A Story and a Smile

Sam Granade was the tallest man I knew.

Sure, when you’re little, most everyone is tall. But Granddaddy was immensely tall. When he would pick me up the world would fall away from me and I was higher up even than when I was on my dad’s shoulders.

When I was young, he wasn’t my favorite of my grandparents. My grandmother, Missy Law, would get on the floor and play Safari with me, and make Witches’ Brew out of whatever juices and teas were in the refrigerator. My mom’s parents and my aunt Melanie, who was a teenager then, were relaxed, joking easily with each other. Granddaddy, though, seemed reserved, a man who knew what was right and planned on doing it. Moreover, he was an outdoorsman. I never really liked hunting and fishing, which were Granddaddy’s love. As much as he enjoyed turkey hunting (or, as it sounded in his south Alabamian accent, thick as a wool blanket, “toikey huntin'”), I’m surprised he didn’t disown me when I couldn’t sit still on our few hunting trips.

Our love of stories helped bridge that gap. Stories gushed out of Granddaddy like water from Moses’s rock. He would cock his head, his smile growing wide, and launch into his tale. He savored telling them, and his stern, no-nonsense demeanor would relax. One of my favorite memories of him is from a holiday shortly after Misty and I were married. We’d gathered at the beach like we did every year, and he turned to Misty and gravely began explaining how we did things at the beach. At one point he clasped his hands together and said, “And of course, as the newest member of the family, you’ll be expected to clean up after everyone,” and before he could even finish the sentence his laughter bubbled out of him.

As a preacher, he preached as Jesus did, through story and parable. But more than a preacher, he was a minister. He cared for people, and saw his calling to the ministry as a call to help others.

I didn’t get to know Granddaddy well until he and Missy Law started keeping Andrew and I once a year while my parents were out of town. During one of those visits, when I was ten or eleven, Granddaddy and I were playing one of those games that aren’t really games, but an excuse to “foster communications” and bore young children. At one point we had to talk about a time when we’d felt scared.

I don’t remember what I said. I do remember Granddaddy pausing before quietly describing his first jump as a paratrooper into the waiting darkness. I later learned that he’d volunteered for the Army. Since he was an ordained minister still in seminary, he wouldn’t have been drafted, but felt compelled to volunteer. He also volunteered for jump school: as the Army pointed out to him, they couldn’t assign him to the paratroopers, but they could assign him to glider training. Granddaddy used to laugh and say that the other members of the 13th Airborne Division would make him jump first. That way, if he made it, surely the rest of them would, too.

As I grew up and began driving the family around Montgomery, I also learned of his love of “little jogs”. He just knew that the simplest route was not the quickest, especially if it involved main streets. He would say, “Here, we’ll take this little jog and avoid the Southern Bypass” and send me on a bewildering series of turns.

Time pulls on us all, and one day I realized that I had grown taller and Granddaddy had grown more stooped. He shuffled when he walked, and he complained of how he couldn’t hunt or fish or preach any more on account of doctor’s orders. We thought he had decided he was old. What we didn’t know was that he had dementia.

His people skills were formidable, and he used them to cover for as long as he could. We had no idea his memory was like the sun on a cloudy day, appearing and disappearing. It wasn’t until we were moving him and Missy Law into the assisted living community that I realized how serious his dementia was. Misty, mom and dad were moving furniture into their rooms. Missy Law and Granddaddy stayed in one of the common areas with me and Eli. Eli was one, so I spent a lot of my time corralling him and keeping him from chewing on the furniture. During one of our circuits around the room, I overheard Granddaddy say, “Who is that young man with that boy?”

Dementia is a terrible disease. It took the Granddaddy I knew and loved and spirited away bits of him. He went from the open wing of the assisted living facility to the controlled access ward, then to a true nursing home. The wellspring of his stories ran dry, and he spent his time nodding amiably but uncomprehendingly at most of the conversations around him.

The disease didn’t take his smile, though. On occasion the clouds would part and Granddaddy would return to us, and his smile was the herald of those occasions. The last time I saw him was after Thanksgiving. We had four generations of Sams in the same room: him, my dad, my brother, and his son. Of the four, only Granddaddy and my nephew are called Sam. We re-introduced ourselves to him, and Andrew hoisted his son up. “And this is Sam,” he said, and Granddaddy nodded. Then he realized what Andrew had said and smiled, saying, “Oh, you named him for me!”

I don’t carry his name like so many members of the family do, but I have my own gifts from him. A King James Bible he used in his preaching. The railroad pocket watch with which he timed his sermons. His stories of being one of six Granade brothers and cousins in a single generation who became ministers.

At his memorial service, some three hundred people filled Stakley Chapel at First Baptist Church of Montgomery, people he’d ministered to and befriended. Everyone had their favorite stories of Brother Sam.

Me, I think of a man brave enough to throw himself into the air because he knew it was the right thing to do. He falls through darkness, looking back only to make sure those following him are okay.

A picture of Granddaddy
Samuel Andrew Granade

7 thoughts on “A Story and a Smile

  1. It seems a little presumptious to quote poetry after this wonderful memoriam, but I was reminded strongly of this poem by e. e. cummings:

    rain or hail
    sam done
    the best he kin
    till they digged his hole

    :sam was a man

    stout as a bridge
    rugged as a bear
    slickern a weazel
    how be you

    (sun or snow)

    gone into what
    like all them kings
    you read about
    and on him sings

    a whippoorwill;

    heart was big
    as the world aint square
    with room for the devil
    and his angels too


    what may be better
    or what may be worse
    and what may be clover
    clover clover

    (nobody’ll know)

    sam was a man
    grinned his grin
    done his chores
    laid him down.

    Sleep well

  2. Aww. This is a great tribute. Thank you for letting us into his world, if only for a few paragraphs.

  3. Stephen, I love it when you open your heart like this and pour it forth in such a beautiful and eloquent way. Thank you for sharing this piece in so public a forum.

  4. well reading this made me do something i really hate ….. cry.
    it made me think of all the great people and their great stoies that have pasted. and it also made me think of my grandmother who is sufering from dementia. since we have just moved back and are closer we canr eally notice it.
    having to repeat every 5 minutes who i am and who my children are, even who my mom her daughters is.
    then to see the realization appear on her face. that all these kids running around are her grand and great grand children.

  5. Both my husband I and I have had grandmothers with Alzheimer’s/dementia. His grandmother was in her mid-eighties, living in a special Alzheimer’s nursing home and the most advanced stages before she died last March. My own grandmother is also in her eighties but is in the early stages of dementia and still able to live with my parents.

    Both of our grandmothers created wonderful memories with us: lots of baking, cooking, playing games, sleepovers, going shopping and out for lunch and just spending time together. There were many days when I was young that I would have preferred to go to Grandma’s house than go play with a friend. I hope I can be the same kind of grandma to my future grandchildren as they were for my husband and I.

    You are correct about dementia. It’s not only terrible to have to see what it does to person with the disease, but it also hurts to see what it does to the family. My husband’s grandma was pretty much catatonic by the time she passed and didn’t recognize anyone at all. My grandma still knows everyone, but gets flustered extremely easily and very beligerent.

    I’m sorry for your loss and want to thank you for sharing Sam with us. I wish I could have met him myself.

    To echo Asai, Godspeed, Mr. Granade. Thank you for making the world a better place.

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