This may be a bit sappy, but it is straight from my heart.
I come from a family of kind hearted, industrious, hardworking, pioneering, generous, loving, civic minded, patriotic Christians, & this evening several of them are on my mind, as they are ever in my heart:
Pa-pa Lehman was the salt of the earth, & many who knew him have said the same thing about him, which is that he was one of the nicest men that they ever met. He sang me silly songs like “The Animal Fair” when he picked me up from school, he made me wooden, carved toys, cracked pecans from his yard for me with his hammer, & peeled & sliced small, sour green apples off of his tree in the back yard with his pocket knife, which happened to be the same one he used for innumerable things, such as cleaning his fingernails & tightening screws. He was a wizard with metallic gray duct tape, which is all that they made back then. He let me help him sow seeds, weed, & harvest in the garden out behind his house. We sat together, just the two of us, in the dark summer evenings & he pointed out the constellations to me, engaged my mind with the latest article he had read in the Encyclopedia Brittanica, & assured me that the bats flying overhead were not going to swoop down & harm me. He let me sit on the hood of his car, & as I leaned back against the windshield, he showed me the glory of the heavens. He allowed the scuppernong vines to sweep low to the ground in the grape arbor, for he knew that the grandkids loved to play house or hide & seek beneath its shaded arms, & he did not care if we left dozens of grape skins littering the ground after we had feasted on their sweetness. But I suppose the best lesson which he ever taught me was tolerance, for one hot summer day the neighbor kids were leaning through the wire fence & picking our hard earned baby tomatoes & running off with them, presumably taking them home to their parent’s dinner table. Pa-pa & I had worked all summer long together, just the two of us that year, in that garden, & I was very proud of its produce. Beside, I loved those “Tom-EE-Toes”, as we called them. So I shouted out to the kids, berating them, & warning them of possible consequences if they stole any more of our vegetables. I was so shocked when my Pa-pa fussed on ME for scolding them. It is the one & ONLY time that I ever remember him getting on to me about anything. But he actually raised his voice to me as he demanded that I “leave them alone, because they don’t know any better. Their Momma ran off with the postman, & their Daddy is trying to raise them all alone. They probably need those tomatoes more than we do.” With that, he abruptly took the hoe from my hands, & irritably went into his garage to sharpen it, leaving me to sob into my hands, standing alone amidst the okra, squash & cucumbers. It was not until after he had passed away a few years later that I fully grasped the lesson which he taught me that day. But he was, indeed, one of the nicest men that I have ever, even to this day, met.
My Daddy was a very smart, but very insecure man. He allowed his insecurities to cause him to drink more than he should, but he was a functioning alcoholic who always held down a job which took him away from home at times. When he was not drinking, he was a gentle man. We would, like I did with his father before him, sit out on the covered back porch, listening to the breezes blow through the leaves overhead, late into the summer nights, & have the most delightfully intriguing conversations on a wide & diverse range of topics. He had an Associates degree in Business, yet he turned down an opportunity to move up to Pennsylvania with a chemical company for which he worked in order to stay close to family. His mother’s family had settled North Alabama when it was still the Mississippi Territory, & he wanted to remain close to his then widowed mother. So his job as a fireman belied his intellect. But he was a very smart man. We talked for hours on end, & sometimes the only lights flickering in the darkness were the occasional lightning bugs & the glow of his Winston cigarette. He would get me to fetch him a beer, & I would drink my Dr. Pepper while we talked about God, the Universe, human nature, psychology, science, etc. We were estranged at the end of his life, but he taught me many things, & we loved each other. He had MANY friends of all walks of life, & he was extremely loyal to them. He loved children & could easily make them laugh. Though he no longer attended Church, he talked to me about the importance of loving God, obeying the law, about patriotism (he was a veteran of the United States Air Force), & about how I could make a difference in the world if I would just apply myself. He was a good encourager, & was always proud of my good grades. He always told me that I should grow up to be a writer. Alas, I have not done that, but maybe he would be proud of my sophomoric blog posts. The most important lesson my Daddy taught me, though, was not sitting out on that back porch beneath the big old pecan tree, but in his actions, for he was one of the most generous souls I have ever known. He would literally give anyone – family member, friend, or stranger – his very last dime, if they needed it.
Aunt Helen was, by all accounts, “A Mess”, which was a Southern expression meaning she was “something else”, not that she was literally a mess. She was vivacious, a bit kooky, & had sparkling green eyes & a ready laugh. She, too, loved children, & to this day I have not understood why God in His wisdom did not allow someone who wanted a baby of their own as much as she did to have one. But Aunt Helen made up for the lack of biological children by loving on her stepson & nieces. When I was very small I would go & play at the country home of her & her first husband. She let me just be me. I could, without pressure, chase Monarch butterflies through the yard for no reason other than it delighted me to do so. She knew how much I loved to read, & so she arranged for her mother-in-law, who was the librarian at the local school, to bring her a big stack of books whenever I was going to spend the night with her. She was a Dental Hygienist by vocation, & whenever she cleaned my teeth, she would reward me for being a good patient by taking me for a piece of lemon ice box pie at Krystal. She is actually the one who taught me to drive. Unbelievably, my first few times behind the wheel of her sage green car were in the most narrow of roads at Maple Hill Cemetery – the ones that are so narrow that today they are blocked off from modern day, larger vehicles. It is a wonder I did not veer off & run over my great-grandparent’s graves, or worse yet, one of the “famous” Huntsvillians in the historic part of the graveyard. Aunt Helen had a zest for life that few possess. She showed me to always keep your spirits up, despite adverse circumstances, which in her case included two divorces from the same man. The most important lesson I learned from her, though, was not to be afraid to approach others & be the first to extend the hand of friendship. For wherever we went, whether it was the supermarket or the movie theater, she greeted everyone with kind eyes & a smile.
Ma-ma Lehman had the most profound & lasting influence on my life of anyone who ever walked the earth during my lifetime. It would take an entire book to list all of the many things which we did together. She kept me during the summers & after school when my mother worked. She had a knack for making every single one of her ten grandkids feel as if they were the most special one of them all. She had countless friends, whom she was always ministering to in one way or another. She had that gift of gab, & I well recall many days when I, reclining on the wicker settee in the broad foyer with a Nancy Drew mystery book in hand, halfway listening to her as she sat across the room from me on the black telephone table with the vinyl seat, chatting on that black rotary dial phone, assuring one of her innumerable friends that everything would be all right. She took up money for flowers whenever someone in the neighborhood had a death in the family, & she took food to those who were ill. She made me grilled cheese with Campbell’s Tomato Soup & Pepsi whenever I had an upset stomach. She was my mentor, my champion, & my rescuer from an unhappy mother. She let me play dress up in her lace gloves & coat with the mink collar. She spent hours culling through old family photos with me, which she had stored in two huge blanket boxes from Montgomery Wards. She regaled me with tales of growing up on that farm in Big Cove, & how she eventually moved to town to work in T.T.Terry’s Department store. Though she was not a politician, she was heavily involved in politics. Her ancestors had been constables, County Commissioners, Justices of the Peace, & Postmasters who were well known & respected in the area. Her great uncle had even been a six term United States Congressman from Jackson County. How many times she must have said, “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know that counts!” She was the Queen of Networking before that word was ever coined. She could make beautiful dresses on her pedal driven sewing machine. She was a fabulous cook & I loved to stir the buttermilk cornbread or divinity candy – everything she made was from scratch, without a recipe or mix, & it was always perfect. She took me to Church every single Sunday, & let me carry her prized possession: her Bible. She was a country girl who “could out pick every man in Big Cove in a cotton picking contest.” She was a Christian woman who taught several local boys about God in Sunday School, boys who grew up to be preachers in well known Church of Christ congregations in the area. She was a mischievous prankster who delighted in entertaining people with the corniest jokes. A fastidious dresser who preferred the conveniences of city life to the rigors of the farm, she would nonetheless lapse into her country vernacular & say that, “Funny things keeps you going!” She was a well respected community leader whose calls were taken & opinions valued by Governors, Senators, Mayors, County Commissioners, & City Councilmen alike. She was a force to be reckoned with, if you dared cross someone she loved. I owe my very life to her in more ways than one. But the most important thing that she taught me was this, “The good Lord gives, & He takes away.” That is a lesson I am still trying to fully grasp. But the faith which she instilled in me has resounded throughout the years, & I know that God only takes away something which we percieve to be good if He has something better in mind for us.
These & more of my God fearing family members have long ago passed on. But their legacy remains. They all loved God, country & family. They all valued good morals & hard work. They all believed in the sense of community, in giving back, that, “To those whom much is given, much is expected.” They all loved the innocence of children, valued friendships, lent helping hands to neighbors, enjoyed making others laugh, & had a song, joke, or Bible verse at the ready, if anyone needed their spirits to be lifted.
My own children have grown up & moved away. But I am not alone, for like Aunt Helen, I meet no strangers, & have been blessed with an outgoing personality; like my Pa-pa, I survey the wonders of the Universe & my mind is occupied with thoughts higher than my own which make times of solitude enjoyable; like my Daddy, I understand that a generosity of spirit is returned a thousandfold by the respect of friends; & like my Ma-ma, I know the value of networking, & the power of God. So whenever I feel a wee but lonesome, I remind myself that I come from good stock. And I thank God above that He has blessed me with an abundance of friends. Though my biological sister died a very long time ago at a young age, I have women that I am proud to call my sisters, & a couple of those I claim kin, though we are not related by blood. I have friends who allow me to join in their family celebrations, & those who allow me to love on their kids, for my heart, like my family members I have written about, has always had a soft spot for kids & young people of all ages. Some of them even let me love on their parents & grandkids, too!
The most important lessons I have learned from all of this is that there really is not any substitute for loving kindness, & if being a nice, hardworking person who loved God, country, family & friends can one day be my own legacy, too, then I shall feel that I have lived my life well.
I still miss you, Pa-pa, Ma-ma, Aunt Helen & Daddy. If y’all have any say so up there in Heaven, please put in a good word for me. One day when we are reunited, I want to hear all of your stories again, & hopefully I will add a few of my own into the mix. Meanwhile, I look for the good in people & situations, like y’all taught me, & “Funny things keeps me going!”
– Lou Lehman Sams