“February 15 is national gumdrop day.”—Foodimentary
“Gumdrops, a fruit or spice flavored sugar coated gelatin candy, usually conical in shape. Other shapes and flavors: orange slices, licorice babies, and spearmint leaves.”—Foodimentary
The glow that hovered over the valley area in which my home sits became more luminous as the garage door gradually lifted, bursting through the opening as if there was a nearby three-alarm fire creating brilliant radiance. Instead, it was the light of sunrise filling the air with a soft blush. Glancing toward the hillside over which the sun was rising, the sky was filled with color like that of the interior flesh of a blood orange, then gradually became a more vivid orange—like biting into the middle of a candied orange slice that my grandfather, called, “Papaw” kept by the back door at the end of the kitchen counter.
Over the past two weeks, I have been fully blessed to bear witness to several blazing sunrises much like I was witnessing on that particular day. For whatever reason, these spectacular events of flame have recently been filling my heart with memories of Papaw and his candied orange slices. It is fitting, that on the day after Valentine’s Day, a day devoted to love, is National Gumdrop Day—which is what orange slices, by definition, are.
Still, I cannot talk about Papaw without also talking about his wife of over 60 years, the woman I called, “Grandmother.” These were my maternal grandparents with whom I spent a plethora of time during my childhood, teens, and even my young adult years. The mark they left still flows profoundly through my spirit much like the sunrise I described. Copious happy memories tied up in a simple house, with simple, but deeply proud, genuinely faith-filled, and ever loving people. Were they perfect? No, even in my idealized memory, I can recognize their flaws, but that does not reduce their love or my love for them.
What was once my grandparents house. My Papaw was so proud of this home he built on “high ground” as he had been flooded out of two other previous homes.
“Stethie,” my grandfather could never seem to say, “Stephie,” correctly. “Be sure and get you an orange slice as you go out the door. They’re good and fresh. Your grandmother just bought ‘em yesterday.”
I now recognize that was my Papaw’s way of he saying, “I love you. I am sorry to see you go—take something sweet with you as a slice of sweet love from your ol’ Papaw and Grandmother.”
My Grandmother, Helen, (middle) and my Papaw, Check, (right) sitting with one of their son’s (Leo) mother-in-law, that I only knew as “Nannie.” (Left)
Papaw loved to talk with strangers. In fact, in his later years, there were a few times I would take Grandmother and he grocery shopping. It seemed during those visits, Grandmother and I would often “lose” him. Grandmother would send him to get some particular item from across the store, and he would not return.
“Oh Dear, who is Check (my grandfather’s nickname) talking to now?” she would say after some time had past with worry and aggravation in her voice.
“Stethie, would you go see if you can find him?”
Papaw and Grandmother one Christmas at my childhood home.
Sure enough, I’d walk up and down the aisles and eventually spy Papaw with eyes a’twinkin’ as he talked-up another shopper. Sometimes, he knew them; most of the time, however, he did not. His fine, long-boned fingers, empty of the grocery item for which my Grandmother had sent him, gesticulated this way as he attempted to make his point. I would approach with respectful, polite caution, especially once he was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, as I never knew what he would be saying.
His faded blue-gray eyes though never failed to light up upon seeing me approach as I often took him by the forearm and attempt to lead him away. Sometimes, he would stay put insisting upon introducing me to the person I rarely ever knew. Other times, he would nod his head as if that were his signal to suddenly remember what he was supposed to be doing and politely excuse himself.
Papaw on the front porch of his home with one of his great-grandkids, Wesley, from Texas. Wesley is wearing a blue suit sewn to match Papaw’s.
One time, I found him near tears, having dropped an egg and broken it on the grocery floor. I was reminded of a long ago story in which my middle sister, Traci, was a mere child and had accidently broken eggs while tagging along with Papaw at the grocery store. She cried so much, I am told, that it caused Papaw to cry too. There he stood, looking around, much in the way Traci must have looked as a child, guilty, shamed, and extremely sorrowful. I tried to get him to laugh it off, but it bothered him, as it was one of the few times he realized his mind was changing. Even as I type these words, my heart breaks for him in that moment.
There were a couple of other times in which he suspected the claws of Alzheimer’s were beginning to burrow into the recesses of his brain. His eyes would click, he would pause, shake his head, and return my gaze as if to say, “I am trying, Stethie, to clear the fog, but I can’t. Help me.” Sadly, I could not.
I was the first family member to recognize that Papaw had Alzheimer’s. At first, I was doubted, written off, or simply dismissed. I get it. Who wants to believe the gray cloud of Alzheimer’s had infiltrated their loved one’s brain like an identity thief stealing a credit card number. Where did the memories go? How could this happen?
It wasn’t too long after I took this picture that I began to realize Papaw was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s.
The gift of these sunrises reminds me of Papaw’s love. I was “his girl,” he would often say as he grabbed my arms and looked lovingly into my eyes. He told me to be like his sister and become an educated woman, because in his words, “Your ol’ Papaw here, only made to fifth grade, but I was the teacher’s pet! She kept me near her desk, and tied a string from her finger to mine, so I couldn’t get too far from her.”
My absolute favorite picture of my grandparents taken in the side yard of my childhood home. They drove all the way to Athens, Ohio to watch me graduate from Ohio University. The pride written all over their face in this picture brings tears to my eyes to this day.
He loved his church, football, National Geographic magazines and learning random facts of trivia; traveling and gardening; railroading (CSX proud) and clipping coupons; Boy Scouting and collecting coins; saltines crumbled in bowl with milk poured over them on Sunday nights after church, sorghum on buttered canned biscuits, glazed donuts, and candied orange slices in a glass jar on the kitchen counter beside the back door. It is his memory, bound up in the orange-slice sunrises that have been warming my mornings of late. I feel his heavenly smile. I know he is telling Grandmother, “There goes my girl,” as I drive towards the embrace of the rising glow of love.
As seen on Instagram at meditation_mum.
Written with great love for Chester Arlen Slater aka “Papaw,” aka “Poppy-Check.” May his memory and love forever shine.