The basecoat

“It was my Granny who taught me to sew”

That’s a line out of a poem I wrote on the occasion of my grandfather’s 100th birthday. Thinking back on their house, the sweet smell of bacon, whir of the manual lawnmower, rose garden, and the goodie drawer, the memory of Granny was stronger. I think Pappy, Willie Holbrook, was never quite sure what to do with his (at that time) six grandchildren, all girls. He’d raised three boys before we came along. Visits to Akron consisted of good meals followed by the men sitting in the living room discussing politics (no girls allowed) praising the U.S.military (between the four of them, they represented all branches, Pappy having been a Marine) and Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company while condemning Franklin D. Roosevelt in the strongest language possible without using profanity. Well, an occasional “damn” might slip out, but only in reference to Roosevelt. They’d talk and then spontaneously jump up and go wash cars. It didn’t occur to me until years later that what I perceived as Pappy not having time for his grand kids might really have been him still raising his sons, veterans trying to assimilate into a rapidly changing world. That was back when I thought being grownup meant you had it together. What did I know?

These were the post WWII Eisenhower years, prosperous and full of hope — as long as one was a white male, which everyone in the living room was. Pappy worked 40+ years at Goodyear, only taking 2 days off — once to get all his teeth pulled and two half days when his sons came home from war. A veteran of WWI, his life went from ox-carts and a log cabin in Hickory, KY to space shots. After his war, he never picked up a fire arm or committed an act of violence. He did his job, raised his sons, married three times, the last time at 72 when folks said it wouldn’t last and was married to Lela for 23 years. Until he died at 103, he still read the newspaper, took no medication and always raged against Roosevelt. He was frugal in a way that is considered un-American these days — he wasted not, not anything, not ever.

I remember meeting him at the bus after work, placing my leaf of a hand into the powerful mitt he wrapped around a mallet to beat rubber into molds for earth-moving tires for 8 hours that day — and every other day. It may be the only memory I have that we shared, just the two of us. I know him mostly from the stories he liked to tell and retell until we knew all the words and could sing along. I can’t remember why I ever thought that was annoying, but as a teen, I did. He had dropped out of school in the early grades to work in the tobacco fields, later reading his son’s textbooks a chapter ahead of them as they went through school so he could help them with their homework. In his growing up days, before life took him from a log cabin to Versailles, wisdom was passed along through stories. He had landed in Akron, OH, blustering with industry, far away from the old homeplace. He knew how to adapt. My father and his brothers all went to school, grew to be accomplished men, fathers, and republicans, never having to labor as Pappy had. Their bank accounts may have been larger, but their hands never grew to the breadth of his.

Pappy owned rental property, part of what carried them through the depression when Goodyear cut its workforce back to one or two days a week. Rather than laying men off, the union made the company keep everyone on at reduced hours, living on oatmeal but not starving. That was back before all the laws were changed to favor shareholder rights and workers still had a say, before the country forgot about Roosevelt and what he stood for, Eleanor going into the coal mines with the workers, and Eisenhower’s grim predictions about the military industrial complex. Pappy was a rubber worker but he was also a handyman, wallpaper hanger, painter, whatever it took to keep things running while Granny stirred Fels Naptha into the laundry and had a hot meal waiting after every job. They were cast into those roles in their youth and lived them well and by all appearances, happily, a hard concept for all the female grandchildren to understand as we grew to take our roles in life as moms, a business owner, writer, professor, artist, dentist and activists, and new-dealers (save one), living an egalitarian life even Roosevelt couldn’t have envisioned.

When Pappy’s rental property changed hands, everyone was pressed into service painting. Gender wasn’t an issue. If you could hold a brush or a broom, you were in. It was my Pappy who taught me to paint. Only dip the brush into the can part way, don’t scrub at the wall, smooth strokes, paint into where you have just been to reduce brush marks, the first coat is more important than the last, and never try to paint with a dry brush. My first job was to paint a closet. He put me onto the task with a bucket of paint thinned to white wash and a sawed off broom. Latex paint either hadn’t been invented yet or was under some kind of cloud of new-fangled suspicion, because we used the old, smelly kind. That first experience resulted in the closest I think I ever came to hearing Granny use profanity, as she later dipped my ponytail into turpentine, yanking the brush through my thick hair and mumbling under her breath. But that was just the first in a series of painting lessons.

This past weekend I painted the basement hallway and stairs a warm ivory, thinking of Pappy as I do each time I pick up a brush. I carefully applied the base coat so that subsequent coats would go on smoothly using oil based primer (which is still the best), meticulously brushing into where I had just been, not counting on the finish coats to cover up mistakes on the base, repeatedly dipping the brush only partway in, trying not to streak with a dry brush.

Just the smell of paint brings Pappy to my mind. I don’t think he would have approved of all the disposable products available in the paint department these days, but he probably wouldn’t have been too critical of the job I did on the staircase. He had a way of looking over flaws, part of what carried him through 103 years. I think he would have been damned proud of the fact that I found a $5 gallon of paint at Home Depot to do the job.

4 responses to “The basecoat”

  1. Wonderful post Sara. Honestly one of the best you’ve ever done. It reminded me of my own grandfather a real meat and potatoes man with a work ethic that your Pappy would have loved.

  2. kathy says:

    I love the scope of this portrait. Reminds me of my Grandpa, too.

  3. Kelly W. says:

    Not only did you learn to paint from Pappy but I think the storytelling ability also rubbed off on you. Great post, mom.

  4. Cloudscome says:

    This is beautiful.

    At my school the sixth graders are doing a “Poetry in Place” project ala Georgia Heard. One of them posted your poem “Paths to Peace” next to the elevator. It is so lovely! I am mentioning it today in my Friday Poetry post about Heard’s book Awakening the Heart. Do you know about Friday Poetry?

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