I parked my '66 Mustang convertible beneath the mammoth shade oak. The car was a graduation perk prior to my first year of teaching that I had just completed.
Bordered by manicured boxwood the front yard of trimmed grass was dotted with alabaster lawn furniture of wrought iron, the type no one ever uses. Patients were seated in wheelchairs and rockers on the main veranda of the antebellum mansion converted into a nursing home, one of Heaven's waiting rooms. Several patients cooled themselves with hand held fans bearing funeral parlor ads. A black orderly busied himself dispensing medications and mid-afternoon snacks. Cicadas piped their ratchet cadence from nearby trees.
I walked by the flagstone walkway to the veranda's brick steps; a worn photo album tucked under one arm. A matronly lady in starched whites, her pale cheeks reddened with rouge, directed me to the side porch.
Wafts of disinfectant floated on a summer zephyr. They failed to disguise the hint of fecal odor that emanated from an open window.
I found my grandfather slumped in a paint-chipped rocking chair, his eyes fixed in an unblinking stare. He wore oversized khaki pants, a long-sleeved work shirt open at the collar and a cardigan sweater even though it was the last week of July. Gone were the scuffed high-topped work shoes. In their place were maroon bedroom slippers too large for his feet. His thinning white hair was mussed. His snowy beard needed trimming. Stains at the corners of his mouth streaked his whiskers brown. His pasty complexion was spider-webbed with tiny blood vessels. He seemed to have shrunk since I last saw him. Flies alternated lighting and flying off the scab on this forehead. He made no attempt to shoo away the pests. His special cane, hand carved generations before, rested against the porch rail.
"Granddaddy," I said gently so as not to startle him. He didn't respond. "Granddaddy?" I repeated louder stepping in front of him, "It's Billy."
"Who?" he whispered in a raspy voice. His red-rimmed gray eyes met mine. "Who're you?"
"Billy, Billy Benson your grandson, Rebecca's boy. I used to spend the summers on the farm with you and Aunt Agnes while Mom attended summer school at the State College over in Durham."
For several years Granddaddy hadn't tilled the soil save for the small garden plot near the farmhouse. That ended, for his health and welfare, when he entered the nursing home in Greensboro, North Carolina, where I visited only once before.
"Y'all from the church?" He looked away. "Need to cut corn for the cows. Agnes'll be along directly to do the milkin'. Gotta feed the cows."
I sat in the chair next to his and rocked slowly. Memories flooded back of another time, another porch.
"Y'all from the church?" he asked again, his Southern drawl muffled by the lump of tobacco compacted in his cheek.
I laid the dimpled leather photo album on my lap. I thumbed through the musty ebony pages revealing black and white photographs with pinked edges. One picture dated 1945 showed a toddler with an old man. The gentleman in the photo was my grandfather, William Penn Carter. His father had a penchant for naming his children after famous historical figures. "Remember this", I held the album up. "Granddaddy, remember this?"
He stared straight ahead. "Agnes better c'mon. Gettin' late." He leaned forward and spat. The stream of tobacco juice arched to a spot this side of the porch rail. The puddle of spittle like liquid rust indicated this wasn't his first attempt at spitting into the yard. He eased himself back into the rocker.
I turned to the front of the album and described earlier photos. I flipped the pages and gave him a running commentary. There were pictures of Aunt Agnes, Granddaddy, Mom, her sisters and brothers, a slew of grandchildren including myself and group photographs taken at the farm on Father's Day. This one-way conversation became a travelogue to another summer long ago.