He’d regularly line us up against the wall: my older brother, younger sister, cousins, any neighborhood kids that happened to be hanging around and make us say it.
He’d lead us in the chant, orchestrating it with his long thin fingers, towering above us at 6’4 in a pair of old coveralls. Papa is a good fellow—Yes! Then he’d chuckle to himself, wave us away. Sometimes he’d say—Good! Now go home, stay home and never come back again just to laugh at our reactions.
During lunch sometimes, he’d pull us up on his knee at the small table in my grandmother’s kitchen and ask, “Now, who do you like better—your soft, round Grandpa Stauff, or your tall, strong, handsome Papa Nichols?” He always smelled like the outdoors and a hint of vinegar—which he drank from an amber, juice-glass every morning mixed with honey, claiming it gave him a gut of steel.
“We like you better, Papa,” we’d say obligingly. He’d laugh and smack us on the back, then go back to his lunch, which was always something he raised or grew in his own fields.
We loved growing up next-door to him. He owned a large amount of land in Hopkinton, Massachusetts and gave my mother a parcel of it. My uncle built our first house on it, right next to my grandparents. My cousins lived on the other side.
Right after breakfast, we’d duck under the electric fence that kept in the menagerie of farm animals he owned, and run up to their house. Our bare feet smoothed the grass down into a bald, dirt path. Grandma would give us china tea-cups filled with sugar, cream, and a hint of coffee.
We’d listen to Papa tell stories of his youth—how he ran away from reform school as an adolescent, then hopped trains with other vagrant kids, telling us once how he saw a kid slip off the train while sleeping and fall to his death under the tracks. He told us how he got picked up by the chain-gangs; as soon as one would let him off, another would pick him up for vagrancy. No money, no I.D. was his only crime. Bad roads make good boys the slogan went.
Once a woman on a farm took him in, hid him from the chain-gangs. That was his first experience with farming and he never lost the taste for it. He may have stayed there, made a life for himself; but one night he pissed the bed and was so ashamed he ran away and got picked up once again for vagrancy. He criss-crossed the states, building roads and laying railroad tracks until he ended up somehow in New England, where he met my grandmother and forged a life for himself in the rich, stone-lined fields of Hopkinton, Massachusetts.
We would listen to his stories wide-eyed, nibbling on homemade pie and fresh bread our grandmother made regularly. Papa bought supplies like the pioneers did—only the basics. Anything they ate had to be made first. My mother would hide her sandwiches in her lap at school, ashamed my grandmother’s homemade bread wasn’t like the poreless, white, slices of Wonder all her friends ate.
Over everything else, Papa prided himself in being self-made, giving the middle finger to The Man by creating an agricultural oasis in the middle of ever-encroaching housing developments. His sense of self worth (like a character from a John Steinbeck novel) was grounded to the land he worked. It gave him an identity, a past and a future he could pass down to us. A true American romanticist, he equated land ownership and hard work with independence. He cut his own wood to heat the house, grew his own vegetables and fruit, and raised his own meat. He’d use every part of the animal and scoff at our disgust at his lunch of pig brains. He spent his retirement outdoors: plowing, fixing fences, tending to his animals. I remember when he’d wash the muck of the fields off under the outdoor faucet, his bare chest looked like he wore an invisible white shirt, his arms and neck dark brown from the sun.
His politics were complicated yet simple, like he was. I hid under my bed on the day of Reagan’s Inauguration and held a pillow over my head so I wouldn’t hear the squealing of the pigs he slaughtered, all whom he named after Republican Presidents. He believed Nixon betrayed the simple man, shat on the salt of the earth, and it turned his heart cold to the Republican side, making him a life-long, die-hard Democrat.
Despite only having a sixth-grade education, he read the New York Times cover-to-cover every Sunday. It was so big, I couldn’t wrap my arms around it, but he would read every page of it and gleaned most of his political opinions there. My parents would wince when he ranted about women having aborptions or wearing those scandalous two-piece binikulars, but nothing kept him from expressing his opinion. He lionized Castro, thought the Jews were taking over all the banks, yet despised the “free-love” movement because of those dirty hippies. Everything I learned about hippies as a kid, I learned from my grandfather. He and my grandmother went swimming in a water hole in Texas on vacation one year and came upon a Hippy couple skinny-dipping. An argument ensued and the man pointed to his naked girlfriend’s vagina and said, Chill out, man. It’s natural. We all come from the same place. To which Papa shot back— I never came from nuthin’ like that. After that, the butt of every joke Papa told was a dirty Hippy.
He was primal and crass. He’d pull us into the bathroom to admire his excremental fortitude. He named his steers things like B.B. for Ball-less Bull. He’d poke the end of a branch in dog crap then tell us to take it with the warning— sometimes life gives you the shitty end of the stick. But he was also fiercely protective and loyal. If you took advantage of a female under his care, his sense of social justice was primitive but effective—he’d find you and beat you to the brink of death. He was also sentimental. He would recite poems to us, like Edgar Allen Poe’s, Annabel Lee. His eyes always misting over at the end.
And the stars never rise, but I feel the bright eyes
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And so, all the night-tide, I lie down by the side
Of my darling—my darling—my life and my bride,
In her sepulchre there by the sea—
In her tomb by the sounding sea
When my mother married my father, Papa taught them how to raise and slaughter their own animals, how to grow and can their own vegetables and fruit. How to make their own agricultural oasis in the middle of suburbia. He insisted my mother breastfeed at the height of the formula feeding frenzy. He firmly grounded us all in the black, rich soil of Massachusetts.
When I was in ninth grade, my mother told him we were leaving, uprooting to Virginia. He cried. I don’t want you to go Berta. But we did and that was the last time I saw him. Despite all the organic farming, the daily rituals of vinegar and honey, shortly after we moved he was diagnosed with stomach cancer and died within a few months. My mother went back home to be with him in the little house he still lived in, all the rest of his land sold off to developers. Right before he died, he told my grandmother—After I go, they will take it all, Annie. There will be nothing left. He called in our pastor neighbor and prayed the sinner’s prayer. And then, he was gone.
Last time I heard, his house was gone too. Old, rickety and outdated, it was bulldozed over and replaced with something slick and modern. So, there really is nothing left. Everything’s been developed. The New England woods we built forts in is gone: the old abandoned one room farmhouse we played in—pretending it was haunted, the long winding trails through the forests we used to ride our horses on. Even the stone walls, built by European immigrants hundreds of years ago are mostly gone, although there are a few historical societies rising up now, to prevent the needless destruction of the few remnants left.
We live in Georgia now. My parents live downstairs in an in-law apartment and continue to till a garden every year. I want to learn how to can tomatoes this spring with my mother. I have my eye on a bread machine on Amazon. I’m trying to talk my husband into letting my daughter have a rabbit, maybe a few chickens.
Papa’s genes run strong. My daughter is in the ninety-nine percentile for height and slender. Her hair is starting to curl, like mine—like his. When we talk about certain things, our eyes mist over against our will. Our bullshit meter is always on high alert and we are not afraid to call something wrong when everybody else calls it right.
I found a picture of my grandparents on their wedding day. Papa, so young and tall he barely fits in the frame. I hung it next to the living room fireplace. My kids ask who he is and I tell them the tales of a man, who in my memory— will always be at least seven feet tall.