. I love how you did it without blatantly describing him, but wove it into the story.
    Even his height!
    Alzheimer’s has a way of cruelly magnifying unanswered questions, and I’m sorry for anyone who has had to deal with it.
    I do hope that you can piece together an answer from other people’s experiences. If you do, please share it with us!

    • I honestly have no idea. Maybe he didn’t really want to be a dad or granddad. It’s so weird to think of setting a life up like that. We’ll see if any clues remain!

  4. You told such an engaging story that gives us many reasons to care about Joe, what was going on in his head, and his effects on you. Keep working your way through the family tree…these characters are quite interesting! And very well written post, of course.

  5. That’s an interesting observation about him not wanting you to call him a grandfather name. I’ve heard women say that — my mom for one — but never a man. It’s funny. It was a different time back then and children were definitely seen in a different light. Even much loved grandchildren.

  6. Holy crow! If anyone slapped my kids I’d be full on crazy bitch. I did not see that coming. You described him very well. Wove the unusual aspects of his character so thoughtfully that I didn’t know what kind of guy he was. SO the slap at the end did surpise me.

    Really great post. SUPERB.

  7. I really enjoyed this. It had an instagram-ish quality. And I’m wondering if the “pine cone juice” wasn’t Coca-Cola with a little splash of somethin’-somethin’ in there. You *totally* have to ask your mom and all available other relatives for backstory on Joe!

  8. Ooh, I enjoyed this. The simple writing, exacting details and a slap that took my breath away. I wasn’t expecting that. Beautifully written. I spoke with my mom and dad this weekend and got some great details about my maternal grandfather, a man I also shared all of five words with my entire life. Fascinating human beings these grandfathers of ours! xo

  9. Great story telling, as always, mama! I too want to know more about Joe and his life. His stoicism reminds me of my own paternal grandpa. I always wondered what he was thinking as he sat on the screened-in porch listening to Tigers’ games on his transistor radio. The most I could get out of him was, “Don’t slam the door! Were you born in a barn?”

  10. Christie, this is so well done. You don’t give too much information, don’t speculate much beyond what a child would, so while it’s not told in a childlike voice, the voice you used demonstrates perfectly the gaps in a kid’s knowledge, the confusion and the mysteries. I love it. (And I miss y’all this week, just running on empty.)

  11. I resonated with the distance here. My Grandaddy died last year, and there were so many questions I couldn’t figure out how to ask. I was intimidated by him, but he never slapped me. I was so sad for you. It’s amazing how people can affect us so much and still be mysteries.

  12. This is so excellent! It was the question right before us through out the entire story, but I was still so surprised when you voiced it. Well done!

  13. Oh my… Joe is what I imagine my grandfather would have been, had he not passed away when I was very young. I remember very little, other than his towering height, but family stories run parallel to yours. Brilliantly told story, with such lovely details (pine cone juice was a fave). Kudos, hon.

    • My best guess is that it had something to do with dignity. Maybe hearing himself as “Dad” or “Grandpa” sounded undignified or somehow low brow. I can’t wait until I ask my mom about this. I hope she’ll venture a guess.

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