Mama, Verna Jewel Tackett, and Papa, William Doyle Tackett, with their first-born grandchild, fall of 1955. She was 39, he 44, upon my arrival.
With the spate of recent craziness in the world and U.S. – and my concerns for my grandchildren’s futures – I find my thoughts turning frequently to lessons learned from my grandparents in the good old days.
Though time and circumstances are very different a half-century later, I hope someday my grandkids will remember love and lessons from me.
Since we didn’t live in the same town, every summer from the time I was 2, I – and later Cathy and I – spent two weeks in Russellville with Mother’s parents, Mama and Papa. Daddy’s parents, Nana and Daddy Lou, also lived in Russellville until I was 9, so it was a bit of a twofer, but the Tacketts were the custodials, and the Cartwrights the day-visits.
Mother pretty unashamedly did the happy dance upon dropping us off, but she has told me it stung a bit that we were so happy to go. The last year I made the pilgrimage was the summer after the eighth grade, 1969. By that point, friends, the pool – and mainly the lack of a rock ’n’ roll radio station – plus my many babysitting jobs made it a no-go.
I vividly remember reading Farenheit 451 for the first time that last summer in Russellville. I remember also meeting some young teen neighbors to hang out with, but, oddly, I thought, considering they were a small town crew, they were too wild for me, the sophisticated city girl. Working mom, brothers hanging from the rafters – I’ll just go back across the street and hang out with my creative grandmother and little sister, thank you very much.
I learned many lessons during the years I did go.
One was that I was a little ray of sunshine who would always be the center of someone’s universe, at least as long as my grandparents and great aunt and uncle were alive. John seems to take that position now, which would make Papa very, very happy. After he died, Mama told me Papa would’ve never thought any man worthy of me, but I think he’d approve.
Uncle Johnny Blaiotta, whose family immigrated from Italy to San Francisco when he was 10, and my Aunt Opal, Papa’s older (by two years) sister. Aunt Opal called Uncle Johnny “Cookie,” and they were childless lovebirds. They doted on Mother and Uncle Bill then doted on all their children. Just have to include this picture because they were so stinking cute when they came back to visit from California in 1957.
Having such crazy-young grandparents meant that we got to have them for a very long time – and that my children got to know them, love them and even go spend the weekend with them a time or two.
This has got to be their 70th and 75th birthdays, judging by the hats and the ages of Liz, Ben and Robert. Look how tickled Papa is – he loved a good time and a big laugh. April 15, 1916, and April 24, 1911, were their birthrates.
OK, I’m short on time, so let me focus:
From my grandfather I learned how to vegetable garden. I didn’t realize that I was learning at the time – I thought we were just hanging out. But later, after becoming a gardener myself, I realized just how much he’d taught me, and he was a ready reference for any question I might have.
I learned that a good sense of humor can take you a long way. And that a little mischief never hurt anything, especially if you don’t get caught. But if you do, if you’re crafty, you can finagle your way out of too much trouble.
Example from one of his favorite stories about when I was 2:
Papa: “Laura, am I going to have to spank you?”
Laura: “Now, Papa, you wouldn’t spank your sweet little granddaughter, would you?”
Turns out, no, he wouldn’t. He laughed hard instead.
But he would give Cathy a quick firm swat on the rear when she stood up in the fishing boat on Lake Dardenelle after being repeatedly cautioned against standing in the boat.
Turns out our grandfather who could do anything couldn’t do one critical thing, and that was swim. Cathy nearly gave him the heart attack he had in his front yard years later – one from which he did recover and live another decade.
I don’t even know if we were wearing lifejackets. It was the early ’60s and times were lax. Oh, yeah, he taught us to fish.
Papa took us to see Von Ryan’s Express at the drive-in movie, something we thought was ubercool. He taught us that even though you hung the moon and stars, you still go play in the yard and get out of the adults’ hair. You do get homemade chocolate chip cookies for breakfast, but you don’t sass or interrupt adults.
He taught me that sitting on a limb of the mulberry tree in my great-grandmother’s backyard next to the train track – that I wasn’t allowed to climb – to wave at him as he passed by driving the train was our little secret and didn’t hurt anybody, as long as I didn’t fall.
Never fell. I did sport lots of blue lips, though. And denied to high heaven having eaten unwashed mulberries.
The berry doesn’t fall very far from the grandfather, from stories I’ve heard about him.
We had him until he was 80. Wasn’t long enough.
From my grandmother I learned to sew. I learned to cook. I learned that I could do anything, make anything, be anything, if I just studied it enough to figure it out.
She had no education beyond high school but was very smart, creative and talented. She exuded love and taught us that, ultimately, it is indeed all you need to have a successful life.
She had an innate wisdom and an old soul. She was zen and Papa was zest. They were a perfect balance.
Mama used to counsel me on being married to a slightly older man and told me that in some time spans the difference wouldn’t be noticeable but at other times, it would and you just had to have patience.
Oh, yeah, my grandmother taught me about patience. And acceptance. And second chances. And hope.
She used to pull Cathy and me aside when we were pulling our hair out over our wild little sons and tell us, “Your mother means well, but she doesn’t understand – she never raised a boy.”
She taught me that politics count and voting is a duty, no matter how small the election. She and Papa worked the polls every election that came around after he retired. She respected the president, whoever occupied the office, but she she was a proud, self-proclaimed yellow-dog Democrat who believed people needed to take care of each other.
Though we were sick to lose her, we were all glad she was spared living through Sept. 11 and the invasion of Iraq. Her heart full of love would’ve shattered over those events.
She died at 85 in the summer of 2001. Still lived at home. Never drove a car. Never raised her voice.
She never needed to – we could hear her loud and clear. Still can.
This is one of my favorite pictures in the world. Liz and Papa hanging out in the kitchen on South Laredo in Russellville. They’d been playing some kind of wooden game that Liz is holding, I think.