By the end of Grandpapa’s life, we knew where we stood with one another. And by that, I mean that we knew exactly how every conversation we would ever have would progress, almost word for word.
Seriously. Every time I saw my great-grandfather (dad’s mom’s dad), we had the following conversation, with only one or two tiny variations possible – all on my end.
GRANDPAPA: Now, who’s this handsome fella?
MWB: Michael Wellington, sir. [Yes, the middle name was mandatory, as it enabled the following dialogue to happen correctly.]
GRANDPAPA: Wellington, eh? Did you know that MY middle name is Wellington?
MWB: I think I did, sir. [sometimes, just to shake it up, I would go ad lib and say, “No! I had no idea!” It really didn’t matter which. My role here is that of sounding board.]
GRANDPAPA: [singing] The Duke of Wellington,
he had ten thousand men,
he marched’em up to the top of the hill,
then marched’em down again.
You ever heard that song before, Michael Wellington?
MWB: No, Grandpapa, I sure hadn’t!
GRANDPAPA: D’ya know how many D’s there are in Dixie, Michael Wellington?
MWB: No, Grandpapa, I don’t. How many are there?
GRANDPAPA: Hunnerd and twenty seven!
[singing, to the tune of “Dixie”] “Dee-dee-deet deet dee-dee-dee-dee-deet deet dee-dee.”
You ever heard that joke before, Michael Wellington?
MWB: No, Grandpapa, I sure hadn’t.
Upon the ritual’s successful completion, he would laugh to himself and turn away, signaling that I was free to depart, which I would do with relief at having executed my bit part with aplomb. Later in the day, if we encountered one another again, we would, of course, enact the same homely liturgy.
Grandpapa was a truly remarkable man. He was a preacher, did most of his work in the Southern Appalachian region, and had the entire Bible memorized and quotable on demand.
Grandpapa had a burning desire to be published and renowned for doing so, but that particular dream never materialized. Instead, he remained a church minister, faithfully tending to his flocks until he was in his late eighties, serving people for over sixty years of his long, long life, and wrote endlessly – we’ve got stacks of books, collections of sermons, poetry, and various and sundry other items that he wrote.
I asked my grandmother (Nanabet!) to tell me about some fun stories about Granpapa from her youth. In general, he was a serious person, but two things really stuck out in her memory.
Story The First!
He pastored three churches in the western reaches of Virginia, one of which was known as Hardy’s Creek. This was not a wistful name – there was literally a creek running by the church, in which Grandpapa would baptize new believers.
One Sunday in particular, there was a baptism on order after a strong rain – so the creek was significantly higher than normal. But the Baptism was not to be deterred! On with the ceremony they went, until one of the women on deck climbed into the water and went under my great-grandfather’s hands.
Unfortunately, this particular woman was rotund. Combined with the increased volume of water in the creek and the slipperiness of the rocks beneath him…
Yes. Hilarity, such an unwelcome guest at such an august occasion, ensued regardless.
Another time, he took several friends from out of town to the Sand Cave – an open-faced cave in a nearby mountain that featured a beautiful array of colored sand. Locals would go with bottles and tampers in hand to create layered decorations of multicolored striations, and Grandpapa particularly enjoyed showing the wonders of the cave to people who visited his little corner of Appalachia.
Now, the cave was on the far side of this mountain, and the typical path that ran to it was fairly long. On this particular occasion, Grandpapa’s friends had a time limit and couldn’t take all day, so they asked around in the village on the slope whether anybody knew a faster route.
They were directed by and by to a woman with a mule who said, “Well, Preacher, I’m going up the mountain, and I’m goin’ the fast way. I have to get up there with m’mule before lunch ‘cause I’m canning some peaches, but if you don’t mind walkin’ and walkin’ fast I’ll take you up and point you to the path that heads down to the cave.”
Well! That would indeed be fine! So they took the mule with all of its canning jars and walked up the mountain; it was quite a climb, but it was indeed a quicker route that enabled them to get to the cave, enjoy the beauty of the multicolored sand, enjoy a picnic lunch, and then hike back across the mountain on the less arduous trail.
Grandpapa was amazed at how quick the day had gone, so he went to thank the folks for helping them find another way up. When he got to the folks who had pointed him in the right direction, all of them were laughing at him hysterically.
“Fellas, you mind sharin’ the joke?”
“Well, Preacher, you jes’ went clear up the mountain with a moonshiner, and we can’t WAIT to tell everybody we know!”
From childhood, I remember Henry Wellington Stough as a short bulldog of a man who was somewhat intimidating and gruff but always, no matter my age, paid me the almost intolerable compliment of treating me like an adult.
I don’t mean that in the indulgent kinda-sorta-serious way we usually do when we “treat kids as adults,” where we act very serious about their crushing problems of having misplaced a He-man figure or listen solemnly to their opinions about why Ninja Turtles are soooooo clearly superior to Transformers.
Grandpapa talked to us like we were adults. Period.
He would describe in scholarly detail his opinion about obscure (and probably rightfully so) theories he’d come across in his research about such topics as the Hebrew tribe of Dan during the Diaspora and their role in the development of Europe.
But he wouldn’t just talk at you – he asked questions, made sure you were catching on, got short with you if you didn’t remember it right, praised you when you did. It was weird.
Looking back, it was wonderful.
My great-grandmother died around the time I was born, and within a few years Grandpapa remarried Lucille, a woman I dimly remember as being taller than I was at the age of four, because that’s all I really was able to process. They lived in their house in Knoxville for a long time, a tiny, old house filled with cuckoo-clocks, a beautiful grand piano, and lots of sweet-smelling years that accumulated in a cozy warmth in the corners of their home.
Grandpapa outlived Lucille, too, but didn’t remain alone for long. Number Three came along soon, but given the fact that she’s featured here with a number and not a name, you might guess that she didn’t stick around!
In fact, Grandpapa met Number Three in, of course, a Burger King! Who says romance is dead? She married him for his money. Which was hilarious, since, being a preacher, he had, um, none. Upon finding this out, Number Three, who was probably a vastly younger woman (I mean, she couldn’t have been a day over 75) took off in a huff, never to be seen again.
The departure of Number Three was probably in large part what knocked the last wind out of Grandpapa’s previously robust sails. He retired from preaching at the age of 85, not wholly voluntarily from what I understand, and was relocated to Birmingham so that our family could take care of him here, since he wasn’t really able to do so himself any more.
This was also not exactly voluntary.
In fact, he tended to view himself as somewhat of a P.O.W.
As formidable a man as he’d been, Grandpapa never really came to terms with being old. He tried on more than one occasion to “escape” the retirement community he lived in, and was less than kind to the staff who worked there.
One could not exactly say that he faced his winter years with charm.
But he was an important part of my life growing up, and was always kind to me and to my family. No matter how cantankerous he became, I'll always remember the mirth in his eyes as he asked me:
"Now, who's this handsome fella?"