Mamaw and Papaw and why I’m glad I knew them…
Mamaw and Papaw were Dad’s parents, and the only members of his family who stayed in Knoxville. All Dad’s brothers and sisters lived out of state, following job opportunities, or husbands’ job opportunities, to places like California, Florida and Massachusetts. Aunt Alberta was the closest of Dad’s siblings geographically, living near Atlanta. She was also the furthest from him chronologically, being the oldest, with Dad the baby of the family.
Frank Britton Massengill married Mattie Gertrude Dunn in 1918 and they spent their lives in Knoxville, Tennessee, raising their 6 children. They lived to see their 70th wedding anniversary a few months before Papaw was diagnosed with liver cancer and died at age 89. As I remember them, and as anyone who knew them would attest, Mamaw was a tough little birdlike woman who could shoot the crack of a gnat’s ass (sorry for the language!) at 100 paces and work circles around women half her age well into her senior years. When Reed and I were kids, Dad would generally go and visit with them on Sunday nights and have supper. Sometimes Mama and Reed and I all went with him, sometimes just us kids, and sometimes only one of us would go. Without fail, after supper was eaten and the grownups had retired to the living room for coffee and conversation, Mamaw would get down “the dishes” from the hook above the sink for me to play with, a small yellow funnel, a tea ball and some measuring spoons that provided me endless entertainment while the grownups sat and talked. When Mamaw made biscuits, there was usually a little remnant of dough left over. Since that little dab of dough was too small to make another biscuit, but too big to waste, she would make it into a little snake and sprinkle cinnamon on it. The cinnamon snake was the best treat in the world for a little kid like me. She played piano and organ, so some of the musical genes come from her, as well as my prominent chin, dark hair (she was part Cherokee) and sharp tongue. She once described herself as having a tongue like a circular saw, and I definitely inherited than tendency from her. She could be blunt and opinionated, but I never thought she was mean. There was a mischievous sparkle in her eyes and smile that I hope I inherited along with that chin of hers. She and Papaw always had a garden, mostly vegetables to enjoy in season and to can and freeze for winter provisions. They didn’t have a lot of indulgences, but Mamaw did enjoy growing flowers in the backyard. She had a thumb so green she could have grown roses out of rocks. A beautiful pink rosebush of hers now lives in Dad’s yard, transplanted from Mamaw and Papaw’s house.
Papaw was always…eccentric. Mama said that as long as she knew him he was different. Physically, he was as strong as an ox and, like Mamaw, he could work circles around men half his age. He did lots of different kinds of work; he worked on Knoxville’s streetcars and spent years as a house painter. Emotionally, though, he was…fragile. I remember hearing about him leaving a desperately needed job because something didn’t go to suit him or someone said something he didn’t like. Raising 6 kids during The Depression and The War, walking away from a job was just not done, unless you were my Papaw. Dad talks about how poor they were, and it might not have been so bad if Papaw had held his tongue and stayed with the job. And I remember times when he took to his bed because he “didn’t feel well”. I realize now that he was probably bi-polar, although back in those days they didn’t have a name for it. And even if there had been a name for it, Papaw was not the sort who would have sought treatment had it been available and/or affordable. The Papaw I knew was, I suspect, a very different man from the father my Dad and his siblings knew. The Papaw I knew was not perfect, but I always knew he loved me. I never remember him calling me by my name; he always called me “Sister”. His sense of humor was dry and pithy. It was Papaw who convinced Reed and me that there was a right sock and a left sock. To this day, if my socks have discernible feet prints on them, I put them on the corresponding feet. (And yes, since I walk around in stocking feet a lot of the time, my socks do get feet prints. Don’t judge me.) It was Papaw who said if you painted your toenails red your feet wouldn’t stink. (And yes, I actually recall seeing him once with red toenails when I was very little.) One of my favorite Papaw memories is of the time when Jeff and I were dating and Papaw asked Jeff, “Boy, do you read the Bible right smart?” Jeff blushed and squirmed, mumbling, “No sir, I’m afraid I don’t.” Papaw responded “That’s all right, I don’t neither.” Yet, it was Papaw who explained to me the principle of tithing, adding that when he and Mamaw gave the Lord His tithe, He always made the rest go further and they never missed that money.
I was blessed to have Mamaw and Papaw until I was a married adult, and I’m grateful that I had the chance to know them as well as I did. A lot of who I am came from them, after all, both genetically and in the memories I have of times spent in their company. I wish everyone could have the chance to know them like I knew them, because they brought so much color, humor and love into my life. Knowing I’ll see them again someday in Heaven brings me a lot of comfort. I can imagine Papaw up there painting one of Heaven’s many mansions, and Mamaw tending to roses in God’s garden.