My Great-granddaddy

Old Farm­house

On a cold win­ter day, our Hud­son pitched and rolled over a rut­ted red-clay road and stopped in front of giant box­wood bush­es flank­ing a brick walk­way. Dad cut the engine and we sat star­ing at a big old two-sto­ry farmhouse.

“How bad off is he?” Mom said.

“They had to move his bed down to the par­lor,” Dad said. “He’s too weak to climb the stairs to the bedroom.”

“You think he’ll get well this time?”

“I don’t know.”

Tobac­co Farm

Sit­ting in the back seat, I hung on every word. One of my ear­li­est mem­o­ries is walk­ing with Dad and Great-grand­dad­dy through a mowed corn­field on a sun­ny fall day, dried corn husks crunch­ing under our tread. In his late twen­ties wear­ing a mus­tard-col­ored hunt­ing jack­et, Dad car­ried a shot­gun for bird hunt­ing. Great-grand­dad­dy was five-eight with a full head of snow-white hair and a han­dle­bar mous­tache, his back straight, his stom­ach flat. When we came to a three-rail fence, Dad climbed over it and reached back to lift me across. When he set me down, I looked up to see Great-grand­dad­dy jump off the top rail, land on his feet, and stride on ahead of us. Dad smiled. “Your Great-grand­dad­dy is one tough old boy,” he said to me. “Eighty-eight and strong as a horse.”

McLean House

My great-grand­par­ents owned a tobac­co farm out­side Appo­mat­tox a cou­ple miles from Lee’s sur­ren­der to Grant at the home of Wilmer McLean, who had moved his fam­i­ly south to escape the Civ­il War when the Union Army shelled his farm in north­ern Vir­ginia in 1861 at the begin­ning of the con­flict, only to have the Yan­kees seize his Appo­mat­tox home for Gen­er­al Grant’s head­quar­ters in 1865 at the end of it.

Snap­shot mem­o­ries of our vis­its to my great-grand­par­ents’ farm have stayed with me through the years. Sleep­ing in a big feath­er bed, feed­ing chick­ens and gath­er­ing eggs with Great-grand­ma, a bro­ken-down Mod­el A Ford squat­ting in a spi­der-webbed cor­ner of a shed, a snake’s skin nailed to the weath­ered planks of an old barn, ele­phant-ear-sized tobac­co leaves hang­ing from its rafters, a tall coal-black horse feed­ing on hay in his stall.

Tobac­co Barn

In my mind’s eye, I can still see Great-grand­dad­dy dressed in a three-piece black suit sit­ting tall in the sad­dle on that big roan. I remem­ber him walk­ing me up the porch steps, his cal­loused hand grip­ping my hand so tight­ly it was all I could do not to cry out in pain. Also embla­zoned in my mem­o­ry is the time he met us at the foot of the steps when we arrived, picked me up like I weighed noth­ing, held me in his arms, and looked at me grave­ly. “Ken­neth William Oder,” he said in a grav­el­ly voice.

Four Gen­er­a­tions

In a pho­to­graph Mom took in 1947 when I was four months old, Dad is seat­ed in a chair hold­ing me. Behind him stand my Grand­dad­dy and my Great-grand­dad­dy. Dad and Grand­dad­dy are smil­ing. Great-granddaddy’s expres­sion is stern, the same grave look he gave me a few years lat­er when he picked me up and said my full name. On the back of the pho­to Mom wrote, “Oder fam­i­ly, 4 gen­er­a­tions.” Look­ing back on it now with the per­spec­tive of age, I think his expres­sion con­veyed pride, pride in head­ing up the family’s four gen­er­a­tions and pride in me, not because of any­thing I’d done, but sim­ply because I exist­ed, a great-grand­son he’d lived long enough to hold in his arms.

We lived near York­town in those days. The trip from our house to Appo­mat­tox trav­eled over wind­ing coun­try back roads. The rides were long and bor­ing for me, but when Dad talked to Mom about Great-grand­dad­dy, I perked up.

He had lived on the Appo­mat­tox farm all his life, Dad said. His father was a wheel­wright in Lynch­burg when he met Ari­an­na Cheatham. They mar­ried, bought the nine­ty-acre farm, and raised six sons on it. Great-grand­dad­dy was the third son, born in 1862 dur­ing the Civ­il War. His broth­ers left the farm when they grew up, but he stayed on. After his father’s death, he bought out their inher­it­ed inter­ests, mar­ried Lizzie Cole­man, a daugh­ter of the Coun­ty Sher­iff, and they farmed the land for the next half-century.

Dad told sto­ries about Great-granddaddy’s strength and fear­less­ness. He once killed a cop­per­head by pick­ing it up by its tail and crack­ing it like a whip. He walked tire­less­ly behind a horse plow­ing fields from sunup to sun­down. He tossed around bales of hay like they were match­box­es and lift­ed stalks of tobac­co like they were lit­tle twigs. He nev­er drank a drop of liquor; he nev­er smoked a cig­a­rette; and he went to church every Sunday.

Some­where along the way, the old man became an icon­ic hero in my tod­dler mind. He was invin­ci­ble, I thought. He’d live to be 100. Maybe even older.

So, when we sat in our Hud­son star­ing at the old farm­house that cold morn­ing, I knew Great-grand­dad­dy would get well, despite what Dad said.

When we walked in the par­lor, Great-grand­dad­dy sat in a rock­er in front of a big bed, wear­ing long-john under­wear and mud­dy black work boots with a shawl draped across his shoul­ders. His face was pale; his eyes rheumy.

Dad leaned over and hugged him. “You look good, Granddaddy!”

Mom kissed him on the fore­head and laughed. “You look mighty fine. I bet you been actin’ like you’re sick just to get attention!”

He didn’t respond to Mom and Dad. He didn’t smile. He didn’t return their hugs. I touched his knee, but he didn’t look at me.

Great Grand­ma

Mom and Dad sat in straight-backed cane chairs near the wood­stove. I sat in a lit­tle rock­ing chair between them. Great-grand­ma sat next to the old man. She apol­o­gized for his appear­ance. She said he’d want­ed to put on his Sun­day go-to-church suit before we came, but he wasn’t strong enough to pull on his pants and she couldn’t man­age dress­ing him by her­self. It took all her strength just to help him out of bed to the rock­ing chair.

While she talked, I stared hard at Great-grand­dad­dy. He wheezed with every labored breath, his shoul­ders slumped, his eyes downcast.

“He tries to get up on his feet,” Great-grand­ma said, “but he can’t do no good. He can’t walk. Can’t take a step.”

As she spoke, Great-grand­dad­dy raised his head and looked at me. A slight smile lift­ed the cor­ners of his snow-white moustache.

I recall only dis­joint­ed images of what hap­pened after that, but Mom remem­bered every detail and told the sto­ry every chance she got.

I walked over to the old man. “It’s not true you can’t walk. You’re my Great-grand­dad­dy. You can do any­thing.” I grabbed the fin­gers of his big rough hand with both my hands and pulled on him. “Come on, Great-grand­dad­dy! Get up! You can walk! I know you can!”

Grunt­ing and strain­ing against his weight, I pulled as hard as I could. “Stand up, Great-grand­dad­dy!” He leaned for­ward uncer­tain­ly, tried to stand, but fell back. I pulled hard­er. He rocked his chair for­ward, swung his head out over his knees, and stood up slow­ly and unsteadily.

I tugged him toward the oppo­site wall. He took a fal­ter­ing step, right­ed him­self, and took anoth­er. And anoth­er. We made it across the room. I turned and pulled him back toward Great-grand­ma. He stag­gered along behind me. When we got to her, I turned and pulled him toward the oppo­site wall again. Halfway across I broke into a run. He shuf­fled along to keep up with me, his boots clomp­ing on the plank floor. We ran back and forth three or four times before I final­ly tired out and let go of him.

He col­lapsed in the rock­er, gasp­ing for air, every breath rat­tling in his chest like mar­bles bang­ing around inside a tin can.

I jumped up and down in front of him, cheer­ing. “I knew you could do it, Great-grand­dad­dy! I knew you could do it!”

He looked at me with big tears rolling down his cheeks and that slight smile fight­ing its way through.

He got well short­ly after our visit.

It wasn’t part of Mom’s sto­ry, but I remem­ber Great-grand­ma star­ing at me wide-eyed that day. She was a woman of faith. She believed God had worked a heal­ing mir­a­cle through me. Mom thought so, too.

When I was a lit­tle boy, I didn’t think it was a mir­a­cle. I believed Great-grandad­dy could do any­thing, so I wasn’t sur­prised when he stood and walked, but as I lis­tened to Mom tell the sto­ry over the years, I came to real­ize it was, at a min­i­mum, a mir­a­cle of courage, rock-hard grit, and indomitabil­i­ty. Run­ning across that room almost killed him, but he refused to let me down no mat­ter what it cost him.

He wasn’t invin­ci­ble. He didn’t make it to 100. He died of heart fail­ure at 92. No one can beat time for­ev­er, but he sure-to-God gave old age a good long hard fight.

Thomas William Oder (1862–1954). My Great-grand­dad­dy. A strong man of good char­ac­ter and iron will. A role mod­el for a wor­ship­ful tod­dler. One tough old boy.