Things That Hit Me Hard 1: Papa McClain


Justine's Papa McClain (photo restored by Justine Mara Andersen)

Justine’s Papa McClain (photo restored by Justine Mara Andersen)

I was thinking back, and got really stuck on something that hit me hard.

When I lived in Korea, I wrote a song about my Papa McClain (that’s my grandfather, most definitely NOT my father). He had dementia, and, sadly, while I was teaching overseas for 2 years, I missed his last lucid years. Old Papa McClain was a true hillbilly, and as a teenager I remember being ashamed of him in his flannel shirt and that damn hat with the earflaps. It wasn’t long after that when I saw who the fool was, and I felt guilty about ever seeing my beloved Papa that way.

He and Grandma grew their own garden, and for years we ate nothing but fresh vegetables, and sometimes, venison. Papa would sit and eat radishes, he loved them, and would indiscriminately pepper everything on his plate. He loved black pepper, and I never saw him eat anything without peppering it first. Of all the Christmas gifts I ever gave old Papa McClain, it was the fresh peppercorn grinder I bought him for the table that was his favorite. He wasn’t much of a gourmet (see the radishes), but he damn well knew the difference between fresh ground pepper and canned pepper.

When I was in Korea, I knew he was going, and I knew he was soon gonna be gone, so I wrote a song. I cried every time I worked on that song, and for at least a year every time I practiced it. When he died, I never cried a drop.

Writing that song and losing him to dementia was how and when I mourned. The song was all about what a great man he was. Sure, some might have said he was a dumb old hillbilly, but were I to have to survive, I mean really survive, I would have stood by my Papa before any of those intellectuals and professors who used to snort contemptuously at guys who used “seen” at the wrong times. Yeah, I seen my Papa build things from the ground up, from foundation to electric wiring and plumbing. We never had to have a mechanic, no one in the family did, ’cause Papa fixed all the cars. No matter what was wrong, he could fix anything. He once said about my other Papa, who was not so mechanically inclined: “Old Bob’s alright, but he couldn’t get his thumb up his ass with both hands.”

Once, when I was stranded dead center in the middle of Pennsylvania with a car with an oil leak, I called him, not my father. Papa didn’t think twice. Old Papa made the four and a half hour drive (each way), his toolbox in his truck, but when he arrived, popped the hood and looked at my engine, he didn’t need any tools. Papa looked at the ground for a minute, picked up a twig, reached in his pocket, pulled out his pocket knife, and he whittled out a little wedge, shoved it in my engine, and I drove all the way home without dropping another drip of oil.

When I wrote that song I talked about how when we were kids headed up into and around the mountains of West Virginia, he kept an old jug of water in the trunk. Poor old guy had to stop every twenty minutes for me and my brother. We wanted “water from the jug,” and dear old Papa would pull over and get out that jug. He had the patience of a saint, he always did. He was never in a hurry, and never got short with any of us. He was like a Yogi. In that song I also wrote about how grandma used to say, “One of these days he’s gonna put pepper on his ice cream,” and she waited for that day.

When I bought my house everyone said he was too old to help me fix it up, but we both knew better. I watched my Papa leap out of the back of his truck like a twenty-two year-old every time he had to load or unload anything from it. There was no one I would have put more trust in when it came to my house than my Papa.

As a musician I used to sit and listen to him talk about the songs he remembered from the hills. Papa was born in a log cabin, and that cabin still stood up the holler for most of my life. Beyond the “new house” and a few old Chevy’s that had been laid to rest out back, there was the old cabin, where it had been since the Civil War (if I’m not mistaken). I’d go up into the mountains with my Papa and watch him hunt. Yeah, old Papa, could survive. I once watched him shoot and skin a squirrel. That’s how you live through The Great Depression, you learn how to hunt, shoot and skin squirrels. He may not have known when to use “saw” or “seen,” but he knew how to survive, how to build, how to be patient and how to take care of people. I only ate squirrel that once, and I have to say, it’s an acquired taste. Anyhow, when he told stories, I listened, and when he talked about mountain music, I also listened. Any song or musician he talked about I wrote down, researched, and if it was a song, I learned it and played it. Once, before the dementia, out on the back porch at my mom’s house I got him to strum a few chords just so I could say I played with him. Papa loved the original Carter Family, A.P., Maybelle and Sarah. I learned how to play just like Maybelle, and so far as I know, was one of the few people around playing “Wildwood Flower” (Papa’s favorite song) the right way… Maybelle’s way! I learned that way of picking from a guy who had recorded with grandchildren of the original Carter Family, and when he taught me the technique, it was with one of Maybelle’s picks! When Papa had dementia, he told me for the first time that he knew the Carter Family. I knew he loved them, I didn’t know he knew them, and it wasn’t the dementia talking either. At that time he suddenly began playing his old harmonica. I had never seen him play much, if at all, but suddenly he was playing songs he hadn’t thought about for decades. Suddenly, here he was, a mess, but he could play those old songs and could remember that he knew the Carter Family.

All that harmonica playing happened after I’d come back from Korea. Here was this man who had worked all his life, who cared for others, who knew how to do things, and now this… he didn’t even know my name. It was devastating to know I’d missed the last lucid years of his life. We sat at the table, my ex, Papa, Grandma, and there was that pepper grinder.

Papa sat down to eat, and just ate.

“Papa,” I said, “don’t you want some pepper?” and I held up the pepper grinder. My Papa and pepper were practically synonymous, I’d even say legendary in the family. I figured, being in a state of dementia, he had forgotten, and he’d want the pepper once he saw it.

“Oh no, I’m alright.” He shook his head and went back to eating.

Time froze and tears welled in my eyes. I had to excuse myself to go to the bathroom and cry.

Grandma never did get to see him put pepper on his ice cream, and neither did I.

8 responses »

  1. I have been following this WordPress site since it opened. Some posts are impersonal. Some posts remind of the old Justine And of Your success in Florida. Many posts drive into y heart, especially Your five part series on the visit to the Temple in Georgia and the remembrance of Your dad. The story about Your dad reminded me so much of my grandparents and other family members from the east Texas Piney Woods. I was raised for quite a while by my grandparents.

    The five part Temple visit was breathtaking. I relished reading every word in all five segments, from Your apolitical torment to Your car problems and serendipitous adventures thanks to Lord Ganesh. True friends like Ram are hard to find and there he was in Your path!

    Your revelatory experiences in the Temple and during Monday’s class brought me in almost as if I was there. It was exciting to see it as You explained it, to gain a small understanding of what You experienced.

    I have followed Your trials and tribulations in Akron and supported Your almost blind faith move to Gainesville and Your rise in spiritualism and Your self-esteem. Justne, You are a success in Your new life and I am proud to know You!

    • Thanks for your thoughtful words… and thanks for pointing out (quite by accident) that I had not made something clear in this piece, and that is that Papa was not my dad, but my grandfather (going in to edit it now).

      My father was quite useless to me (haven’t talked to him in 10 years), but my Papa more than made up for his lackings.

      Yeah, the Justine from Akron is not the Justine that now lives in Gainesville. Those growing pains were a challenge.

  2. I was deeply moved by your account of your grandfather. You have found such great words to remember him. I wish I could someday write something like this about my grandfather, and perhaps some day I will, though I lack your talents. My grandfather German Konstantinovich Zevakhin (1913-1991) was an electrical engineer, a radio operator and collector of radio sets, had fought with the Japanese at Lake Khasan, taught me all things electical (like soldering) and loved me very much. I will always remember him.

  3. Justine > This is a great story about your days with your grandfather and how much you loved him and he loved you … I really enjoyed reading it as I often reminisce about members and events of my own family as well as friends that I trusted and loved … This is a wonderful thing for me to do as I have an incredibly good memory and can recall details and events with great accuracy … This great memory of mine can be both a blessing and a curse as I sometimes recall the so called bad things in my life … I am sure you know how that gig goes … Sometimes when I am asleep and in the dream world, I see my loved ones again and in such clarity that it amazes me … I interact with them in my dreams as it seems all so real … I see them as they were before any illness or other misfortunes came upon them … When I wake up, these dreams seem so real to me that it takes me a while to realize that I was dreaming … Dreaming is a fascinating state for us humans and upon waking, I often write down my dreams so I can look into them later on … Dreams always seem to carry some sought of message or lesson within them … Anyway, I enjoy your blog and your website … You are a very interesting women … It would be nice to meet you someday and I hope that I do … I do not visit Florida all that much but I sometimes do vacation there in the winter months … I settled in the Carolinas and I will probably be “boot hilled” (actually burned and urned) here … You should have looked into moving to Asheville N.C. as there are many artsy and different people living there and I think that you would enjoy the crowd in the Asheville N.C. area … This is a great place for an artsy person to actually make a decent living as well as to enjoy the area … It is a wonderful area with much to do and wonderful views … So I will bid you ciao 4 now … stay well and enjoy your time on this planet … Cheers … Michael

    • Thank you Michael, this is a lovely comment! Please keep reading and commenting.

      Yes, dreams are full of lessons, and I have often thought about writing down some of my more symbolic dreams to post here.

      • I keep a dream journal and try to write down the dreams as I wake up … Once you go back to sleep or get involved with your day, the accuracy of all of the dream’s details gets foggy …
        Dreams are the coded messages as to what is going on in your life … I believe that dreams also give us a peek as to what will happen in our future … Dreams are such an interesting subject for sure …BTW, I am a lot like your grandfather in that I can fix most anything and I have a wise variety of other skills … This to me has always been a blessing as I was seldom and I mean seldom dependent on anyone to do things for me … I am a second generation Italian so I have been taught a lot of things by many master craftsman … I do enjoy your site and all of the interesting material that you have on it … I too am different and think way out of the box … Most people view me as “crazy” or “loco” … I like being different and I never intend to change … That is as long as I can still be me … as the big D … dementia that is … does not come calling my name … I watched my grandmother and father meet their demise from that horrible disease … The problem is that the longer we live the more likely we are to develop diseases like dementia … Cancer and heart disease also fit into the living longer equation as well … Oh the blessings of modern technology and modern medicine … I really wonder about that statement … Living long is great as long as you have a decent or a good quality of life … Anything else is a nightmare … Ciao 4 now … Michael …

        • Again, thanks for the thoughts.

          I have a bad habit of not writing down my dreams, though the really mythic ones stick in my mind more clearly than most of my memories from my waking life.

          Having seen my grandfather suffer Dementia, I fear it as a possibility for me as well.

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