The Viking and the Elf
My Paw-Paw and Maw-Maw... and me
I guess at some point in a person’s life, we struggle with the idea of defining ourselves. A good bit of me, by definition, I guess goes back to my grandparents on my mother’s side, the Viking and the Elf.
My maternal grandfather, Elijah Raphael, married my grandmother, Frances Ruth, prior to the depression.
To give you an idea how old that would make her if she were still with us today, Maw-Maw, (as all us children called her), once said she remembered looking out of a covered wagon as a very small child.
My grandfather was a seaman. My dad once told me that my grandfather could catch as many as six fish with one fishing line. (Of course, my mother later corrected that number and said it was as many as ten, and I’m sure she would know.)
My grandmother was a gentle soul, with a deep love of green and growing things. As much as my grandmother was rooted to the earth, my grandfather remained an unfettered spirit in love with open waters. As different as the two of them could be at times, an uncommon bond existed between them that created an odd sort of balance.
Maw-Maw was all patience and kindness akin to the great ladies of old and my grandfather, as impatient as the storm at sea, had a temper he found himself hard pressed to contain.
Still, for all Paw-Paw’s shortcomings, he was quite the genius.
I remember my cousin Don and I once got into his journals as children and the algebraic formulas to outline his inventions were staggering. My grandfather’s company got credit for his work and my grandfather took home a small penance for his hard work and a short life to boot.
I don’t know how many people out there know what “courtin’” is, but back when my grandparents were young, it was a young man swinging by the young lady’s house to call on the family and maybe stay for supper. There might be a little walk after vittles or hand-holding if he got lucky.
When Paw-Paw came to my grandmother to propose, he brought her his paycheck to put up until they had enough money to get married. He gave her a small wooden box and told her that once the chest was filled, it would be time.
Most girls would leap at that sort of romantic thing, but my grandmother, in no hurry to rush into a hasty marriage unless there was some stability, stashed that cash in other places. Realizing at last that my grandmother was more frugal than originally anticipated, he decided to forgo that box and all the courtin' over time and just married her. Of course, thanks to Maw-Maw’s obstinacy, they had enough of a nest egg to buy some property and start building.
Paw-Paw was a firm believer in concrete and steel and often said that there was nothing in the earth you could ever trust more. He built their home, two apartments, a cottage, and several other houses and outbuildings over time on that property. Most of those crazy stories I’ve written about boogers, haints, ghosts and sandpits were set against a backdrop painted by the hard work of my grandfather and the artistic hand of my grandmother.
Maw-Maw’s people were steady, quiet, country folk; many of them farmers and all of them genuine and kind. Paw-Paw’s people were strong and defiant, hard-workers with a penchant for solutions born outside the box.
I’ve learned through the years that his side of the family descended from pirates who first looted American shores prior to the British settlers. (Can you say Vikings?) To my understanding, there is a whole nation of American Indian with blue eyes and blonde hair living in North Carolina… I don’t wonder where they came from, since Paw-Paw’s ancestors landed there.
You have to understand, my grandfather stood six-foot-four, weighed about two-hundred and twenty pounds and was raw muscle. His ancestry leaves no sort of mystery for me at all.
Still, I suppose being the granddaughter of a sailor and a woman who could grow anything she wanted, I have the best of both worlds in me. I love being outside, the sway of the trees, the flowers and the sounds of Spring and Autumn in Georgia unlike anything else. Yet, for all that, the Georgia coast calls to me on a level I fail to understand. Something about the rise and fall of the sea, the gentle rocking motion of the waves, the smell of the ocean salt and the rays of the warm sun on my skin moves me. I recently transitioned to Savannah if that tells you anything. HA!
In all of the kind things I ever did for anyone else, my grandmother’s presence was with me the same as if she was standing next to me. I often wonder what she’d have thought of me if she were still here.
Don’t get me wrong… Maw-Maw was a gentle soul, but a more formidable opponent did not exist, or she would never have been able to weather my Paw-Paw’s stormier days. She may have been slight in her height, a little soft and round around the edges, but she was swift.
In fact, one morning as she sat on her couch looking over a newspaper, she sipped from a cup of coffee as my brother ran aimlessly around the living room. She asked him politely to stop running around a few times and he then gripped the end of the couch and flipped himself over onto it. I remember her warning my brother that if he didn’t stop it she was going to spank him.
Disregarding her warning, he grabbed the edge of the couch closest to her and flipped himself over, depositing his foot directly into her coffee cup and shooting the warm liquid all over the place. In a motion too quick for me to explain, since I couldn’t follow it with the naked eye, my grandmother had my kid brother up by his foot and spanked him…hard. He had no trouble just doing what she said after that.
Most grandparents are full of wisdom but I think too, some of my “smartness” comes from her. I was out sunbathing once in a gold bikini when I was fifteen. Maw-Maw walked out through the screen door and said:
“Roni. What are you doing out here like that?”
“I’m trying to get a tan, Maw-Maw.”
“The neighbors ain’t” She told me.
“Ain’t what?” I asked, sitting up from the blanket and cupping my hand over my eyes to keep the sun out.
“Blind, deaf and dumb.” She shot back. “Now get in here and get your clothes on!”
The irony is, the neighbors were related to us, so I had no idea what all the fuss was about, but I minded her all the same.
My grandpa died when I was about eleven or twelve so I didn’t get enough time with him. It’s a fact that I commonly regret. Once when I was little, I walked by as my grandfather was teaching my cousin Ricky how to throw knives. (I was about 7 or 8, so Ricky was about 8 or 9).
The idea was to hold the blade, then sling the knife so that it would stick into a tree. I observed as my grandfather showed him time and again how to do it, to no avail. I watched the movement of my grandpa’s fingers, his hands, the muscles in his forearm, the tilt of his head, the focus in his eyes.
He was really into this.
I don’t know how many of you would remember who "Charles Atlas" was, but every time I think of Paw-Paw, those old Charles Atlas ads from the comics come to mind. At age 60 he could do pull-ups on the chinaberry tree in the front yard, with two five-gallon buckets of concrete attached to his ankles.
Ricky complained that there must be something wrong with the knife, so my grandfather smiled. He turned an objective eye to my cousin then looked over at me.
“Come here, baby.” He said to me.
I bashfully walked over to my grandfather and he put the blade into my hand.
“Just do what you’ve seen me do.”
Recalling what he had done, every nuance in his body as he did it, I held that blade between my fingers and took a deep breath. Focusing on a single point in the tree, I let it fly.
Paw-Paw “whooped” as the knife stuck fast in the bark, but Ricky was quick to say that it was beginner’s luck. Paw-Paw promptly handed me the knife and agreed with him that it probably was dumb luck. Of course, the second time was much easier and it took me less time. Paw-Paw pulled the knife from the tree, hugged me and swung me around telling me how proud he was of me.
Mama swears that he just loved me like that because I look like his side of the family but sometimes, I think back on how he doted on me and, to me at least, he was just Paw-Paw… and he loved me for me. (Looking now at my grandmother's picture, I can see a mix of both my grandparents.)
When Paw-Paw died, we were living in a small apartment in Wisconsin and it was the only time in my childhood that I recall ever seeing my mother cry. Not long after, we were living there in Georgia in the house he built with my grandmother, and though it was a big change, I have never been happier for it. I might never have known the love that only my grandmother could give, otherwise.
As an adult looking back, I see so much of them in me. At times I am as patient as time, kind and steady as the earth. And other times, I find myself angry, lustful and ready to explode. Each time in my life that I have risen to face adversity, my grandmother’s resolve wells within me, pushing at me to face it, weather it and keep going. At other times, I find myself endowed with the strength and intelligence to not only weather those trials, but to conquer them… and it is at those times that I realize that I got the best (and at times the worst) of both of them.
Of course, I was also fortunate enough to have a mother with a creative side who was never afraid to turn over the rocks and see what wonderful things grew on the other side. Thanks to her, I have wit, humor and a very hard head (and those things have more than once saved my life.)
I guess if Webster was to define a Veronica Coldiron, there would be an adventuring granddaughter of a Viking-descended sailor, a patient, loving and steady companion, and an artist and performer. But whomever people choose to see in that definition, I am grateful for those influences… good and bad.
About the author
I'm a mild-mannered business consultant by day, a free-spirited writer, artist, singer/songwriter the rest of the time. Let's subscribe to each other! I'm excited to be in a community of writers and I'm looking forward to making friends!