Pap and Jayber Crow

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I’ve been reading Wendell Berry’s novel Jayber Crow, something it took me a long time to work my way towards, despite my own geography and the urgings of people I know. Reading this book makes me a little homesick, despite the fact that I live only 50 or so miles from the places where I grew up. Being homesick is sad enough, but what’s sadder is that my homesickness is by and large for a place that doesn’t exist anymore, and that hasn’t for a long time. There’s nothing particularly new or unique about this. Every place changes. People grow old and die. New people come. Farms disappear. Buildings fall down or are torn down. The town where I grew up was disappearing around me pretty much the moment I was born, though perhaps at a faster rate than it had for many years before. I believe the towns my grandparents grew up in were not quite as different as the towns my parents grew up in. But most of the landscape of those places are completely gone now, and they’ve been replaced by and large with subdivisions and other things that I find to be ugly and soulless.

The physical places don’t look the same anymore, but more importantly, I think a certain type of person has disappeared, too. Many of the people Berry describes in Jayber Crow are the kind of people I knew, some vaguely and some as family. And this makes me think of my grandfather, the one I knew, my mother’s father, Pap. I think of Pap when I read the passage in Jayber Crow describing the hands of the men in the town, “They had used their hands forgetfully, as hooks and pliers and hammers, and in every kind of weather. The backs of their hands showed a network of little scars where they had been cut, nicked, thornstruck, pinched, punctured, scraped, burned. Their faces told that they had suffered things they did not talk about. Every one of them had a good knife in his pocket, sharp, the blades whetted narrow and concave, the horn of the handle worn smooth.”

In the summers, my sister and I would usually spend at least a week of the summer on my grandparents farm down by the river. The rest of the summer, we would work on the farm in the mornings, either with our mother, or later on our own. What I remember about Pap from these times was that he was a quiet man. He sat at the same place at the kitchen table every morning, at lunch, and every evening. He chopped his fried eggs into little pieces with his fork and knife, and sopped up the yolk with white bread. He always seemed tired, and this annoyed my grandmother—Gram. He drove the tractor and that was mostly all, and I rarely remember him picking tomatoes with us, or beans, or picking up potatoes. And he spent a lot of time in the cool of the barn, in the corner in his own chair. I remember him mostly in those three chairs…that one in the barn, the one at the kitchen table, and the one in the living room, a leather recliner.

Pap’s hands were just as Berry describes…they looked as if they had been used for things that no hands should be used for. They were large, and tough, and scarred, and dark. As a small child, I think I was a little bit afraid of those hands, though Pap never yelled at us and certainly never used those hands against us. But they looked so very foreign compared to the other hands I had seen. And as a child, on some level I knew and understood how those hands had come to be that way, how his face had come to look like a face so rough and scarred. Because I had seen Pap in the t-shirt he always wore under his long-sleeved farm shirt. I saw the parts of his arm that had never been exposed to the life his hands had seen, and they were lily white, and pure, and untouched. Where his hands met the part of his body that lived a protected life, it was like a border on a map. Here is the soft and new and smooth person that would have been, and here are the hands that have lived this life. And somehow Pap was both of those people.
I remember the knife that Pap carried in the pocket of his jeans. When we headed up the hill in the wagon after picking tomatoes or picking up potatoes, we would pause for some reason on the side of the hill where the peach trees were, and Pap from the tractor would pull a peach off of the tree. He would pull out his pocket knife and cut it open, pull it apart into neat halves and throw away the seed. Then with his sharp knife, he would peel off the skin and slice us pieces to eat. Sometimes yellow peaches, and once I remember, white peaches, which were especially sweet. I don’t know if he did this often, or just once, but what I remember is that he loved the sweet taste of a peach off the tree as much as I did as a child. I still peel the skin off peaches before I eat them, and I think of Pap every time.

Pap was tired for as long as I remember. Maybe there was a time before I knew him when he wasn’t, but he was tired and this made Gram crazy and angry at him. Maybe the war made him tired. Farming was enough to make anyone except Gram tired. Maybe he had decided that there was nothing really worth the exertion left. He had money, and maybe he decided that having more wasn’t such an important thing compared to sitting on the tractor or in that chair in the cool of the barn. I don’t know why he was tired. I know he liked to tell stories and to have his hair combed while he sat in the leather recliner, and would pay me and my sister a dollar to do just that. I know I’ve never met anyone else who seemed even remotely like the kind of man Pap seemed to be, and that I miss him.

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