For whatever reason these things pop into your head, last night I was thinking about Ollie. Much of what I know about him only came later. He died when I think I was maybe 9? My cousins Ann and Robert and I were not permitted to go to his funeral, so I vividly remember sitting on the front porch swing of my grandparents’ farmhouse with Ann, singing all the hymns we could think of. We held our own funeral, in absentia. I did not really understand at that point what “dying” meant. We had had a dog who died, so I understood it meant you were not coming back, but I wasn’t quite clear about how dogs dying and people dying were connected.
My first real memory of Ollie was of the back porch swing. I liked swinging so much on the front porch swing, but it was too big for me to make it move by myself. So Ollie built me my very own swing on the back porch. The swing consisted of one rope, looped around and hooked to the ceiling by both ends, with a rough board at the bottom. Very rough.
I loved that swing! It looked out on the back yard, aka the chicken yard, and I loved the chickens. Then the day came when I got this gigantic splinter in my butt from the board. I started shrieking and crying, and Ollie and my grandmother Ruth came rushing out and said, What happened? I said, I don’t know! The swing hurt me! And Ollie said, Whatever happened, Don’t Cry! (Big Girls Don’t Cry?) You know, the Suck It Up theory of life.
I should mention that Ollie was very gruff, to put it mildly. Absolutely everyone was afraid of him (except, as it later turned out, my father) and I was certainly afraid of him. After the Don’t Cry remark, my grandmother just sort of rolled her eyes, scooped me up, and took me inside where she removed the splinter. I felt much better physically, immediately, but I was still crying because I was hurt emotionally. I said, Why is Ollie so mean? She said, He isn’t. Look out the window.
And there was Ollie, cursing (he wasn’t permitted to curse inside the house, or in front of me) and tackling that board with a vengeance. He sanded it to within an inch of its life. When I went back out, he said, Now get back on the swing. I didn’t want to. I was afraid of it–but I was more afraid of him. So I did. And therefore spent many happy hours swinging and communing with the chickens.
As I said, Ollie was gruff, to say the least, and he was a loner. So it was quite surprising to everyone that he allowed me to tag along after him as he performed farm chores. So one day I tagged along with him to feed the pigs. When we got about 10 feet from the pen, he said, Stand here and don’t come any closer, and I MEAN IT. Actually it’s a good thing he told me that. I wanted to pet the pigs. They were so cute and snuffly. And gigantic.
One day I was watching him plow the garden with the mule, Julie. And I was not permitted to come inside the fence where the garden was, because, you guessed it, I wanted to pet Julie. I was easily entertained as a child, it seems. Plowing is very repetitive, but I could watch it for hours. And then…and then…the rooster jumped up on the fence beside me. The rooster was so pretty. I wanted to pet him too. And the next thing I knew, he had all 952 of his talons embedded in my back. More shrieking ensued.
Looking back, I think my grandfather was the way he was to some extent because he fought in WWI. I can see now how that would cause you to develop a Suck It Up mentality. When people standing next to you have been blown to smithereens in front of your face, a splinter is a bit…immaterial.
But because of my grandfather, I learned all the WWI songs I know. It’s A Long Way To Tipperary. How You Gonna Keep ‘Em Down On the Farm (After They’ve Seen Paree). And my personal favorite, Mademoiselle From Armentieres. Imagine my grandfather, a country boy with a 4th grade education, plucked from his comfort zone in Tennnessee and plopped into the middle of France.
So this is, in a way, my belated tribute to Ollie. I feel bad that he didn’t live long enough for me to know him better. It didn’t seem very possible for anyone to penetrate his armor, but I bet I could have.