By SANDI HUTCHESON
For as long as I can remember, my grandmother was the life of the party, and Granddad was the straight man. She was fun and games, while he was steady and dependable, the grounding force in our family. She could talk to anyone about anything, where he was sometimes known to just grunt in response to a question. But in the years since Grandmom’s death, I’ve gotten to know my grandfather better.
It was in 2004, I think, that Granddad first asked me to lunch. He called and said, “I want to see you. I know you’re busy, but if you’ll have lunch with me on Fridays, I’ll buy your lunch.” We’ve been meeting in the same little diner at noon on Fridays since. He’s still not much of a talker, but that doesn’t bother me. My respect for him comes from who he is, but my love for him is rooted in how he sees me.
Our Friday lunches have been a grounding force in my life because, intended or not, they have been about who I am and where I come from.
I was still married when our lunch dates began, but the marriage was withering like a tomato vine at the end of a long, hot, dry summer. In those first few months after we started meeting, I often caught myself comparing my husband to the man who sat before me. They were so very different. Why, I wondered, hadn’t I attached myself to someone more like my dad’s dad, the best man I’ve ever known.
Granddad was born January 23, 1923, in the tiny town of Rome, Georgia. As a young man, he was a fiery redhead with the proverbial temper to match the hair. Now, at 90, he has the same amount of hair that he had 50 years ago, only it’s as white as the porcelain veneers replacing his top front teeth. And his temper must have vanished along with the hair color, because in all the years I’ve known him, I’ve never once seen it.
One Friday, as I slid into the booth for lunch, I noticed he was missing a lower front tooth.
“What happened to your tooth?” I asked, horrified. The week before, the tooth had been there.
“Aww, that tooth was bothering me, so I took a pair of pliers and yanked it out,” he shrugged.
I imagined dentists everywhere cringing and a Tooth Fairy impressed enough to waive the age limit and contemplate payment for that lost tooth. But why on Earth would he pull his own tooth?
One could argue that money was the issue. A child of the Depression, Granddad remembers barely having enough food, much less money to pay a dentist. My cousin once asked him what his family did for food during the Depression. Granddad stared at him for a minute, then said matter-of-factly, “Well, my dad gave me his gun and two shells and said, ‘Don’t come back until you’ve killed something.’” For a family struggling just to have enough food to survive, toothaches were cured with a swig of homemade corn whiskey and a pair of pliers.
He and my grandmother married during World War II, and they had two sons. After the war, he tried farming, but the farm failed. Paying a dentist would have been low on the list of priorities at that time, probably akin to paying $7 for a cup of coffee at Starbucks these days. Unable to make the monthly payment on the farm they were renting, he was forced to look for work in Atlanta, a half-day’s drive away.
He found work at Ft. Gillem, and they moved to the south side of Atlanta with their two young sons. When his older sister’s husband proved to be an alcoholic—“sorry,” in Granddad’s estimation—he managed to purchase the house next door, move her in, and send his sons to care for their younger cousin when their mother was at work.
A few years later, he opened his own business. It prospered, and they lived happily and comfortably, enjoying their children and grandchildren. They even caught up on the dental care they’d neglected in their younger years. Grandmom had extensive work done to save teeth damaged by childhood malnutrition. And Granddad replaced several top teeth with those beautiful veneers.
In their retirement, they were able to purchase a lake house in North Georgia that was situated a couple of football fields away from where my grandmother was raised. They were married 59 years, three months, and one week, and then my grandmother died of pancreatic cancer.
In the winter of 2009, our Friday lunch conversation turned to how much he’d lost in the 2008 stock market crash. “Nearly $11,000,” he lamented, adding that the stock market would eventually come back but that he probably wouldn’t be around long enough to see his investment account completely rebound. Then he said, “I paid that much for a set of teeth one time, so I reckon it’s all relative.”
He hadn’t pulled his own tooth because of money. He had enough, certainly, to pay a dentist.
I wondered if perhaps the pain of his toothache had been so intense Granddad couldn’t wait to see the doctor.
I don’t think so. Historically, our family members have possessed an extremely high pain threshold. And we all know it came from Granddad. He once told me that he came home from World War II hooked on the cigarettes freely given to the G.I.’s. “One day I was driving in my truck, and I looked at my cigarette and thought it’s a nasty habit and an expensive one, and I don’t want to do this any more.” He looked at me and said, “I don’t understand what people mean when they say they’re addicted. That’s the last cigarette I ever smoked.”
So what would possess the man to pull a tooth with a pair of pliers?
While we ate, I stared at that hole between his front lower teeth and realized that before me sat a man who had, as a child, wondered if he would go to bed hungry. He had marched into liberated concentration camps at the end of the Second World War and been assigned the gruesome task of helping bury the stacks of bodies.
In his lifetime, he has experienced pain in many different forms. Ten years before, he had helplessly watched as the love of his life suffered with pancreatic cancer. He still wears his wedding band, and to this day, his eyes fill with tears at the mention of her name.
The romanticized reason for his decision to act as his own dentist would be to say that compared to the pain of losing Grandmom, pulling his own tooth was nothing. Or, like he said, it’s all relative.
Then again, the reason could be as simple as he just wanted to.
Well-tended tomatoes, like few other plants, are able to out-produce the needs of the grower. At some of our Friday lunches, it’s just Granddad and me. But every once in a while, all the grandchildren and even the great-grandchildren show up. And I know, because he said it once or twice before, that on those days Granddad is thinking about Grandmom and marveling at the bounty from their well-tended marriage.
In summer months, tomatoes are often part of our lunchtime narrative. Every Friday of every summer since we started having lunch together, Granddad has brought me a grocery sack full of orange-red homegrown tomatoes.
Family members regularly ask him, “Why can’t I get tomatoes to grow as good as you?”
Granddad just grins and says, “I don’t know. I don’t do nothing special.”
Two summers ago, I moved from Atlanta to St. Augustine, Florida. Telling Granddad was hard. He simply said, “Well, I wish you weren’t, but I understand why.” I noticed that his lip quivered when he said it, and that made my eyes fill with tears.
Every six or eight weeks, I drive to Atlanta. I visit family and friends. I often schedule sessions with my therapist and trainer, and sometimes I see doctors I haven’t yet replaced. I always have lunch with Granddad.
During a recent trip, my trainer, Andrew, asked how I’m feeling. A recent mammogram indicated something suspicious in my right breast, not the first time I’ve received that kind of news. I told Andrew what I was facing.
He said, “I want you to think about something. The heart is the closest organ to your breasts. Maybe by presenting as a problem in your heart chakra, your body is trying to tell you to open your heart. Do you have trouble giving or receiving love? And how much do you love yourself?”
I didn’t know much about chakras or energetic healing, but I knew this: the very first time I had a suspicious mammogram was the same year I filed for divorce. My husband had just left me for a much younger woman, and I had vowed to never, ever be that vulnerable to heartbreak again.
After my session with the trainer, I Googled “chakras.”
Eastern traditions divide the human body into seven energy centers, called chakras, and Eastern medicine holds that when a chakra is blocked, physical ailments manifest in the part of the body to which that chakra corresponds. For instance, the stomach is in the personal power chakra, which is located in the solar plexus, right above the navel. And how many stories are there of kids who are being bullied at school having terrible stomachaches on school days?
The first chakra, called the root chakra, regulates the energy surrounding our very existence. It’s the feelings we have about belonging, our right to be here, and issues of survival. Imbalance in the root chakra leaves one feeling rootless, groundless, and out of place.
The color associated with this chakra is red. Like one of Granddad’s tomatoes.
That same day, I had lunch with Granddad. He handed me a huge grocery sack full of his homegrown tomatoes. He got tickled during the meal as I recounted my attempts to grow tomatoes in Florida, how I spent a good deal of money hiring someone to plow me up a 5-x-5 foot patch, work in some organic fertilizer, and divert my sprinkler system because the salty water in my well is no good for tomatoes. How I ordered heirloom seeds and cheered when they poked their little heads through the soil. And he actually giggled when I produced a gift for him: one of my tomatoes, a perfect red orb the size of a large gumball.
Granddad’s tomatoes are giants compared to mine. He’s so good at growing tomatoes, in fact, that this year, rather than growing his own, my uncle simply bought two tiny plants, took them to Granddad, and said, “These are mine. Please plant them in your yard and grow them for me.”
My mom tells me that after I was born, Granddad used to call her when he got off work in the afternoon and ask if he could come see me. “She’s sleeping,” Mom would often tell him. But she says that didn’t matter. Granddad would simply come sit next to my crib and watch me sleep.
That story tells me all I need to know about how much I am loved and adored. How I belong. All I needed to do is see myself through Granddad’s eyes. Now, as I contemplate opening my heart so that I can give and receive love, I picture myself handing Granddad the seeds of my self-love and saying, “I know they’re ultimately my responsibility, but please plant them in your yard and grow them for me.”
Sandi Hutcheson has been published in Creative Nonfiction, Doxie Digest, and Southern Journal magazines, and she is the author of the novel Looks Great Naked. She obtained an MFA in creative writing from Spalding University and is pursuing a doctorate in creative writing. She teaches short story writing at Flagler College and creative writing for the University of Phoenix. Hutcheson lives near the beach in St. Augustine, Florida, with a three-legged Australian Shepherd and a pair of defiant dachshunds named Laverne and Shirley.