No, not me. MY Papa.
We called him “Papa.” I didn’t know him by any other name. I don’t recall how he got that moniker, but it fit. His full name was Ellison Capers Grayson. He was born in 1898 in Charleston, South Carolina. He was a fine Southern gentleman – the gentlest of souls I’ve ever known. I rarely saw him visibly angry.
Papa was an interesting man. He was incredibly smart, but didn’t have a college degree (a fact I didn’t know until well into my adult years). He was a draftsman and (I thought) an engineer. One of the oldest relics of his is a drawing he made for the U.S. Navy for a submarine. This dated from before WWI. Papa could draw just about anything and his handwriting was unique and impeccable. From what I could recall, he could fix anything. He made my sister a wonderful doll house and made me a fine-crafted wooden tool box. The handle for the box was the crooked arm of the included hand drill. Papa had a manicured yard and had a special green thumb. His rose garden received his special attention.
Papa and Grandma moved from South Carolina to Minnesota on a temporary assignment with the railroad. Papa was the “engineer” who designed the iconic orange refrigeration railcars for various fruit and vegetable producers. He worked for such railroad companies as Western Fruit Express, Fruit Growers Express, and Great Northern Railway, the latter causing his temporary assignment to St. Paul, Minnesota. Unfortunately for Grandma, Papa’s “temporary assignment” to Minnesota lasted over forty years!
I never remember Papa working, but I’m pretty sure that he didn’t retire until after I was born. I do remember him always wearing a suit. In fact, I am certain that even AFTER he retired he continued to wear a suit quite often. Certainly any time Grandma had him take her anywhere. A signature item on Papa’s suit jackets was the iconic Rotary International lapel pin. He was very proud of that and wore it every day.
Some of my earliest memories of Papa were at the St. Paul Rotary Club’s “children and grandchildren’s day” at the St. Paul Athletic Club and at the Athletic Club’s Sunday brunch. The Rotary club at that time far exceeded 300 members and meetings took place in the gigantic ballroom. I remember stopping in the men’s room with Papa prior to meetings. It was a classic! Marble walls, bathroom attendants, five-foot urinals, shoe shine stand, and even a barbershop. Papa regularly took me to the club for haircuts.
My mother loved Papa. He was everything that my father was not: beat, organized to a fault, initiative about fixing just about everything. My dad couldn’t even fix the flapper in a toilet, while Papa could have installed an entire toilet and could have replaced all the innards by modifying spare parts. Papa was a regular in our home, checking off my mom’s “honey do” list that my dad never had the time, inclination, or ability to do.
When I was about eight or nine years old, Grandma and Papa moved back to their home in Charleston, South Carolina. We kids were devastated. We had only recently lost our Grandpa Grewe, but now were to be without our precious Papa. Grandma Grayson was the strict one. Papa was great with kids and we all loved being around him. Grandma and Papa would often take Pam and I on shopping trips. This almost always included lunch somewhere. The real treat was when the trip was to Dayton’s in downtown Minneapolis! That normally meant a stop at the Forum Cafeteria. The Forum was a spectacular, Art Deco style two-level cafeteria. The food choices seemed endless.
At the Forum, Pam and I would pile our trays with jello, meatloaf, potatoes, corn, cakes, pies, and cookies. Grandma was always far ahead of us, so didn’t put the hammer down on our selections. Papa, for the most part, let us pick whatever we wanted. Almost every time, as we were stuffed with food left on our plates, Grandma would tell us, “your eyes are bigger than your stomach!” She chided Papa to keep a better eye on what we put on those trays. I’m not sure if Jon and Jenifer ever had that experience, but if they did, I’ll bet Grandma watched them like a hawk!
After Papa and Grandma moved to Charleston, we didn’t lose touch. Papa was a prolific letter writer. I am sad to say that I did not reciprocate as much as I should have. I’m sure he hoped I would write him more. One of the most interesting “letters” from Papa was when he sent me a lizard in a matchbox. Papa had poked air holes in the box and left some leafy greens for the lizard to eat, but unfortunately, the lizard did not survive.
I was lucky enough to spend a summer in Charleston when I was ten years old. Not only did I get to meet cousins I didn’t even know I had (second and third cousins), I really got to know Papa even better. At that time he was in his seventies, but you wouldn’t know it they way he worked his house, yard, and garden. They had a small house, but an enormous yard. Papa hired “cousins” to do the mowing, but he and I did everything else. We dug, planted, weeded, fertilized, raked, and picked-up sticks all summer long. This included keeping his famous rose garden blooming. I suspect this time with Papa led to my joy of gardening later in life.
Papa also showed me all the sights of his hometown. I’ve been to every major tourist attraction in the area; watched parades of cadets at the Citadel and toured the campus; spent time on the Battery overlooking Fort Sumter; poked around old cemeteries; visited with Papa and Grandma’s many friends and relatives. Most of all, though, it was just spending time with Papa.
No matter what we did and where we were, Papa impressed upon me the importance of good manners and kindness. Outside of my mother, he is probably the kindest person I’ve ever met. Decades after his death, I met Rotarians who had known him. Even after so many years, they were effusive in their praise for such a “kind and wonderful man.” From what I can tell, Papa had no enemies. I really cannot recall him ever saying a bad word about anyone.
I am blessed for having known Papa and for his influence in my life. He definitely taught me empathy and to be kind to everyone. He definitely taught me to at least TRY to fix things. I have taken apart far more than I’ve ever put back together, but Papa spurred a healthy curiosity about how things work. I write much like Papa (and my father) by using large and small caps in my hand written words. Finally, Papa taught me how to treat women – like a gentleman. I still remember how proud Papa looked at he and Grandma’s 50th Wedding Anniversary. Grandma knew he was a keeper.
Papa died at the age of 80 when I was in high school. For whatever reason, Dad (or maybe Grandma) decided that the whole family would not attend the funeral in Charleston. Only Dad went. I was devastated. It was then I decided that if I was able, I would never miss a funeral. Even now, I think of Papa every time I attend a wake or funeral. I’m sure he would be proud. If I can provide even half the example to my grandchildren that Papa provided to me, I, too, will be proud.