My grampa, John Wesley Pearce, was born on July 4th, 1881. For many years the Pearce family gathered at my grandparent’s home on July 4th to celebrate his birthday. When I was very young I thought the whole reason people set off fireworks was to celebrate my grampa’s birthday. Later I learned that it just happened to be coincidence that Grampa’s birthday and Independence Day fell on the same day. In my mind it remained perfectly fitting that the whole country celebrated July 4th as our family celebrated my grampa. To me he had earned the title “Grand” and certainly deserved an equally grand celebration.
Grampa was a handsome fellow in his youth who fell in love with my beautiful grandmother. Together they raised nine children on a tobacco farm in the Piedmont country of North Carolina. They survived two world wars, the death of an infant daughter, and the Great Depression. Although he was poor as a church mouse he was generous with all that he had – offering those traveling by his door a place to sleep and food to fill their bellies. He fished, planted, and harvested by moon signs. He believed mightily in prayer, belonged to a rural Baptist church, sang hymns with gusto, and discussed theology regularly with a nearby minister, Reverend Theo Davis. The Reverend visited often and Grampa treasured his friendship. I feel it spoke volumes about both men knowing that Reverend Davis was a Wake Forest College graduate and my grampa had not graduated high school. Grampa’s favorite hymn was The Old Rugged Cross and I cannot hear even the melody to this day without thinking of him and welling with tears.
Although Grampa was mighty handsome dressed in a suit on Sunday his favorite wardrobe was a pair of denim overalls and bare feet. His pockets and bedside table contained treats for his grandchildren – usually candied orange slices or candy circus peanuts. Grampa delighted in every grandchild and tossed a multitude of them on his foot as his swung his crossed leg back and forth and recited: “Ride the horsie down to town. Better watch out or you’ll fall down” at which point he would let us slide to the floor while holding our hands – usually a big tummy tickle and giggles followed. Grampa was willing to sacrifice his dignity to sit in the soft Carolina sand with me as I served him “sand ice cream”, drew pictures in the dirt, and made mountains and what he called frog houses. In the end I had to go into the kitchen and fetch Gramma to help him get up – both of them laughing and shaking their heads.
Grampa loved Sun Drops (a carbonated lemon/lime flavored beverage) and scrambled eggs. Nothing has ever tasted so good as either of those things when he shared them with me as I sat on his knee in their kitchen with my gramma moving quietly about us.
When I was around five years old we lived with my grandparents for a short while. My Aunt Mary and her son, M.C., lived there also. M.C. was several years older than me. I adored him and followed him around whenever he would allow it – which wasn’t often. M.C. had toys and things that I was not allowed to touch. His stack of comic books especially intrigued me but they were his prized possession and absolutely off limits unless he was in a particularly generous mood. Grampa encouraged M.C. to share with me but M.C. was a stubborn fellow and could not be induced to do anything that he was not of a mind to do. Sometimes Grampa and I would wave to M.C. as he boarded the school bus in the morning and then head back to the house where Grampa would sit with me as I carefully looked through just one comic book – whichever one happened to be on top. We never spoke of our indiscretion to anyone and M.C. was none the wiser for our little comic book caper.
One of my favorite memories is sitting with Grampa in his rocking chair on the front porch listening to him sing or hum or tell me a story. He told the BEST stories. I wish I could remember all of them but what I remember most was the comfort of my head against his chest, the smell of his soap, and the soothing vibration of his deep voice. I also remember his incredible double thumb. Yes, my grampa had two thumbs on the same hand. They were both fully formed and entwined around each other – yet they were able to move independently of one another, which meant that he could pinch my nose or my little fingers with them – and I found that delightfully funny.
When Grampa died in April of 1958 I was utterly heartbroken. I could not imagine life without him in it. Neighbors, friends, and relatives poured in to mourn his passing and my grandparent’s house spilled over with people. I was not surprised to find so many folks who loved him all gathered in one place and when we all sang “The Old Rugged Cross” together I felt comforted by their support. I knew in that moment that I would feel my grampa’s love with me for always.
In the years that followed the Pearce family continued to gather on July 4th to celebrate the life of Johnny Pearce. It had become a ritual and as rituals tend to do it bound us together for many years. That ritual continued on even after the death of my grandmother in 1967. Nowadays all of the Pearce siblings have passed on, save one. Some of my cousins are gone as well and others have scattered like the wind. Time changes things. I am sad to say that our family ritual celebration has been mostly abandoned. We have managed to pull together a couple of gatherings over the years since my parents have passed away and they have been wonderful. But they will never be the same as those summer days at my grandparent’s house in the country with aunts and uncles and cousins loud and laughing, the heavenly smells wafting from covered dishes, lots of birthday cakes, and juicy cantaloupes and watermelons dripping down our chins.
Tomorrow, July 4th, 2022, our nation will be 246 years old. It will also be my grampa’s birthday. He would be 141 years old. As a grateful American, I will celebrate the birth of our nation but I will also be remembering my grampa with much gratitude and a little ache in my heart.