Games of Chess and Chiclets Gum (A Love Letter to My Poppi)

My characterization of my maternal grandfather might differ from someone who has known him longer than I, because the teddy bear I know and love has softened a good deal over the years. Even in my early childhood he could still be a bit stern on occasion. Poppi is not a big man, physically, although older age has not made him quite as small as his father was before him. He has always been strong, though; a hard worker, always tinkering or crafting or fixing, periodically returning to part-time employment throughout his retirement years. His hands are fine, with delicate fingers; I would call them aristocratic (though he will probably say “psh” to see that in print). They have also been known to break into the opening chords of Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C# Minor from time to time. His hair is softer than anyone else I know, although he doesn’t always appreciate me running my fingers through it. 🙂 His voice is a most beautiful tenor, and he and my Nana have blessed an untold number of people with the music they make together.

When I was little, Poppi was still working full time as an electrician for an engineering firm. I remember the scent of his uniform and watching the driveway for the little VW he drove at the time. We lived about an hour away at the time but made frequent trips to Chattanooga, often staying overnight with Nana and Poppi. I was an early bird (then, ha), usually up in time to see Poppi off to work, and the resulting one-on-one breakfasts and dominoes lessons at 6 AM were very special to me.

Poppi’s love is often expressed in the little things. As a small girl, tagging along on trips to the grocery store, Poppi would purchase the little yellow envelope of tutti-frutti Chiclets gum for my treat. Birthday cards from my grandparents contain epistles from Nana, with a few heartfelt words in Poppi’s unique handwriting. His spoken words are much the same – few, but purposeful. Nana is the enthusiastic Christmas shopper, but there is often some small handcrafted treasure especially from Poppi that accompanies their other gifts.

For Poppi is a wonderful craftsman, in addition to having the ability to perform any and all handyman services. Bowls, lamps, candlesticks, jewelry boxes, baby rattles, and much more – usually bearing the wood-burned “giving tree” he adopted as his mark after reading the Shel Silverstein book of the same name (don’t be fooled; Poppi has a wicked sense of humor and preys upon the tender spot we all have for his Eyore-ish characteristics). One of my most treasured possessions is a beautiful cedar chest he and my mom made for me a few years ago. The sound of his lathe running in the basement has been part of the music of our daily family soundtrack for years.

I call it the “daily family soundtrack” because for some time now it has been a privilege for my family to be next-door neighbors to Nana and Poppi…19 years, to be exact (17 before I got married and moved out). So much joyful chaos between the two houses, running in and out, enjoying games of chess by the fireplace, sharing thousands of meals together. For many of those meals, Poppi has contributed the cornbread, or a pot roast flavored with that morning’s leftover coffee. No one can make the gravy quite like he can.

Poppi is a patient man, due in part to his unhurried temperament and deliberate approach to everything, including timed games (always resulting in general hilarity) and our many vacation processions down to Florida (unless he starts out in front – his definition of highway speed mysteriously increases then). He has been a generous teacher of practical skills to almost everyone in the family, and was only faintly annoyed the time he let me mow to the utter destruction of some new plants he had planted in random places around the yard.

Poppi is also a faithful Attender and Documenter of All the Things. Birthdays, recitals, plays, baseball games…he’s been there for all of them, for all of us, and though the device has changed over the decades the video/photographic evidence has not. (Sorry for that time I tripped over the cord of your favorite video camera and broke it.)

Faithfulness just describes Poppi all around. Faithful in cherishing my Nana (their love story deserves so much more than a passing reference). Faithful to church, to family, to friends. Faithful to serve. Faithful to study. Faithful to pray. You can bet that three things are sitting on the side table or hearth at any given time: his Bible, prayer journal, and whichever book the Dead Theologians Society is currently reading. It is a quiet dedication, but it is bedrock.

And yet Poppi would be the first to say that all glory is due to the faithfulness and grace of God – first to agree with John Newton’s assessment that “I am a great sinner, and Christ is a great Savior.” I have witnessed that very faithfulness and grace in Poppi’s life, through good times and trials alike, making an impact on me most of all by seeing the fruit that marks the true believer even in old age. Poppi has never stopped learning and growing, valuing truth over comfortable and familiar boxes and labels, embodying the spirit of “semper reformanda”, making his home among the gems of the Puritans of old these last few years, freely sharing the riches of the truths he has gleaned with us all.

I share these things now, while there is yet some time to write in present tense. I share them publicly because there are many, many friends who call him Poppi as easily as I do. There is much, much more that lives in my heart, but I hope in some small way to have given honor where honor is due, and to have expressed my gratitude for the generous way you have loved and led and served our family and so many more besides. I love you, Poppi. You are so very dear to me.