The Cross Bearer
The ragged figure approaching the porch had sweat-stained clothes and his face and hands were covered with dust. He trudged along a little bowlegged. A cigarette hung loosely from his lips. He was a short but wiry figure and when one got closer they could see he was but a child of ten or eleven. He looked enthusiastically at the house knowing supper, drink, and rest awaited him there. But a glimpse at the porch made his heart sink. His belongings were carefully placed in a bag there with a knapsack of food for him. This was a signal it was time to leave. His emotions shut down; he would not cry. He had cried the first couple of times. His father had tossed him to the road at nine to fend for himself, saying “I cannot take care of you anymore.” It was the Depression and times were hard: these were the words his father had used to justify the action. The boy had lost his home and no one else would give him that security again. Relatives took him in and when they had met their quota of hospitality or he had completed the work they needed, they turned him away to go see the next house. No, he would not cry again but he promised himself he would build a home one day and he would never turn anyone away.
He grew into a rugged, determined old man. I called him grandfather. I remember details of him vaguely, but his general impression bears a deep mark within me. He was living with us for the summer. I had just graduated from high school. I was in a transition that was bringing out all my insecurities.
He and grandma had come to stay awhile. He was going to build a barn for my father. I hated the idea of the barn and the building of it. We lived in town on a corner lot for Christ sake. My grandfather reveled in the idea. He had learned carpentry at an early age to help earn money.
I was told to help him as much as I could. I felt uncomfortable working on the barn. It was his and their fool idea I thought. He’s too old to build the barn. I’ll be stuck with all the work. And I’m too busy. I didn’t want to help. I don’t know why.
He dragged me to the lumber store. He inspected every piece of wood carefully. The wood could not have too many knots and had to be straight. The wood needed to be treated for termites unless you could afford cedar. Cedar’s smell was a natural deterrent to bugs and it did not rot easily. He saw my impatience. “This is the beginning of making a good structure,” he said. “It needs to be just right or you will have trouble down the line.” I thought, whatever; let’s get out of here.
The first day I watched him from the window of the house. He struggled to pick up the beams on his back. Knees once strong, now wobbled with age. It was no longer strength that did the work; it was determination. His eyes were not as good as they once were. He squinted to see if the boards were straight and aligned. His hands were swollen with arthritis for as long as I could remember and his dexterity was hampered. He said it made him feel better to do hard work; it was all he ever knew.
I remembered the stories they told of my grandfather when I was growing up. From the age of nine he had worked. His father had abandoned him to lady luck and she did not take kindly to him. He was tossed out of his home and left to roam from household to household of kin. Time passed and it became a way of life. He learned to work hard early. He grew accustomed to it. He developed into a working machine. Jobs were hard to find in the Depression; you needed a connection to get one. He did not have those as a young man who had been abandoned as a boy. The story went on and on.
He was unemployed and wanting to get married, he would wake early and walk a near ten miles to the Goodyear plant and ask for a job. He was determined to have a house and he wanted his own business. When they said there was no job, he would sweep and clean the yard around the plant. He knew the factory jobs were the best in the area for an uneducated man. So he worked unpaid for two weeks, always arriving on time and cleaning the yard. The third week they asked him to come early and clean the inside workplace before everyone arrived. Slowly, they asked him to do other chores around the place. He would smile and do them, always being sure he did the best job. Every once and awhile they would give him some change for his efforts. He did this for two months before they hired him full-time.
The story would continue; he never had time for regular schooling. Yet he managed along the way to educate himself. He could read and he could write. He would own a grocery store and rent the three buildings he constructed next to it. He taught himself how to do all of the accounting. He lived by no great philosophy: give a good day’s work for a day’s food.
His own father came through town in desperate straits with a new wife and new kids. They had no money or food. He swallowed his anger and filled the trunk of their car with food from the grocery store and gave his father all the money he had in the register. He knew how it was to have nothing and he had pledged to himself if he ever had anything he would always help others if asked. He then looked at his father and told him never to come back. His father knew not to come back and never did.
The legend of the “failed robbery” was told to me. Once robbers invaded his home--tied him and grandma up and took all of their money. As he sat on the floor with his hands tied he saw the fear in his wife’s eyes and a rage welled up inside him. He had grown a home where he and his would never have reason to fear, have want, feel rejection; this was not to occur in the house he built. I imagined him with long suppressed rage he had buried deep under his new home coming to the surface. Because somehow in the fury he managed to untie himself as the robbers were beginning to escape in their getaway car. He got his shotgun and shot the wheels of the fleeing car rendering it immobile and then walked up to the car. He told them to get out of the car. The tone in his voice let the thieves know it was best to listen to him. He marched them to the house, suggested “politely” that they apologize to his wife. They did and he held them captive until the sheriff came. As the sheriff was putting the thieves in the back of the car, my grandfather leaned in the window said, shaking his head, “If you had only asked I would have given you pretty much everything you stole.” He was not lying; he was known as a man who would give anyone a helping hand as long as they asked. Grandmother once said in hush tones after the sheriff left that my grandfather walked to the backyard and cried for over an hour. This was something he had not done since he was a boy. He was never seen to cry again. Was it the rage and pain he felt inside? I suppose. He must have buried them deep under the house that day, because I never saw them rise to the surface again. The next day he simply went on tending his home and building his business.
Each day in the backyard I heard a constant sawing and hammering. He started work early and quit late. No wages were paid. He was too old to care for those. It was to give his work away that he toiled. Once he and I went to install a window air conditioner unit in the elevated bathroom window of our house. I slipped and the unit was falling; he rushed under it and let it land on his back so it would not fall to the ground. Slowly he lifted it back in the window. After it was over I feared he would tell my father and my father would be mad or ridicule me. But when my father asked about the air conditioner grandfather merely said, “It was in.” I often heard him in his bed at night groaning silently as I passed his room. I suppose he had long since learned not to complain; it might mean an early exit from a comfortable bed.
I knew he was a proud deacon of his church and taught the same Sunday School class for over twenty years. His church had become a fixture in his life. My father would later teach the same class for another twenty years. Church members would talk about the “visit” the KKK made to present the church with a huge Bible for display in the front. They did this often to show their influence in the community. They said my grandfather met them at the door of the church with his shotgun and told them to keep their Bible. They left; they knew as I knew he was fool enough to shoot them if they pressed the issue. Strangely his church was not integrated but he was not going to let it be segregated either. Everyone needed a home, physical and spiritual, and no one especially in the House of God he would say should be turned away.
I would be regaled with these stories years later at his viewing before the funeral. I helped him with the barn when the mood came. I was so darn moody those days. He took great pride in showing me tricks of the carpentry trade. He enjoyed himself most when he was outworking me. He never said anything about it. He just did it. We would talk some as we labored. Usually we talked about God and religion since that would be my occupation. God, to him, was a hard task master but loved you even though you were seldom up to the task. He didn’t agree with what I thought were innovative ideas but he listened attentively. I wondered why he didn’t complain to God of the pain and fear of abandonment he felt. Maybe he was afraid God would send him packing if he asked why. But with the pain and unanswered questions he went on as if he enjoyed life. He learned early not to let circumstances cast his mood.
Slowly the barn rose up from the ground. It was good workmanship and done in the heat of the Alabama summer sun. He had finished the work he had started. And it was good.
After the barn raising he left to return to the area where he grew up. I visited him once and we played poker with matches as money. He chortled the whole time we played whether he lost or won. I imagine he had played poker a lot in his youth but it was not good form for a Baptist deacon. But it was okay with his grandson, especially if all you won were matches. This would be our last meaningful encounter.
The barn was the last art he was to make. Grandmother had been complaining of my grandfather’s increasing inactivity. He sat in his chair holding his side and not saying much. Until one day he looked at her with a loving hurt and said he needed to go to the doctor. He died three days later of cancer. He must have known for several months but did not want to leave the medical cost of treatment behind for his family to pay. The lung cancer was probably brought on by the cigarette smoking he had started when he was a child, trying to feel as adult as his co-workers. He said he should have quit a long time ago but it had become something that had given him a feeling of security. When the doctors gave him the diagnosis at the hospital he nodded in acknowledgement and said to his son, “Take me home.” His other son, a long- time alcoholic, came as quickly as he could after being told. He lived out of town and we knew grandfather would not let himself die until he saw him. So he lingered for two days until the son arrived. The same day his son came he told him he loved him. And an hour later as they were talking about football, he died. Grandmother wailed and those of us in the other room knew.
At the viewing an old friend dressed poorly and with a crusty demeanor sought out his grandchildren. He wanted them to know that although he had not seen Granddad for years, he knew when he saw the obituary he needed to come and tell his family of his love and respect for my grandfather. He said he was the best friend a man could ever have. He knew Granddad when he was a young wild buck. In their early twenties they drank, smoked, gambled and chased women together. He was in awe as he watched the young man he knew grow into this saintly man. He said, “You probably don’t know this but your grandfather was known as the greatest bronco rider in these parts.” I laughed; I was not sure that was saying much in north Alabama. Then he paused from all the stories and said, “When I needed a friend he was there for me and took me in.” With tears streaming down his eyes he continued, “I wanted his family to know what kind of man he was.” As strangely as he had appeared, he left.
I cried at his funeral. But I also smiled. The old country church was full of his friends and family. The choir sang his favorite song The Old Rugged Cross. “On a hill far away stood an old rugged cross… I will cling to the old rugged cross…. Oh, that old rugged cross, so despised by the world.” I realized as I enjoyed the service and saw the many friends and family present, my grandfather had constructed a heritage unlike others. He left not an estate but a well-built life: sturdy, durable, and straight. This good life was framed and endures. He did not have cedar and God had given him nothing but an old rugged cross with rotten timbers to carry on his journey. Yet he had created a home for so many including a sullen me.