His prized possessions were a Stetson hat, a portrait print signed by Kentucky’s Col. Harlan Sanders and a putter shaped like a hot dog and autographed by Bear Bryant, though three of his children had graduated from Auburn and he never played golf.
He was 4 when he lost his father, 17 when he left home to make it on his own and 10 days north of 88 when he died at home – his choice.
Rex Aubrey Grimsley still loved the grocery company that fired him and the woman too proper to kiss him when he returned home from world war.
He was my father.
Stubborn as a blood stain, unyielding in many matters, he was generous to family and friends, who sometimes saw the dark side of his moon yet adored him. He held his children on his bony knee when we were little, rescued us from the scalding white sand on Pensacola Beach and taught me how to drive a standard shift and build a fence.
He terrorized our boyfriends, and sometimes our husbands, threatening to put one “on the other end of a cross-cut saw.” When a prospective son-in-law phoned to ask his permission to marry the oldest daughter, he replied: “Now, who are you?”
To my father, strangers were suspect. He lived by that credo they dish out in journalism school: If your mother says she loves you, check it out.
In the beginning, and at heart, he was a butcher. In his late years, he spent hours reliving meat-market grand openings of decades before, or debating the merits of various brands of bacon. Once a meat man, always a meat man. He had no patience with so-called cholesterol and vegetarians.
But when he was young, he had little time for conversation. He never stopped walking and working – on the job or at the little retirement farm he loved and named Rex’s Ranch. He couldn’t figure why any of us, especially my brother, would ever want to leave it.
Tall and lean, he was a picture of health until pulmonary fibrosis slowed him in his 80s. Doctors prescribed oxygen, which he used like a water bottle, taking great gulps between chores.
He loved music. Hillbilly music, especially Hank and the steel guitar. He also liked Irish tenors, Billy Vaughn waltzes, Floyd Cramer on the piano. After requesting “Stardust,” he would fall asleep on the living-room sofa while my sister played the piano for him.
His best friend was a man named James Ivey, or “Jimmy,” the Sundance to my father’s Butch Cassidy. I never beat Mister Jimmy to the hospital if my father were in it. Jimmy was with him when he breathed his last.
On the wall above his ancient recliner was a huge marlin he caught deep-sea fishing. As a young man fishing was his passion, until he created his own two fish ponds and immediately lost interest.
He had soft spots. Once he spent his day off trying to buy my sister a skating skirt, black corduroy with a sequin mitten and satin lining. He never returned from a work trip without some small, affordable gift for us – often the miniature soaps from the motel.
His childhood was cut short by the loss of his father and war. He would see the world in a way he never planned. He came home from the Pacific a man, and if the rest of his life was vaguely anti-climactic, he never complained. Life was duty, duty was life, and he never shirked either.
To find out more about Rheta Grimsley Johnson and her books, visit www.rhetagrimsleyjohnsonbooks.com or write to her at Iuka, MS 38852.