EMERSON ESSAYS 1.1.11

Pop Pop

Some people are lucky enough to know all four of their grandparents. Three of my grandparents had passed away before I was born. I only knew Pop Pop. His full name was Thomas Perry, and he was born in Yorkshire, England in 1877. One of my earliest memories was Pop Pop’s 75th birthday at my Uncle Mike’s and Auntie Dot’s house in Harford County, Maryland, where he lived with my mother’s sister and her family. I was four years old at the time and I recollect a tall, thin man blowing out candles as everyone around him made a big fuss.

Pop Pop would come to Annapolis every summer and spend a few weeks with us. I remember the never-ending supply of one-dollar bills he’d lavish on me during his visits. “Don’t tell your Mum I’m giving this to you, Billy.” Of course I couldn’t wait to tell her. Mom would just smile quietly, proud of her father’s generosity.

His summertime trips to Annapolis would coincide with my father’s vacation from the bank where he worked. Dad would take Pop Pop, brother Mike and me fishing in our small inboard motorboat. I never liked fishing with my father when it was just my brother and me along. Dad would usually have too many National Bohemian beers and then start yelling at us for whatever bonehead nautical mistake we made, like not tying the anchor rope tight enough.

But with Pop Pop aboard, things were different. Dad usually tried to show Pop Pop a good time, so he behaved himself and at times was actually in a good mood. It was splendid to drift along the quiet Severn River, looking at the faraway Chesapeake Bay Bridge, inhaling the salty essence of the bay, years before pollution took its toll. Fish were more plentiful then and usually easy to catch. On the rare days we didn’t catch fish, it was nevertheless a serene pleasure just to be there with my grandfather.

When it was time to head home, Pop Pop would sit next to me on the back seat as I took the rudder. “Steer her to port, Billy-Boy! Watch your bow! You’re doing a fine job, Skipper!”

“Aye, Aye, Cap’n Pop Pop!” I’d shout above the roar of the inboard motor as we lumbered toward Back Creek and home. Then I’d close my eyes, take a deep breath and inhale the smoke from Pop Pop’s White Owl cigar. Dad would smile and open another Natty Boh beer.

And how I loved the smell of Pop Pop’s pipe! No fancy custom blend for this rugged Yorkshire man, just Prince Albert in a can. I owned a small machine with which I could roll my own forbidden smokes. Pop Pop would give me some of his Prince Albert and with a few Zig Zag papers, I’d go into production. I’d climb the pine tree in our front yard, pull out my stash and light up. Pop Pop would sit beneath the tree in a lawn chair, smoking his pipe and watching for adult intruders who might spoil our fun.

“Any sigh of Mom or Dad, Pop Pop?”

He’d place four fingers above his brow and scan the front yard. “No sign yet, Billy. Let’s enjoy our smokes.” And so it went all summer long, my grandfather being my co-conspirator, enabling me to enjoy the pleasures of a good smoke on a summer afternoon. Yet he constantly warned me about the evils of alcohol. A heavy drinker during his early years, he lost several jobs and became less than the perfect family man. I don’t really know the gory details, but I know he “took the pledge” early on and enjoyed over 50 years of sobriety.

“Don’t ever start with the booze, Billy-Boy. It was almost the death of me. You’re better off without it,” he’d warn me in his rich Yorkshire baritone that carried a gentle strength and authority. I didn’t always follow Pop Pop’s advice, but deep down I knew his admonishments were proof he truly cared for me.

Pop Pop was an avid Baltimore Orioles fan and seldom missed a broadcast of their games. We’d commiserate over what a lousy team the Orioles of the late 1950s were. I knew a little more about the finer points of the game than Pop Pop did. I explained the infield fly rule to Pop Pop and why a player got an RBI for walking with the bases loaded. He’d listen intently and then finally say, “Aye, but the Orioles are still a rotten team.”

He loved to work in the yard. When he was well into his eighties and too stiff too bend over, he’d sit in his lawn chair and reach down with clippers to groom the lawn. He was responsible every summer for making our yard, enclosed by its white picket fence, one of the more attractive in Eastport. He couldn’t understand my reluctance to work in the yard. I was a lazy teenager at the time and always found something more fun to do than to help an old man trim grass. I have since felt badly about that summer when I thought it was “cool” to flaunt my ability to get out of work. I also thought it was “cool” to talk back to grownups. But Pop Pop gave me my first lesson in how good it feels to be the recipient of forgiveness. Our arguments always ended with his ruffling my hair and saying, “Aye, you’re still a good boy, Billy.” And he’d give me another dollar bill along with the warning not to tell my Mum.

Looking back I realize how musical Pop Pop was. His deep voice was always in tune, always ready with an English ditty. He often awoke before I did. After his morning tea, he’d come upstairs, lean over the bed and croon, “Oh, it’s good to get up in the morning, but it’s better to stay in bed.” He was also a percussionist of sorts. He had some old animal bones (don’t ask me what animal) that he played like castanets. He held them between his fingers and snapped jig-like rhythms as he sang one of his English Pub songs.

He was delighted when I become serious about music. I once showed him the percussion music to “Stars and Stripes Forever” and then I played the entire snare drum part for him.

“My God, Billy, I don’t understand how you make music out of all those little chicken scratches. But I wish you well, my boy.” He then gave me another dollar bill.

When it was time to go away to college he asked me to write to him. “Tell me all about what you’re doing up there in Boston and I promise I’ll write back to you the day I get your letter.” He was true to his promise. He wrote often. Those simple letters in his shaky scrawl are still among my most treasured possessions.

I never thought much about my English heritage. I thought it was kind of boring to be English. It didn’t seem as exotic as being Jewish or Irish or Italian. But in 1983, many years after Pop Pop had passed away, I went to England with my sister Lynn. We met several of our relatives on Pop Pop’s side of the family. We saw the little market town of Bedale where Pop Pop was born, and found the baptismal font in St. Gregory’s church where Pop Pop became an official Episcopalian back in 1877. We found my great-grandfather’s grave behind it as well as the vacant lot where his house had been. I picked up a shard of brick and imagined it to be part of his house. I’m not really sure it was, but I put that red sliver in my wallet and carried it with me for many years. I still have it.

I learned about the Yorkshire Dales. I viewed their gentle green slopes with just a scattering of farmhouses along the valley floor. This was where Pop Pop grew up and worked, caring for horses and hounds long before he came to America. It was the most beautiful place I had ever seen. Suddenly having British blood wasn’t so boring after all.

When I got back to America, I still couldn’t learn enough about Yorkshire. I read everything James Herriot wrote in about two weeks. I pretended I was English and began to enjoy tea. I bought a tweed cap and wore it as I listened to Gilbert & Sullivan recordings while drinking pints of Newcastle Brown Ale from a pewter mug. How I wished Pop Pop was still around so I could tell him all about my trip and ask him to tell me all about fox hunting on the Dales.

I have never felt cheated not knowing my other three grandparents. I had Pop Pop. I had those afternoons of fishing on the Severn River and those summer days of sneaking smokes together. I had a seemingly endless supply of one-dollar bills from an old man with only a small social security check. His belief that although I was lazy when it came to yard work, I was “still a good boy,” was priceless to me.

Several months after his death in 1970, I watched an Orioles game at Fenway Park. They were playing a three-game series with the Red Sox. Jim Palmer was pitching that day for Baltimore, and Brooks Robinson was playing 3rd base. After years of dwelling near the cellar of the American League, the Orioles finally had a good team. During the Star Spangled Banner I felt a little sad. Damn!” I thought. “I wish Pop Pop could watch this game with me.” I then looked out at the American flag in center field. Beyond it was a lone billboard atop the warehouse on Landsdowne Street. It was an ad for a popular bourbon.

It read simply, “Old Grand Dad is Here.”

© 2011 William Emerson Wiley

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