Following faithfully in the DNA tracks of my grandfather, Pappy Rains, I recently had cataract surgery on both eyes to sharpen my fading eyesight. Unlike Pappy, I have no Israeli carp to present to the surgeon. My surgeon is probably happy about that.
I rely on my eyesight to read what I’m writing on a computer screen, to find my way to the grocery store and to admire the beautiful scenery of the Appalachian foothills. I also enjoy browsing through a lifetime’s worth of photographs of places I’ve been and people I love, particularly the 30 or so offspring Miss Peggy and I share.
Pappy relied on his eyes to guide him over the 10 acres of swampland he cultivated on Whaley Pond Road out from Graniteville. He relied on them to lead him among the variety of intriguing crops he had planted there and to search out three generations of progeny, whom he affectionately called “wharfrats.” Though nearly blind, he could step off his acres and tell you what was planted where. He could feel the foliage and know whether he was dealing with a watermelon vine or a tomato plant.
Pappy was so tethered to his 10 acres of swamp that he built his home from the soil it rested on. He bought a machine that enabled him to mold cement blocks from white sand dug from the hills overlooking the creek that seeped from the swamp. He built the house with his own labor. It was an aesthetic flop, but it was solid as Stone Mountain.
The sluggish little creek – one of the tributaries of Horse Creek – he parlayed into a small pond, big enough for a boat and a healthy population of fish. He stocked it with a variety of them, including the Israeli carp, one of the ugliest fish God ever designed.
Pappy loved to gather his burgeoning flock of offspring around that little pond. He had a homemade grill made of chicken wire stretched over a cement-block base, and if you gave him the slightest excuse, he would insist that everybody gather around it. While the kids splashed in the pond or cast for fish, he would throw chickens on the grill and talk some of the girls into fixing potato salad and banana pudding.
I remember once when I was visiting from Virginia, Pappy said, “Let’s go out to the pond and barbecue some chickens.”
When I pleaded a tight schedule, he looked a little dejected and said, “You always have time for things you want to do.”
He said it not as a reproach but as a further encouragement to join him around the grill.
Pappy’s eyes grew dim as he moved into his middle 70s, as I have now done. He was a retired loom fixer in the cotton mills of Horse Creek Valley. Once, when I was in public relations for Springs Mills in Fort Mill, I introduced him to some of the company’s executives and he boasted: “Take me to the supply room, and I’ll build you a loom.”
And he could have done it before his eyesight left him.
Pappy was not big on medical science, so he was not too keen on letting somebody with a knife work on his eyes.
When he was a younger man, he went to the doctor and complained of a severe belly ache – the result of over-indulging in Grandma’s pinto beans. The doctor told him the problem was his gall bladder and offered to take it out for him. Otherwise, Pappy would get sick every time he ate beans.
Pappy figured he could do without beans better than he could do without his gall bladder, so he avoided beans for the rest of his life and concentrated on greens – preferably turnip greens. His fading eyesight complicated his pursuit of his green diet. After Grandma died, Pappy continued to live in that homemade house and did most of his own cooking. He would find his way to his turnip patch and pull enough greens and roots for a meal. But nobody wanted to join him, because although he could tell a turnip leaf from a cabbage leaf, he couldn’t tell a stem from a worm, and he couldn’t tell whether he had rinsed off all the dirt.
Once he was cooking up some greens when some of the wharfrats came by with the remains of a pizza they had bought in Aiken. They offered him the leftovers, and he cheerfully accepted, and just as cheerfully dropped them into the pot of greens. Although Pappy cultivated all sorts of vegetables, he did not have a cultivated palate.
You can imagine his delight after he finally submitted to cataract surgery and opened his eyes to a fresh view of the world. He could now see his beloved fields and their fruitage.
So in gratitude, he pitched a chicken barbecue for his surgeon, who made his way from the fashionable Hill section of Augusta into the scraggly domain of the sandlapper. As the chickens sizzled on the grill, one of the wharfrats reeled in an Israeli carp. In a burst of inspiration, Pappy presented it to the surgeon, giving him detailed instructions on how to filet it – as if a guy who could peel a cataract off your eyeball would need such instructions.
I suspect that the surgeon kept the carp no longer than it took him to pull off at the nearest trash receptacle. But it was the thought that counted.
I gave my surgeon a modest co-pay and let my Medicare insurance take care of the balance of several grand. I’m enjoying my improved vision; for the first time in years, I can drive without eyeglasses, and I can work a crossword using only reading glasses.
Pappy’s pond is still in the family, and if the doctor wants an Israeli carp, I suppose I could still go there and try to catch him one. But then there are plenty of catfish in the grocery store, already fileted, and I guess he’d rather have one of them..
Readers may e-mail Gene Owens at WadesDixieco@AOL.com.
Gene Owens is a retired newspaper editor and columnist who graduated from Graniteville High School and now lives in Anderson.