My father’s parents, before they died, lived in a rural area off Possum Kingdom Lake, just outside of Graham, Texas. They owned a chunk of land anchored by a double-wide trailer and a shed out back where my grandfather could build what seemed like anything. It was full of saws and drills and clamps and sawdust and was irresistible and terrifying all at the same time.
The trailer had at least three porches, not counting the carport. From the smallest one out back, I watched the blackbirds roost in the huisatche trees near the shed, but otherwise that porch went unused. We spent most of our time making peach ice cream and chasing wild kittens on the side porch and sitting in the splintered swing out front, watching the green and brown water of the lake glisten and stagnate in the blistering summer heat.
The back porch was a hidden place. You had to sneak behind the dining room table to get to it and then wedge open a door that creaked like it hadn’t been opened in fifty years, and even then only a kid the size of a green bean could slip through. Tethered to the porch was an old pitchfork-style clothesline leading the fifty feet towards the shed. There were burrs in the grass that kept you from venturing out there, and the possibility of snakes, and more than a little fear of the man who kept the shop.
I loved my grandfather but I was scared of him, too. I’m a fifth generation Texan, which means some of my forefathers’ hot-blooded, rustic-independent spirit has been buried under my love for designer shoes. My grandfather, however, was a tribesman of that earlier, unfenced Texas, where men still surged across the flats and hills and bluffs carrying nothing but sweat and leather, and later, the impenetrable grime and haze of oil, and beat the land into submission. They were proud, and untiring, and sometimes dangerous, and often honest to a fault. They lived fiercely. They may not all have had the vocation, but in spirit they were all cowboys.
Like most kids, I got in the way a lot, especially in a place where the most exciting thing to do was walk the gravel road to the lakeside snack truck and buy a frozen Twix and a Sunkist. There were more than a few times my grandfather mowed me down with a stare and a yard-long stream of dip spit. But there were hidden places in him, too. He called me Suzy, for example, which had been forbidden by my mother since birth. He built me a jewelry box, and a clock in the shape of an outhouse, and a pencil holder made of two blocks of wood with holes drilled into it for the pencils. All three of those are still in a box in my attic. And when I was seven or eight, he hung a swing from two pieces of yellow braided rope in the scrap tree in the front yard. I sat on that swing for hours. I’d talk to myself and pretend and sing to the rabbits and the turtles sunning themselves on the lakeshore and the tourists zipping by in their speedboats. Summer after winter after summer I would go back and that swing would still be there. I had a lot of cousins (and obviously, Aunt Brookie), but I always believed that no matter who used it, that swing was just for me. It was my hidden place with my grandfather.
When my grandfather died, I was a dangerously stupid nineteen-year-old college freshman. I was so busy with classes and boys and trying to figure out where the next drink was coming from, I never processed his loss. It’s been more than fifteen years, and I’m only now realizing how much I miss him. He wasn’t an ideal man. He had many faults and many faces and I’m lucky to remember the ones that I do, but he lived with fire and he loved with ferocity. I see his picture or sometimes just look at my dad and I remember the blackness of night and the screaming of the cicadas and the tree frogs, the wet-fresh smell of the lake under the sickly sweetness of Skohl, and I understand a little more about my commitment to hard work and sweat equity and taking no bullshit. And that some parts of me, of us all, are hidden, too.
p.s. It’s funny the places writing takes you. I’d almost forgotten about that swing until I started writing this. And suddenly I realize it’s the center of my memories of my grandfather, and I miss him more than I have in a decade just sitting here, thinking of it. And I feel closer to him, too.
p.p.s. Yes, Possum Kingdom Lake is one and the same as the really awesome Toadies song that you’ll now have stuck in your head for the next hundred days. You’re welcome. -s