Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Finding Grandpa

June 1, 2011 will be the 115th birthday of my grandfather, William Sergeant Dixon, Jr.  He died back in 1977, a few weeks short of his 81st birthday.  My father’s goal was to live longer than his father, and my dad died three days after his own 81st birthday.

The other day I was chatting with my cousin Leigh.  Leigh is the youngest daughter of my father’s sister, and grew up in the same small Texas town as my grandparents.  We were talking generally about music, and she commented, “Remember how Grandpa like to sing so much?” 

I did not know that my grandfather liked to sing.

I was struck with an immediate pang of envy for my cousin, and of regret that I never got to know our grandfather as closely as she did.  I do have some vague memories when I was very small, of spending time with the Texas cousins.  But after we moved overseas the first time, our visits to Pampa became infrequent.  We stopped by every year on home leave, and I do remember Grandma & Grandpa visiting us in Belgium and Japan.  But they were virtual strangers.  As a budding writer, I penned long letters to them about my life, but they were only symbols to me, metaphors of my father’s previous life. 

A WWI doughboy.  Not my grandfather.

Grandpa was an elegant man.  I mostly remember him wearing a suit and a hat.  He was soft-spoken, always smiling and pleasant.  Born near Mebane, North Carolina, he was one of eleven siblings in a poor farming family.  In spite of his humble beginnings, he graduated from North Carolina State University with an engineering degree, and early on played minor-league baseball after serving in the army during World War I.  He met my grandmother in Ohio while playing ball, she being the daughter of the publisher of The Toledo Blade.  I can only imagine what her upper-class family thought of this countrified, southern baseball player marrying their daughter.  When the depression hit, Grandpa joined the masses heading west to find work.  Daddy talks about the dust storms of his childhood, when the sun would be completely blacked out, and the dust would creep into the house under the doors and through the windows.

Also not my grandfather.

Not my grandfather's house.

Grandpa worked for Cabot, a carbon black company in Pampa, until his retirement.  They lived in a small, white frame house on North Gray Street, active in their Presbyterian Church and Grandma was a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution.  Somewhere along the way I heard that they were members of the John Birch Society.  They were huge fans of Ronald Reagan.  When I think of them as a couple, the words “formal” and “proper” come to mind.  I remember how they carefully did the dishes together after dinner, Grandpa scraping the plates into a newspaper, and hooking up the dishwasher to the faucet.  Sometimes they would bring in Kentucky Fried Chicken when the cousins came over.

When my sister was born on July 4, 1952, Grandpa hung the American flag outside their house, with a pink bow tied on the top.  There was a little twinkle of a sense of humor behind his green eyes.

Grandpa had a little workshop in the back yard, surrounded by Grandma’s flower gardens overflowing with bachelor buttons and zinnias.  One summer, I was interested in the stories of knights in shining armor, and asked him to make me a sword.  The true reasons I wanted a sword are lost to me, but Grandpa made me a beautiful green and white one with a sanded handle, my name on it painted in red.  It had a special place on the wall of Grandpa’s shop, hanging from a little hook. 

Helen and Bill raised three children: my dad, and his sisters Dorothy (Dido) and Marjorie (Margie).  Dad ran track at Pampa High School and became an Eagle Scout.  He joined the Navy when he was seventeen, served for a year on a minesweeper, then attended the University of Texas on the G.I. Bill.  After graduation, Dad went to work with Ethyl Corporation, and never looked back.  I imagine it was his ticket out of sleepy small-town America, and he jumped right on that train.

The last time we saw Grandpa was the summer of 1976, when, at age 80, he was still riding his bike every day.  He dropped to the ground before we left and did several push-ups.  So it came as quite a shock when he died the following spring of congestive heart failure.

One of the sad things about being a TCK is the missed relationships.  Our family was just us, mom, dad, and my sisters.  Our cousins were acquaintances, people we only saw once a year, although as adults we are trying to learn more about each other.  I get sad when I think about all the things I never knew about Grandpa, like the fact that he liked to sing.  Leigh probably knows myriad things about him that I don’t; things that you just know from interacting with someone on a regular basis.  I guess there were a lot of characteristics in my father that came from his father (whom he called “Pappy”).  I know Daddy got his red beard from his dad.  And the blessing that he said before dinner was probably Grandpa’s.  When I asked Dad how he was, he used to answer “Fine as frog’s hair.  Split three ways.”  His favorite expression was, “Everything in moderation.  Including moderation.”  I like to think those twinkles of humor came from Grandpa too. 

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