Father’s Day 2008: My Grandfather and Obama

We went to visit my grandfather yesterday, Father’s Day.  Took the whole family, even my folks who’ve been divorced for 7 years.  My Pa-Paw, as he’s called by everyone, is 91 years old, and he has Alzheimer’s.  He’s been in an assisted living facility for going on 3 years now, as it wasn’t safe for him to continue living at home with my grandmother.

Pa-Paw has good days and bad days.  Sometimes we visit, and he can’t remember anyone’s name but my mom’s.  Or he thinks I’m actually my mom.  (That’s a little scary, but my mom’s so cool, I consider it a compliment.)

Other days he asks questions over, over, over again.  He did that yesterday, but he was having a pretty great day overall.  We brought him a digital photo frame that runs a slide show of lots of pictures of everyone in the family, including our pets, and us standing in front of our homes.  We went through the show at least three times while he identified people and places.  He was really enjoying it, and it was great to see him so happy.

We all sat in a circle talking about recent events, news from the family and what everyone was up to.  My youngest talked about being Obama-central for her junior high school- even the teachers came to her for news on the campaign.  All of a sudden, my Pa-Paw clicked into gear.

My Pa-Paw was raised in the Dallas, TX area, son of a butcher who made great block chili.  He graduated from high school- a first for his family- and went on to join the Army.  My Pa-Paw landed on Omaha Beach on D-Day+1, picking his way up the beach through the bodies of fallen comrades.  He never talked about the war, it seemed he saw too much having marched across France, Belgium and Germany, down into Austria before the war was over.

When he returned, the South was still a very segregated place as it had been for much of his life.  It was frequent that I heard racial epithets from my grandmother, while my Pa-Paw mostly stood by without comment.  It was a way of life for them, and while I challenged my grandmother in my younger days when I felt bold, I finally gave up trying to change minds that seemed frozen in the past.

Yesterday, when the discussion turned to Obama, my Pa-Paw asked me straight out, “What is it about that boy?  What is it that has people so stirred up?”  The amazing thing was that these words were said without an ounce of sarcasm.  The use of the word “boy” was truly about Obama’s age, not in reference to his race.  I’ve heard “boy” used when it’s about race, and this wasn’t it. The questions were asked honestly and plainly.

We all looked at each other, stunned that he would even know about Obama, much less remember about such recent events, and that he would ask such a question.  I stammered for a moment, trying to come up with a simple explanation that wouldn’t complicate the question.

My mom stepped in, my mom who has been apolitical my whole life, having seen her heroes cut down in their prime.  She hasn’t allowed herself to dream, apparently until now.

My mom said, “Daddy, he’s like Kennedy. The people, they come to him like Kennedy.  He’s going to save the country, Daddy.  He’s going to make us proud again.”

“Is that so?”, my Pa-Paw responded.  “Seems he’s got a lot of people rooting for him.  I hope he makes it.  It’s good to see young people involved.  I hope he makes it,”  he said.  And then he asked me for the fifth time what kind of car I was driving.

We were all struck by the fact that race didn’t even factor in to the question, or in to Pa-Paw’s support for Obama.  He’s lived so long, seen and endured so much, yet even in his short-term memory restricted state, Obama had broken through all the barriers for my Pa-Paw.

It was a great day.  We were thankful to have another Father’s Day with him, and we hope to have more.

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