On the phone today with a writer friend, Tom Franklin, a man who is good with words, he used the word civilized. It does not matter the context. But if you catch me out at the coffee shop, or in the bookstore someday, I’ll tell you the context. For now, let’s just let it be about the word. And the word struck me, rang out a chord in my chest. I looked up its meaning. Looked at the list of synonyms.
Civilized. My grandfather would sometimes say that.
Maybe he’d come in last night from his second-shift job at Westinghouse Electric plant over in Reform, Alabama. Maybe he’d got to bed before midnight. And maybe he’d slept in and finally rolled out at 6 a.m.. Likely, he’d had one cup of coffee, and finished it on his walk to the barn. Probably had put the off-color white ceramic mug on that fence post there at the gate. He’d get it on his way back.
Maybe one of his mama pigs lately had a litter of piglets. He loved the baby pigs, white Yorkshires, I’d guess. Though he had sometimes been known to buy a pair of black and white Hampshires at the auction, they never seemed to stay around for long. Maybe they were the sausage, and the ham, and the bacon on the breakfast table. I doubt he slaughtered his Yorkshires. Just raised them for a while then sold them at auction. Maybe traded one or two now and then for a heifer. He already had a bull he loved.
I watched him once enter the corn crib at the barn and some wasps were buzzing with furious purpose through the dust motes in the sun slanting through cracks between the wall boards. I don’t know what might have disturbed the red wasps, but they seemed to me mad at something. My grandfather, whose name was Orlen Roberto Estes, didn’t duck his head to dodge the strafing. He didn’t swing his hand in the air. Or curse.
I warned him to look out, Pa. “They got no call to be mad at me,” he said. “I won’t mess with them and they won’t mess with me.”
I watched him so many times cross the pasture to the barn when some cows and a horse or two would follow him. Stretched out single file, man and beasts, at an easy stroll through the grass.
Say it was a Saturday morning, and say I’d be among the rowdy kids now and then, siblings and cousins scrapping and making a racket like spider monkeys, when he walked through the back door to the kitchen after finishing his chores at the barn. He’d walk in and the screen door would have slapped closed behind him. He’d have gone to the coffee pot, and poured it out black, into the mug he’d remembered off the fence post. He’d turn and sip from it, looking over the rim at us.
One of us would’ve got wind of his gaze. Then another. And somebody else would. And we’d quiet down. He had blue eyes in his brown face, close-shaved and white-headed.
“You youngins go on outside and play,” he might have said. Then he’d probably add, as we looked at one another, deciding maybe who’d go first toward the door, “And try to be civilized.”
Tom’s use of the word this morning was in my head like one of those dust motes, just floating in and out of the light of my reckoning as I walked with my dog Bobby beneath the Sorcerer Oak here at Waterhole Branch. I stopped, still and quiet, and looked at the noble tree, wondering over all that it’s seen. And in this buzzing and angry world, stymied at how the old tree stood there before me, so civilized. Like my grandfather.
Sometimes I miss him more than others. Today I miss him a lot.