When he laughed, or even smiled, the corners of his eyes crinkled until they were mere squints, just enough to see the twinkle. He had a smug grin and gleeful cackle that echoed and re-echoed as he pulled some mischief off on an unsuspecting grandchild. . .as if we ever really forgot to suspect something. His laughter would end in soft chuckle back in the throat, like an engine turning over.
Speaking of engines, Papaw could fix anything worth fixing. Cars, washers, televisions, you name it—he was a one-stop fix-it shop for friends and family. Whenever he came to visit, Mom’s knives always made a trip to the sharpening block. Whatever else was broken invariably recovered. When I knocked a whole cup of 7-Up over into my alarm clock and it stopped working, Papaw rinsed it out with some secret cure-all, and it was perfect again.
Fixing things wasn’t all he was good at. I’ve never known a better checker player—not that I’ve know that many, but Papaw is a checker legend in our family. He knew when to encourage eager little grandsons and when to remind them who was boss with a sound defeat. . .but he always claimed they just almost beat him.
He made beautiful music on the harmonica, beautiful for its simplicity and sincerity out of the mouth of a faithful man. He never wanted to play, always preferring to put others in the limelight. Papaw would always want me to play the violin—Amazing Grace or What a Friend We Have in Jesus. Those have always been and will always be his songs, wherever I may play them. He was my favorite audience. Whether I was tired or shy or not-so-confident in my ability, it didn’t matter; I played for him.
Papaw knew how to make people laugh, even when they didn’t want to. I remember being infuriated when I was trying so hard to lose my temper and pout and be mad and Papaw persistently made me laugh instead. He did that to everyone. There was always a joke that had to be told and a joke book alongside his chair in case he couldn’t pull one from memory. I don’t know what was funnier—the jokes or the amount of enjoyment Papaw derived from telling them. He loved to call the women out back to show off a snake he’d found, to dangle a wiggler or Catawba worm in their front of us, or to push greasy or dirty hands in our faces just to laugh when we cringed. I thought I’d never hear the end of my traumatic experience on the river, with the huge, hairy spider sitting on a branch just over my head or of my method of fig-picking, when I told all the spiders and bugs aloud that I only wanted such-and-such a fig and wouldn’t disturb the one they happened to be on. Papaw loved to tell those stories on all of us.
At meals, Papaw got in the habit of having everyone but himself ask the blessing. He was especially sure to pick you if you were upset, mad, impatient, or otherwise not in a prayerful state of mind. I think he did it on purpose.
But I remember Papaw praying at church, crisp and clean in his dark green polyester pants, Mamaw offering everyone a mint on the way there. She still does that. Papaw served as an usher for as far back as I can remember, and countless times the pastor boomed out, “Brother Bowman, would you bless the offering?” I don’t remember his prayers ever being long and pompous; I know they were always humble and sincere.
Papaw was a servant. He was usually the first one up, making coffee for himself and anyone else who would have it, digging wigglers at dawn for the group fishing trip, running to the neighbors at midnight when catastrophe struck, and generally taking care of everyone but himself. I loved getting up early during my summer trips there to sit in the living room and drink coffee with him, before Mamaw came out, while he read his Bible and discoursed on the greatness of God. He never doubted God’s ability to solve any problem or heal any hurt, whether God performed the miracle or not.
Papaw was not a perfect man, but he was a godly man—a credit to his family, his church, and his friends. He never stopped trusting in God’s provision, in God’s faithfulness, whether for a lost soul, a sick friend, or just for strength to get up the next day. He looked forward to Heaven even while he enjoyed the blessings God gave him on Earth. I am sad that he is gone, but I am thankful for the grace of God that sustained my Papaw long enough for me to know him as the righteous and faithful man he was and not just as a kindly face in my childhood. I am sad that my children will not know him, but thankful that they will know of him. I am thankful that, though gone, he cannot ever be really gone, because of the legacy and the heritage shining strong in those he left behind, a testament to God’s love and faithfulness in all our lives. His example will live on in our memories as inspiration and legend. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, after extolling his grandmother’s godliness at her funeral, said this: “And if today we are sad that she is no longer with us, we should not forget these mercies and be thankful.” Today I am sad that Papaw is no longer with us. But I cannot forget the many blessings he brought, and I am thankful.
When He Laughed, a memoir
I began writing this a day or two before my Papaw died, when we knew it was likely. I share it now as my tribute to his life.