Merry Father's Juneteenth!
A very admiring young man at PopPop's church had noticed when, last year, he said he had just turned 79, and the young man decided to celebrate the next birthday big time (meaning borrowing one of the church conference rooms and feeding everybody who showed up). This young man began planning the shindig in January.
Which is from how long, I think, Juice, Goobs and their cousins, Auntie's nepphies, have been practicing the songs my sister forced them to perform for PopPop. Things got really hairy towards the end: tempers flared, children revolted, adults threatened. This is as it should be. I guess.
In the meantime, the young man at the church dug up pictures and little-known facts about the man Bethel Temple called Papa Kelly. I knew what his birthday was, but had paid no attention, over the years, for example, to the fact that he shared his birthday with Juneteenth; or that he had left school so he could work and his sister could finish school; or that when he came back to school, he finished in record time as valedictorian. I knew that he'd hurt his back when, in Korea, he'd been blown off of a mountain, but I didn't know he'd met General Douglas MacArthur and President John F. Kennedy. I didn't know his favorite team was the Brooklyn Dodgers (but I figured I knew why).
His daughter and granddaughter came and spoke about him in front of God and everybody, and Mama told jokes (which she'd written down, by hand, on the front and back of a sheet of notebook paper)*. The step-grandchildren (who had finally succumbed to the plea, "Y'all are doing this for PopPop") sang and played two songs. I was rewarded with a big metal grin (he's got braces) from one of Auntie's Nepphies when I said, "That was NIIIIIICE" at the end.
His stepdaughters (my sister and I) and stepson-in-law sang for him, too. We were at least as nervous as the grands.
We ate baked chicken and brisket (with three sauces available!!!), string beans and new potatoes, salad, and a mixed cake of chocolate and lemon. The best part, though, was when we all milled around and hugged each other and caught up. Toward the end, my younger nepphie walked up to a microphone and told the story of when he (the nepphie) lost a ball in one of PopPop's trees. Before PopPop quietly got a ladder, balls and other objects had joined the first ball: the kids had tried to knock the first ball down, and the tree had just grabbed everything.
"But why are your shoes up here?" PopPop had asked.
This occasion cast my mind back to the beginning of our relationship. Mama married Mr. Alford when my sister and I were teenagers. We hated him: when we got chicken to eat, he got steak. He bossed us around and changed the rules of the house. We didn't know what Mama saw in him. But I will always remember when things changed. One evening, the newly-married couple were watching television. Too loudly. (At the time, I didn't know that my new stepfather was hearing impaired.) I had the nerve to knock on the bedroom door and demand, "Could y'all turn the TV down, please?" My stepfather burst out of the bedroom in his robe and began to lecture me.
"I understand you read the bible a lot," he said. "Do you know what it says about honoring your parents?"
"I know," I said. "Do you know what it says about fathers not provoking their children?"
This began a years-long dialogue between That Man and me. He adored me, and I, of course, adored being adored. But the adoration became mutual when my sister and I had kids. That Man treated our children like --well, like his grandchildren. He happily spent time and scads of money** on them, lectured them, loved on them, taught them cool stuff, and grinned and laughed at them. THIS --this smiling and laughing-- was what, finally, showed me something of what Mama had seen years ago: my stepfather looks a little like Sidney Poitier. THAT was when he became PopPop.
On Sunday, the family met at a Chinese buffet. PopPop and I crossed paths on the way to the dessert.
"Happy Father's Day," he said.
*My second older brother, the one who used to live with us, didn't even crack a smile. He hates it when people try to "make" him laugh.
**Most recently, PopPop came through with $300 when Juice's father broke a promise to provide half of a college dormitory deposit.