Judith Causey Wiggins
Granddandy. That’s what we all called him. Not Grandfather or Pappa. Granddandy. He was a tall man. From a child’s point of view he was a towering giant, with a great shock of white hair and a wrinkled face like an apple too long in the sun. And always with the unfiltered cigarette between his yellowing fingers. His blue eyes were large behind the horn-rimmed glasses, and they could freeze a little girl, his granddaughter, in her tracks when they came to rest on her. Narrowing, piercing, trying to determine what mischief she was about to get up to if he should nap.
I was afraid of Granddandy. Yet, I craved his attention and when he spoke, I listened with every fiber of my small, gangly, undeveloped, ten-year-old body.
He was, I recognized even at this tender age, a wise man, who kept his own counsel and only spoke when necessary. At least that was the way I saw it. He was economical with his words, around me, at any rate. Therefore, any utterance I received from him was treasured even if it was a rebuke.
I didn’t think he much liked children. Perhaps that was why he didn’t speak to me very much when I was placed in his company after school while my parents worked. But when he talked of life after death and bizarre religions of which I had never heard; when he told tales of himself as a wild rapscallion in western Tennessee I was spell-bound. He led rebellions in the one-room school house, terrorizing the poor school marm, even locking her in the privy one day. He defied his parents as his two younger sisters sat meek and ladylike and watched him rant and rave. He was the "devil" in a print shop and raked coals and stoked fires in the early morning winters while being taunted and sometimes whipped by the other young trainees there.
He tried to escape that life and had ridden freight trains across the country at eighteen, choosing to eat in hobo camps and earn a few dollars at various newspapers as he heard the words of Horace Greeley and made his way to the west coast.
He had come upon Judge Roy Bean roaring drunk in his own jail in Langtry, Texas and then he had come to Mississippi where he was smitten by a lovely young woman whom he married.
But he never really settled down or escaped from his past or discovered who he really was inside; and even after marrying and having children he was restless and angry. He took on the small town that was his new home. He opened a print shop, started a newspaper, opened a car dealership, became a member of the town’s Board of Aldermen, and basically continued to cut a wide swath through the tiny, sleepy, Southern town. I think that everyone else was just as afraid of him as I was while still being awed by his presence. And at the same time Grandandy was in turmoil within himself. He didn’t live life; he plowed through it, cutting deep furrows and leaving clouds of dust behind. His family trembled in his wake.
I am one of many grandchildren, and we all have a bit of his "fire." Some of us have despised it, tried to hide it; and others of us wish we had more.
When he died I was sad that there would be no more afternoons spent in his darkened front room with the ceiling fan slowly turning and where the walls were lined with hundreds of books standing sentinel inside of glass-fronted bookcases which were always a source of mystery and anticipation for me. I wanted to read them all. I wanted their wisdom.
Without Granddandy, there would also be no more of the loud, braying laughs from an off-color joke or hard hacking coughs from the Viceroys. But, when he was gone I was relieved as well. He scared me in a primal way. He didn’t like my father and he and my mother were “too much alike” to get along. He argued vehemently with people, but he could make the best fudge. He kept goldfish in a pond in the back yard, but he strangled cats. He was truly a dichotomous figure. I yearned to understand him.
My grandmother had passed away before I was born and I believe before her time, but I also believe she was simply tired out. She raised seven children, saw two die, and was run-ragged by the rest…mostly girls…and one son who came back from his service in World War II a bit different, but loud, and often drunken.
My grandmother suffered my Granddandy’s rants and demands and lived her life only for him and her children as was done at the time in South Mississippi. She remained quiet and took it all with the stoic and genteel bearing that was the hallmark of all other true southern ladies of her time. I wish I had known her. I suspect she was affronted and embarrassed by his brashness and hard demeanor. But, I have no idea if she knew how much he suffered inside, as I have chosen to believe he did.
When my parents and I did visit Granddandy’s big white house on the north side of town, I heard the whispered family tales of divorce and adultery; of an unmarried aunt who committed suicide rather than face Granddandy with the unexpected pregnancy. I lurked behind closed doors and listened at keyholes in fear and fascination. I heard of my uncle’s escapades beyond the control of Granddandy and his frustration with his only living son who disappointed him greatly. I heard of my aunts’ neuroses and my own mother’s uncontrollable drinking. It was like a Tennessee William’s play; a genteel southern family of prominence and respect run amok. I have always had a love-hate relationship with Mr. William’s depressing stories to which I am drawn to over and over.
But only my Granddandy’s stories had a greater hand in fashioning who I would later become than I ever allowed myself to imagine. Over the years, I sought out information on every world religion and fringe belief I could find and asked a jillion questions about a “Heavenly Creator” and life after death. I ran away from home and refused to succumb to any of my parents weak attempts to tame me. I rebelled in Catholic school and have been remembered for that forty years later. I was married and divorced several times and had no children, having been too busy trying to find out who I was and where I fit into the puzzle of my sad family to care sufficiently about anyone else.
Let me tell you that I lay all of this at the feet of my Granddandy. The grand patriarchal visionary who ultimately was to lead his entire family into depression and self-doubt. Yes, I put who I am squarely on his broad yet stooped shoulders and this is why. He started this
whole family conflagration which I now call parents, aunts, uncles and cousins. He began and subsequently defined our family line. I know in my heart he wanted answers to his own questions. But I don’t think he ever got them. He never finished the stories. He never filled in the details. He was a sentence without a period.
What would you do, Granddandy…or do we really care? He left his family wandering in the desert of their souls with no bright and promising beacon to follow. After all, he set the example. Isn’t that what fathers and grandfathers and granddandys are supposed to do? But I saw the end product and decided to go about on my own completing his story vicariously throughout my own life. I moved around a lot, trying to find just the right place. I read voraciously, trying to answer all those existential questions and put "paid" to all the doubts.
In later years, I even fancied that I was the reincarnation of the long-suffering and much maligned aunt who took the easy way out with not one single answer in her pocket. I was very confused. I considered suicide. I still consider suicide. But, I won’t ever do it. Because then I would be leaving the story unfinished and pieces would be left out and I wouldn’t know the real ending…and I would be a victim of my own history…just like my Granddandy, and that won’t do at all.
Judith Causey Wiggins was born and raised in Mississippi and has lived
and learned in the South for over 50 years. This is her first published story.
Judith Causey Wiggins