I have wonderful memories of my Papaw McLaughlin, even though he died when I was about four. My grandparents lived in a huge farmhouse in High Bridge, KY. He nursed any injured animal back to health. Whether it was a squirrel who later bit him for his efforts, or an unwanted dog abandoned by cruel owners, my Papaw took care of them all. He was a minister at the Nazarene church just a short walk down a gravel road from the house. I have fond memories of us walking to the church and just talking. To show my appreciation, I bought him huge sticks of the peppermint candy he so dearly loved.
When he had a stroke, I didn’t fully understand what had happened. But even then he thought of me. A hospital bed was moved into the living room of the house for him. He insisted Mom put me in the bed with him. As sick as he was, he played dolls with me for hours. Mom warned me before visiting him that I wasn’t allowed to ask for snacks from my grandmother or to play with my Papaw. I obeyed the rules, somewhat. Simply asking an innocent question about some sweet treat I spied in my Granny’s kitchen got that treat placed in my hands immediately. When Mom tried to chastise me, I would respond in my most innocent voice, “But Momma, I didn’t ask for it. Granny just gave it to me.” Score: me one, Mom zero.
But when it came to Papaw, I followed Mom’s instructions. I wanted him to get better and take those precious walks with me. Looking back, I think those walks meant so much because, in my world of chaos, he was the only person who took the time to focus solely on me. I wasn’t a burden to him. Walking to the church I had his undivided attention. The only thing that gives me pause is I don’t remember him talking to me about Jesus. Maybe he did, and I just didn’t hone in on that as much as I did the attention. In all honesty, I couldn’t tell you a single thing we ever talked about but in my mind’s eye I see those walks and remember the feelings. Knowing what I know now, I believe that some of my passion for Jesus came directly from Papaw McLaughlin.
Mom, however, would staunchly deny that. Her vision of my Papaw, her father, was tremendously different from the doting grandfather I loved. For someone who never lived her life according to it, my mother knew a tremendous amount of Scripture. She always blamed her father for her lack of faith. Which seemed odd to me because she could just as easily blame him for the faith she did have.
Mom claimed her father was verbally and physically abusive. She told stories of how strangers would show up at the door looking for ministerial advice and he would show them kindness then close the door and abuse the family. Not once did I ever see traces of my Daddy in my Papaw. But I was very young. Perhaps, he hid it from me. Daddy certainly had the ability to morph into someone I didn’t know for complete strangers. It was sickening. Even thought Mom displayed signs similar to my own she seemed, at least to me, blind to them in me.
It wasn’t long after Papaw’s stroke that Mom dragged me with her to Daddy’s new apartment. He had not returned to our house since my surgery. He had a live-in girlfriend who with only a few words from Mom made herself scarce. Mom told Daddy Papaw McLaughlin was not doing well. Right then, in a rare moment of compassion, Daddy packed his stuff and left. I’ve always wondered what in the world the girlfriend thought when she came back to find Daddy gone. But my life was marching on and there was no time to contemplate her.
Peculiar things began happening. Mom was suddenly leaving immediately after work and I was left in the care of Brenda and Daddy. Brenda, I could understand. But Daddy? Mom never left him in charge of me. When I voiced my concerns to Brenda she let me in on the plan. Papaw McLaughlin was dying. Mom and her siblings were taking turns sitting up with him at night. Mom gave Brenda money and a plan. If Daddy flew into a drunken rage, we were to run up the wall which aligned the town branch, to a pay phone. Brenda had the number to call Papaw Noe. Mom instructed us not to run across the street, which was our normal safe haven, because she feared what would happen to the neighbors. I slept with Brenda every night. Because of that, I had the most restful nights of my life because I completely trusted her. Brenda was twelve.
My world was suddenly different. Daddy was different. What a peculiar thing to associate death with peace. Then came the night I realized I was still up and Mom was home but nowhere to be seen. When I asked about her both Daddy and Brenda, a little too forcefully, told me she was in bed and not to bother her. In bed? My mother was never in bed. I became alarmed.
The more questions I asked the more adamant Brenda and Daddy became that I should not bother her. Me being me, I went to Mom’s bedroom. Sure enough, she was asleep. I woke her up and asked her why she was in bed. Very gently, crying the entire time she told me Papaw McLaughlin had died, and she was just so sad all she wanted to do was sleep. In all the beatings Daddy gave her, Momma never cried. In fact, this was the first time I saw her cry. I was not equipped to deal with it. It is an image to this very day that remains hauntingly in the hallway of my mind and forever shaped who I would become.