Humans are admittedly a bit complicated. The same person can be hateful with some and the most loving individual with others. Some people have what could be called toxic traits: harmful behaviors that drive their personality and sometimes worsen over their lifetimes causing irreparable rifts with those around them. Others can be problematic to those around them for a short period of time and then through therapy or medication or some transformative experience they become someone much easier to relate to. On top of these relational complications, all of us are born into systems and cultures that build the world as we know it.
Evangelicalism was my world, and since leaving the church and the us versus them, good versus evil dichotomy built by it, I am learning to view the people in my life more clearly. One of those people was my Papa.
Because my mom estranged my sister and me from our dad, I barely knew my paternal Grandfather, but I had a special relationship with my maternal Papa. Papa, before I was old enough to know, was part of the traumatic events that took place when my mom outed my dad in the early 80s. That bothers me, but what I know of Papa is that he was a man of his time, his Presbyterian faith system, and he was known to fiercely defend his daughters and that gives me some perspective on his actions – if not approval.
While I am bothered by those thoughts, in my childhood my Papa was the closest thing I had to a hero and because of my Papa’s influence, I have spent an inordinate amount of time studying. Actually, studying is my only real hobby. And because of Papa, I have spent considerable time studying some very odd things for the average woman – like the history of tractors and cattle breeds. And that drive to study and learn is probably the thing that gave me a special relationship with Papa. We were very similar in that way.
He was a learner and teacher at heart and by profession. Papa taught life sciences – specifically horticulture and agriculture – in our county vo-tech school, and when he died the work he had done for his doctoral degree in those fields was still in a file cabinet in his farm office. He did the research, but never defended the dissertation. And he certainly didn’t need the title to earn the respect of those around him. When he died at the end of December, during my junior year of high school, his former students and coworkers lined up in the ice and snow to pay their respects.
When my chemistry teacher, Mr. Kolakowski, saw me looking sullen after the winter break that year, he pulled me aside. I told him then that my Papa had died, and he put two and two together. He waved me into the little closet area that had doors that linked the chemistry lab to the chemistry classroom.
“Was John Graham your Papa?” he asked.
Tears flowed for both of us.
“You’re Pappy’s granddaughter!” he practically shouted at me with a grin on his face.
“Yes, I guess.”
“Pappy was my friend for years! Wait. Let me get something.”
Mr. Kolakowski then headed to his desk in the classroom side. I heard the old desk drawer slide open and then close again and he came back to the closet with an old black and white yearbook photo of Papa. He had recently found it in a storage room.
“Here you go, Pappy!” He handed me the photo and gave me a little hug.
Mr. Kolakowski called me “Pappy” every time he saw me from that day until I left the school. My Papa left a sweet memory in the minds of many – not just me.
Mingled with my adult confusion about the man, I have a bunch of loving thoughts of Papa. Papa, G’ma, and their farm were my refuge in childhood. I’m pretty sure that I spent more time with them than my siblings or my cousins did. Their love, care, and support were pillars to my life.
And there is one story that, to me, encompasses the whole of my relationship with Papa.
Annually, from the time I was five or six until my mother married my stepfather when I was thirteen, Papa and G’ma took us on vacation with them – usually to the Jersey shore. Each year we would pile into their Ford LTD with their tow-behind camper and travel across the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Usually an aunt came along – very often my fun Aunt Joy. We would stop and load up on the gorgeous produce available at the garden stands as we passed through New Jersey and then camp at a campground fairly close to the beach. During our week we would swim, visit one of the famous New Jersey boardwalks, go crabbing and steam fresh crabs, and eat loads of that fresh garden produce. I was a light sleeper and Papa a farmer, so we often got up early together and sometimes those early mornings included our own little adventures.
One year, Papa noticed a wild berry patch at the campground where we stayed. When I appeared from the camper one morning, he was sitting in a lawn chair under the awning drinking a cup of Folger’s Crystals. He had a small, plastic ice-cream pail with him. He greeted me with his low cheerful voice and told me to get ready to head out. We were going berry picking so that the others could have fresh berries for breakfast.
We had been at the patch a while and our pail was nearly full when I noticed the most beautiful caterpillar. He was smooth and green and majestic and very fat, and I don’t think I had ever before seen such an amazing creature. Papa immediately noticed my fascination and told me the scientific name and that the caterpillar would one day become a moth.
Then he said it, “He loves to eat tomatoes.”
My child mind flew into a tizzy then. We had a bunch of good tomatoes back at the camper. We could feed him his favorite food and then he could become a beautiful moth. I was going to keep him! And though any farmer worth his salt would never have kept a hornworm caterpillar and fed it, Papa did it for me.
He pulled out his little pocket-knife and cut off the branch the caterpillar was resting on and we carried it back to the camper with our pail full of berries.
When we got there, G’ma was up and setting out breakfast things. It didn’t take the master gardener long to recognize the pest on the branch that I was proudly carrying. She eyed Papa and I heard her familiar, “Jaaahn?” And Papa told her sweetly that I loved the beautiful caterpillar, and we were going to feed him so that he could become a beautiful moth.
When my mom appeared and saw the thing, she was indignant and wanted to get rid of it. Again, Papa told her that I was keeping it and I was going to feed it so that it could become a beautiful moth.
And so, I found the best container from our sand toys and set up a nice little home for the caterpillar and gave him a nice little tomato to munch on. And I diligently cared for him the rest of the week.
When we packed up to head home, the others thought that I would have to say goodbye to my little hornworm, but not Papa. He helped me to get it set up to safely survive the trip back across the Pennsylvania Turnpike to the big, beautiful farm garden that would be its next home.
And so we traveled all that day and reached Papa and G’ma’s farm sometime after dark. It was a beautiful night, and the lawn and garden could be clearly seen from just the light of the moon and stars.
As others unpacked, Papa took me and my beautiful caterpillar to the garden to his perfectly straight row of tomato plants. He allowed me to pick out the best plant with the biggest tomato and I said a sweet goodbye to my caterpillar there. Then, with a skip in my step, I headed to the lawn where Aunt Joy was sprawled out looking at the stars. We spent some time there discussing what I knew of constellations and then went inside with the others.
And I think we all know what Papa did with my little hornworm – may he rest in peace.
Former Evangelical homeschool mom and one-time missionary and pastor’s wife, Stephanie Logan, aka Snicklefritz, writes from her life story and four decades of experience in the evangelical movement. Her views and stories are her own.
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