By Tina Toler-Keel
Warm, spring evenings spent watching the few fireflies light up the sky and listening to the frogs take me back to a much simpler time, when my biggest concern was if my mom would allow my best friend to spend the night and how we could convince her it was a good decision. Those were the days of cart-wheels in the front yard, drinking water from a hose, playing spotlight, and telling ghost stories.
I can close my eyes and almost see my friend, Kristi, and me playing tag with her neighbors and yelling at our little brothers to leave us alone, not knowing one day we would yearn heartbreakingly for another evening with them, watching the stars and drinking Kool-Aid out of a paper cup.
Back then, spinning around in circles left us dizzy, but we knew the constant we could look at to steady us was our mothers sitting on the porch, having a laugh or two.
By sundown, all the work of the day was done. Dinner had been served and dishes were washed ( by hand no less) put away, and tables scrubbed. Laundry had been miraculously folded and put on our beds for us to reluctantly, and often after more yelling than necessary, put away. Grass was mowed and gardens had been attended to.
On the evenings when we weren’t with friends, I could be found at my grandparents’ home.
My grandfather was Ward Duncan, but for some reason, I always called him Pa, right up until his last breath. Pa was the kindest, wisest, most honorable man I have ever known. When I think of him now, I am reminded of an old Randy Travis song, “I Thought He Walked on Water.” I had seen Pa jump from one rock to another across creeks and rivers and seen him pull in trout lines enough to feel he truly could walk on water. He was, to me, the epitome of perfection.
Pa was a simple man. Although he used modern (at the time equipment such as a gas tiller and gas lawnmower, mostly because it was easier, he stayed true to living a simple life. He didn’t see the need for fancy things like dishwashers. My grandmother, however, overruled on that one!
Throughout most of his working life, he was employed at Union Carbide in Alloy, West Virginia. To this day I still do not know what he did. In my innocent eyes, he walked to the end of the street, carrying a metal lunch box and thermos of coffee, caught a bus, disappeared for many hours, then returned once again at the end of the day. I often accompanied in his walks and never understood why, since he had a nice car, he didn’t just drive the thirty miles to get to work.
He explained he started riding the bus before they could afford a car and it still made sense. He didn’t have to pay for gas or upkeep, and he was able to relax for a while after work and unwind before beginning his duties at home. I wish I could say at that time I understood, but I didn’t. And honestly, I didn’t give it much thought.
Pa taught me how to string green beans, crack open walnuts, mow grass, and keep a fire. He taught me kindness to everyone and everything, and although neither of us were vegetarians, he taught me respect to animals. He taught me how to put a worm on a hook, how to cast, and how to wait—teaching me patience was probably the hardest job he ever had! Because of him, I know when I have a bite and to wait it out, when to pull hard and reel it in, and how to take a fish off the line. I even know how to keep from getting cut by the fish with sharp scales. I did not learn to clean a fish! And I’m still not disappointed in that.
Winters were often harsh in the hills of West Virginia and blizzards were a normal occurrence. Thankfully, my parents were smart enough to build a home with a wood fireplace and my dad’s favorite hobby was, and still is, going out in the woods and cutting wood.
In the worst storms, power was likely to be out for a week or more. It was during those times of my youth I learned to build one heck of a good fire and keep it roaring.
Because our home was tri-level and my grandparents did not have heat when the power was out, we set up make-shift camps in our family room. My grandparents, my brother, my parents, and I would huddle around the warm fire, play games, read books, tell stories, and even though I may be looking back through nostalgic, rose-colored glasses, we had fun.
Pa loved to wrap potatoes and onions up in aluminum foil and place them in the hot ashes. He was an expert at adding butter, salt, and pepper and seemed to have a sixth sense of when they were done, but not too done. I spent many nights eating sandwiches and a fire baked potato or onion for dinner.
Between spending time, especially in summers, with Kristi and hanging out with Pa, my life was stress free and due to the innocence of childhood and adults who kept us protected, I believed my parents, Kristi’s parents, and my grandparents’ lives were as carefree as mine.
I have matured a little – and yes, only a little, since those days. I am nearing half a century of years and have adult children of my own. Instead of getting dizzy from spinning in too many circles, I get dizzy from the hardship, chaos, fears, and stress of adult life. If I were to try a cart-wheel now, I would spend the evening in the Emergency Room, and perhaps weeks in traction. I miss the carefree days and often long for the simplicity they offered.
I now realize the things Pa taught me – the things I childishly believed were ways to keep me occupied and happy – are lessons I needed for life. Because of him, I can handle emergencies, feed my family, fish, and build fires. He did not just teach me a cool way to make a baked potato or teach me how to pump water from a hand well; he taught me how to survive. He did not just teach stillness and patience in order to catch a fish, but how to be patient and wait.
I also now realize our mothers were stressed. They were scared. They worried, not if Kristi or I could perfect our kart-wheel, but where the money to pay a bill or visit a doctor was coming from. They worried about the state of the world and society. They worried about who they were and who they would be. While I once thought our mothers had everything easy, they worked their fingers to the bones, never ceasing. And while I thought their work was complete by nightfall, it wasn’t. They still had children to bathe, doors to lock, calls to make, bills to write, and sometimes, tears to shed in private.
I wonder now, how Pa managed to have what we all were looking for – carefree days and blissful nights. I know now his life wasn’t perfect and he had his own heartache and burden to carry. He worried about his children and grandchildren. He mourned the loss of a child. He worried over his tomatoes and peppers. He, like everyone else, had his share of pain.
Pa had something many of us do not have, at least not yet. He had an inner peace. He had faith. He believed things worked out as they were supposed to, believed in kindness and generosity, and believed by keeping things simple and not worrying over drama and gossip, life would be easier.
As Father’s Day comes and goes, I reminisce about childhood. I am blessed and oh so thankful for my mother, my grandmother, Kristi, and her mother and the memories I have. I am thankful to my father for all the love, lessons, and warmth I always received. But mostly, I am thankful to my grandfather for teaching to not just to survive, but to live and enjoy the little things, like sipping a cup of coffee while sitting in a rocker on the front porch and how to just be still.