For those who don’t know, my grandpa Elwood Harris passed away this week after a long, hard fought battle with the effects of time and its impact on the body and mind. Please keep my family in prayer and in your thoughts that God aid us in healing from the loss of a giant in the lives of those that knew him.
My grandfather was one of the best men I have ever known and, as a boy, when I imagined a hero, it was he that came to mind. Many of you never met the man I grew up admiring and loving, but I hope by writing this you can join me in celebrating who he was and always will be. To do that I want to go back as far as I can remember, revisit those days on Coultry Road, where I spent my childhood visiting the Harris family.
I remember those days, black and white, yet still filled with details that make them bright. The house my grandpa had built by hand, the saw mill where he made his living, and those trips to the woods that were wonder filled. He was a giant of a man then, stronger than most men after logging his whole life, but his touch was as soft as his voice. I never heard him raise his voice in anger, no cuss words flung in rage, and he was quick to explain the world to a boy not used to such patience.
Grandpa taught me about leaves and trees, what he did to be safe and what was dangerous but, what I loved most, were the rides on the skidder. He always smelled of chainsaw gas and wood chips, sweat and hard work, and he grinned ear to ear as we got up on the monster machine of my dreams; huge tires, bulldozer-like blade, and a wench in the back that could drag what seemed like half a forest behind. First, he had me sit on the fender, told me not to put my fingers outside the cage, and off we went pushing roads where none used to lay.
As a boy, I was in awe of that raw power, the way grandpa worked it to his will, and oh how I loved that closeness that few others offered. People talked about him with respect, a man that was good and fair and, if he could help you, he would without question. He was not an educated man, in the formal or book sense, but he knew people and the world and what mattered. He had common sense that wasn’t common, wisdom from life, not literature, and a love for family that few could match. I heard him say that as long as the kids were full, had a roof over their head, got clothes on their backs, then he felt that was what mattered. Maybe not in those words, my recall is colored with love, but he said over and over that family was everything. A man doesn’t hit women, he takes care of his kids, provides for family, helps those that can’t help themselves, protects the weak; these were lessons that he lived not talked about others doing.
Grandpa always knew that something was wrong at home; mom and I had bruises on us from dad’s angry hands, but I think he always respected mom’s wishes that he not get involved. I remember grandpa telling me that I could tell him anything, and his recounting a story for my benefit. I didn’t understand then the message, what he may have been offering, but he told me about dad coming to work with him when my mom and he had first married. Dad had made a name for himself, a tough guy or bully that fought a lot, and he was known for seeking out the toughest or strongest to prove himself. After college and being prepared to farm, he found his own dad getting out of it, and not able to work with him. Grandpa Elwood offered him a job cutting wood with him, and I can barely remember those times.
We lived in a little camper, mom so young and happy, but even then dad prone to outbursts of anger. I remember it because it was precious time between me and mom, and I remember our making Christmas decorations out of popcorn, tin foil, shiny streamers, and cardboard. Mom cut out cardboard stars that she hung with paper clips, smiles, and laughter, and we even had a few strings of lights as well. It was a time when Christmas was more about what you had than what you got because I can’t remember the gifts yet the love is eternal.
I loved the smell of cedar, our tree coating my fingers in logger’s cologne, and the simplicity of life seeming to make it somehow perfect. I was small, memories now only snap shots, but I remember grandpa’s story about dad. They had been cutting down trees, cutting the trunk into 6-foot pieces, and then loading them by hand. Grandpa had told dad to start at the top and he would get the base, and they would meet in the middle.
Dad didn’t like Grandpa suggesting that he needed to start with the little stuff, so he argued that he would take the big ones. Grandpa then loaded from the top down, as dad struggled with the bottom one, pride having pushed him to do what he couldn’t. Grandpa then got him out of the way, snatched up the log, and then laughed softly as he loaded it. Dad thought he was laughing at him, being seen as weak his biggest fear, and balling up those fists decided to show Elwood his mettle.
Grandpa said that others there told him not to do it, but Dad wasn’t the kind of man to be put off. Grandpa smiled as his eyes hardened, saying he snatched him up by neck and crotch, held him over his head, and then shook him; held him there long enough for him to get the point and, in that moment, I adored my grandpa. He was a man that was strong and didn’t abuse it, and he didn’t think much of men that did. I think he knew then that it wouldn’t end, but dad went off to do other things after that reminder that gentle giants still walked the earth. Grandpa asked me from time to time how dad treated me, was he good to mom and us, and if he needed to have a talk with him. I was afraid of my father even then, this man so prone to anger and violence, but there, in grandpa’s arms, I could know what a man could be.
Grandpa always had ice cream in the freezer; Mr. Goodbars, fudge bars, and Brac’s candies somewhere. He always had some sweets somewhere, and his eyes lit up when he saw me devour them with bliss. My Uncle Woody and Aunt Janice were still at home back then and fought like only a brother and sister can. I was amazed over the fights that broke out, and it was clear that grandpa was the eye of the storm.
Grandma Annie was a banshee it seemed, smiling one minute and raising holy hell the next, but oh how I loved that house and the characters there. I wanted to be like Woody when I was older, strong and handsome, but boy did he and Annie fight; argued, cussed, raged, it was country folk conflict at its finest until grandpa came home. He was the kind of man that simply righted the world with his presence, and the disappointment in his eyes was enough punishment. You knew that you had done wrong when he looked at you, and it was shame, not fear, that made you want to change.
When I was young I used to hear the feats that grandpa had pulled off, and he became a legend in the eyes of a young boy in need of a hero. I heard the stories of his working at the saw mill at a young age and, though he was small, he found ways to do what grown men couldn’t. He would stack railroad ties that took two men to do, could run down a rabbit, whip a bear or, at least in the imagination of a grandson, he could do anything.
I found out later on that grandpa lost that saw mill and the house he built in a lawsuit because he didn’t have insurance to cover workers getting hurt. He was in between getting some or didn’t have it, not sure, but he had given a man a job that was in need. The man cut a tree down on himself, sued, and grandpa lost it all. He had reached out to aid a man in need, sought to keep food on his table and clothes on his back and, in ignorance, the man hurt himself while blaming grandpa. I never heard him complain, he didn’t hurt the man and he no doubt could have, but he forgave him and moved on. No matter what the man had done, grandpa had done what his heart lead him to, and it didn’t change what he thought of helping others.
Grandpa seemed to know that we do what we are called to by God, not because we want to or that others deserve it, but because He tells us to. He did what he knew to be the right thing, and no man I have ever known walked in Christ more completely. As I got older, struggling with my home life with dad and the abuse with Jack, I pulled away from everyone for many reasons my mind was convinced were needed. Oh, how I missed the Harris side of the family, all the cousins and aunts and uncles and then, as if I blinked them away, I was alone.
I know that my grandpa was still there, I ran to them for a time when dad threatened to kill me, but mom called and pleaded with me to come back. I wish to this day I would have stayed with them, went to work for grandpa, lost myself in the Harris family that grew men that lived for family. Instead, I went back home for a time and then went off to college. A drunk and failure, I came home, broke down, and shared with mom and Heather what Jack had been doing to me.
Mom caught Jack in our house, abusing me, told our minister and, as I later found, out grandma and grandpa, too. Mom didn’t want them to tell anyone, any more than she wanted grandpa to hurt Joe for hurting us. He had raised her to be the kind of woman that possessed his best qualities, even if those so often got them hurt, used, and broken.
Mom didn’t know how bad it was until the end, said she was worried that dad would kill Jack, but I think she was just as worried that he would beat me to death for shaming him. I think they would all be alive today if I or she could have shared with grandpa and Woody. Until my dying day, I will regret telling her and Heather what happened, but I am eternally thankful that grandpa never turned on me. He hurt and suffered and cried with me and, even in jail, did what he had done when I was a child. He wanted to know how I was if I needed anything and told me to buy me some candy bars to eat. He brought me cigarettes because in jail I used them for comfort, and he talked to everyone he could to help me.
Grandpa didn’t know Edgar Thompson was friends of the Walls, sat by him at church, and grandma trusted him when he told her not to share what she knew. There was a gag order on the case, but he believed in 10 years or so something would change. Grandpa talked to Judge Hanshaw, who said it was out of his hands, but the judge believed that something would be done for me. Grandpa and grandma thought that each year might be the year, and they wished only to live long enough to see me walk free. They came to see me month after month, sending money for ice cream or candy, and we would sit on visit eating and talking.
Much of what I went through I wasn’t able to share, not the details of the abuse and, for years, I saw with agony the pain and loss they endured. We cried on the holidays, made empty with the loss of family, and they made sure that they didn’t lose me, too. Grandpa always told me not to forget who I was, where I came from, and that God had a purpose for me. I could see the heartbreak he felt over the death of my mom but, as he said so often, they had lost me as well. They knew how much I hurt to lose them, all of them and, if left alone, I wouldn’t have had much left to live for.
It shamed me to see the hurt in grandpa’s eyes, to be the cause of that pain, but over time he came to understand that if I hadn’t done what I had then I would have been killed, too. Grandpa knew about the Walls family, had heard the rumors that had circulated them, and he said over and over I wish you had come to me. Me, too, grandpa. Me too. But, if I could have done it on my own, then would any of us be where we are today? It was too much for a boy, even one of 20, and I told only what came out when the outside cracked enough to leak some out.
It wasn’t always roses, no, there were times when Annie and I argued, our pains firing at phantoms and fears, and there were times when they stayed away for a while. I made bad decisions, got into relationships that were unhealthy, sought to fill holes, and pulled away when it all fell through. I offended and hurt them, seeking to be understood and understand, yet they never gave up on me.
I didn’t have the doctors and safe environments to process and overcome my past and it made me make due with what I had available. For years, I had to focus on the pain they suffered, fearing being alone, needing their love more than anything and, so much that I now am able to do, was suppressed. It is no one’s fault, I grew to put them first, bearing the resentment and hurt. Grandpa didn’t come as much as Annie, he had to work to pay the bills, but when he did I always felt loved when he left.
Grandpa was one of the few positive male role models I had left, all friends and others faded years before, and I valued his example like none other. When Elwood could no longer work, time taking its toll as it does with us all, I suffered with those that witnessed the decline. I know I wasn’t alone in the watching, but I saw the changes between visits all the more clearly for it. The small strokes altered my grandpa, and the gentle man I loved began to cry. It came unexpectedly, the rush of emotion as if by the slow fading of strength had somehow filled his heart with it. He felt everything more deeply, the loss more profoundly, and often looked at me with questions whose answers never offered relief.
Grandpa wanted me to come home with him, to come help take care of him and grandma, and I yearned to with my whole being. I can’t tell you what it was like to look into his eyes and try to answer why I couldn’t leave this place with him. I watched the tears dry up and the anger come, the fading of memory fueling fears, and then a man that never cussed began to. Grandma told me that he cussed more than she used to, and she seemed afraid that something beyond our control could change all knew to be.
On one of our last visits, grandpa told me that he wanted to live long enough to see me walk free, but life had lost meaning for him. He could no longer do what he wanted, for those he wanted to do it for, and he no longer remembered what mattered that gave life its flavor. I used to come in from those visits and weep for him, praying that God give him peace, and then the shock of Annie passing so suddenly. I say all this not to shame my grandfather, but to share that until the very end he never failed to tell me or show me that he loved me. Janice continued to bring them both as long as she could while managing her own life and family, and I am eternally grateful for Janice doing that.
I also want to praise Woody, his wife, daughter, and all those that cared for grandpa as life slowly wound down. I know it was trying and heart wrenching to witness, but no parent could ask for children more devoted to their compassionate care. I got to even tell my grandpa that I loved him before he passed, and wish him peace as he went to find his daughter, his wife, and Jesus. He no longer had to read the Word to know peace, he left to live with the Word in eternal peace. If I can be half the man Elwood Harris was, then I can do anything in the world.