Editor’s note: The final installment in a two-part series by Athens author and occasional contributor Bill Hunt about his grandfather.
On a late October morning when the first chill in the air came, the sky was cloudy and the breeze from the north moved the leaves on the oak trees, their branches reaching and nearly touching the windows in my upstairs bedroom. I thought about Grandfather and the ritual the afternoon before he died two years before.
I found my old windbreaker in the closet and immediately searched the sleeve for the tear, recalling how that jacket was the best I had the day I said goodbye to him. I wanted badly to wear it, to wrap myself in it now, feel its familiarity and remember.
I sat on the side of my bed and closely examined the slit in the sleeve, still the same, unchanged from the way it always was. I recalled the very first time I’d seen the tear, while riding the arm of my Grandfather’s chair as he listened to the news one evening.
I was telling him about the tear while I pressed the two sides of the cloth together, wishing it would magically heal itself. Right at that moment, he placed his hand on mine and softly squeezed, the signal to stop the chatter so he could concentrate on the news story coming over the Zenith.
He leaned closer to the radio while he held my hand, and I watched his face as his smile grew bigger. After a few seconds, he turned and looked straight at me. “The war in Europe will be over pretty soon,” he said.
Now, with my “too-small” windbreaker zipped to the top, I took the stairs in four long jumps, then strutted into the kitchen. When she saw me, my mother shook her head and smiled.
“It’s too warm to wear that old jacket to school,” she said. “Besides, it’s too small and needs to be thrown away.”
Change all around
By noon that day, I realized momma was right, so I tied the arms of the wind breaker around my waist. When school let out, I jumped up the steps, and the school bus door slammed closed. The engine roared when the bus turned onto Main Street, where everybody in the area bought their groceries and clothes.
After a few seconds, I found myself again playing with the tear in the sleeve of my old jacket and thinking about my grandfather, and how he often talked about change. In the months since the war had ended, several stores had gone out of business, leaving show windows with scatterings of cardboard boxes or draped with brown paper. These were a few of the changes brought on in my home town when all of the Army training posts in Central Louisiana were closed soon after the war ended.
After a few minutes, the bus came to the busy part of Main Street. I watched a few shoppers walking along the sidewalk while looking in the show windows of a department store. Then we came to the men’s shop where Momma had bought my windbreaker several years before. A sign across the windows read, “Closing Oct. 31.”
In the next block there was Walgreen’s, and then there was Morgan and Lindsay, a store I always felt was closest to heaven. Up from Morgan and Lindsay was the Palace Bar, a place we didn’t go in because we were Baptist. Even the word “bar,” in our way of thinking, insinuated evil, possibly hell. Then, there was the wonderful New York Café with its red leather stools and booths, and black and white floor.
The school bus stopped at the red light in front of a store with a sign like the men’s shop windows: “Going out of business sale.” I glanced toward the opposite corner to admire the new black Ford with the chrome siren on top that the chief of police drove around town, but it wasn’t there.
Looking the other way, I watched a kid pointing to a new bicycle in the show window at Morris’s Western Auto, and I figured he was showing his mom and Mr. Morris the bike he wanted. I’d done nearly the same thing one day during the summer before my grandfather died. I paid $20 I’d saved, Momma paid $5 from her “butter and egg” money, and Grandfather paid the rest, $7.
Within 5 minutes, the dusty school bus arrived at the dirt road into Shirley Plantation.
As I walked through The Plantation Quarters with my old windbreaker still tied around my waist, there was change all along the dirt road. I looked at the ramshackle, small, unpainted houses, some of them empty, and remembered inside walls papered with newspaper and brown paper bags to keep out winter winds. Others had been set afire after a family migrated to California or Arizona in search of a better life.
I’d had a friend in almost every house, a playmate whose skin was dark, but that didn’t matter then; we were just kids playing. Then I came to the big barns, where 50 mules used to rest at night, but the mules were gone now, and growing in the barn lot were weeds and volunteer trees.
Next was the tractor shed, a big, open space where the new tractors parked every evening when they came in from the fields. Finally, I reached the hedgerow that hid The Big House from the quarters and the barns. I stopped, glared at the stateliness of the old house, with its big trees and well-kept yard, then turned and looked all the way to the end of the road I’d just walked down.
A lovely and sweet memory
After the bus ride along Main Street and my walk through what remained of the once busy Plantation Quarters, I knew, like Grandfather had told me, changes would come, some good and some bad, and many were already evident in the small world where I lived and called home.
I put my finger in the slit in the sleeve of the old windbreaker and held it there for only a second or two, remembering my grandfather and the many hours we’d shared with each other, a young boy and an old man, in front of the Zenith. I glanced down the dirt road through The Quarters then turned again to look at The Big House. Grandfather was right about almost everything we’d ever talked about, and I knew he was right about how time and war changes lives.
Familiar things all around me were changing, maybe vanishing; my friends on the plantation were leaving; my home, the plantation, the only place I’d ever lived was dying, too. Change is here, right now, everywhere I look, I thought, and it just won’t stop.
What surrounded me at that moment was all I’d ever known, and my growing-up years seemed to be speeding along at a faster pace. When I glanced down the dirt road, I felt small and irrelevant, and I knew that the abundant happiness I’d always known as a child in a world I loved would soon become a memory, lovely and sweet. But in time, it too would become as vague as those of my grandfather’s.
That night in my upstairs bedroom, I held together the tear in the sleeve of the windbreaker, then folded it neatly and found a place to hide it away in my little brown trunk, thinking that maybe when I am old I can tell my own grandson about an old jacket with a tear in the sleeve and the memorable happenings when the windbreaker was the best I had.
I’d tell him about an old man and a young boy listening to a big radio for good news or bad news about a dreadful war and how the whole world was changing. I’d tell him about the extraordinary events that reshaped our lives and our futures so he would know that he, too, must pass through the upheavals of a sometimes angry but always changing world.
He must know, also, that he will someday be old, and only through fading memories will he be able to find his way back to the places and times in the dreams in his youth.
— Hunt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.