My grandfather died when I was six years old. Shortly before that, my budgie died. I had named my budgie “Abraham”, after Abraham Lincoln, whom I knew my father admired greatly. My grandfather was named Richard Mason McNeer, although we called him “Papa Mac”.
When my father told me Papa Mac was dead, I asked why. He said “Pneumonia, like Abraham.” That way, in my mind my father’s father, my budgie, and the President who freed the slaves were always associated, because I had loved them all, and they were all gone.
He had been “ailing”, as they said in my father’s family, as long as I had known him. The last years of his life, the first years of mine, he was always in bed when we visited, and their house was always warm, heated by the coal furnace in the cellar, which my grandmother, Momac, kept burning day and night.
I never asked what his ailment was, and I don’t remember it ever being discussed. I accepted it as his condition, which was I think what he had long done, himself. But I do remember that when it rained, Momac would help him out of bed, so that he could stand at the window and watch the rain fall on the vegetable garden, which he loved doing.
He had studied successfully for a law degree as a young man, but had never practiced, because his mother took ill shortly after his graduation, and he came back to Virginia from Kentucky, to care for her. His Kentucky law license wasn’t valid in Virginia, so with two partners, he founded a general store.
I have a photograph of him in his store, a single large room stocked floor to ceiling with whatever one might need to maintain a dignified existence, from a nail, to a sack of “grits,” to an elixir for cough and indisposition. In the photograph, everything is in perfect focus: you can read the labels on the cans of beans. He’s standing behind the counter looking, from my present perspective, like a young man. The remarkable thing is he looks exactly like me, at that age. Even more, he looks like me as a teenager, playing a general store manager in a school play, “Our Town”, for instance.
The Great Depression hit shortly thereafter, his partners skipped the state while he stayed with his ailing mother, and spent most of his adult life paying off both his and his partners’ debts. “More pride than money in the McNeer family,” my father used to say.
Now, as we sit out the Covid crises here in Puglia, tending the garden, doing home repairs, separate trips to the hardware store or the supermarket – since those establishments are no longer under one roof – now my father’s father visits me. Not often, but intensely.
A few days ago, it started raining, not hard, but persistently, exactly the rain which the plants had been waiting for, after a mild, dry winter and a dry spring. I stood the longest time at the window and enjoyed watching the rain fall on our garden. That’s when I felt my grandfather with me, not as another person, but as myself.
I thought of the times in my life when I had stopped what I was doing, to help someone ailing, who needed my time, and all the times I hadn’t. Suddenly I thought of all the questions I hadn’t asked, as a child, why my grandfather was always in bed, how exactly my grandmother managed alone to keep the furnace going in the cellar under their house. They were sometimes snowed in, a long walk to the nearest neighbor, and no telephone. Was she afraid? Did she pray? I don’t know, I. Now my own parents are dead, so I wouldn’t know, now, who to ask.
But what I can do, now, is stand at the window, like my grandfather. As the Covid crisis attacks over the just and the unjust of this world, I can watch the rain. And I can be grateful, as I now know my grandfather was grateful, watching the garden in the rain.