My grandfather, James Clare Wallace II, passed away on December 27 after a long and fulfilled life of 92 years. As with my grandmother’s passing almost three years ago, I had the honor of doing a reading for the funeral. I do my best writing in my head – many other writers will relate to that – and I admit in the last couple of years, I’ve written snippets in my head over and over again. But when it came down to it, rather when I procrastinated so badly that I ended up having to whip something up in the car on the drive from Austin to Dallas, it was my grandfather’s stories that took center stage.
I also want to share this sweet True Romance piece that came out in the Dallas Morning News in 2013. I unfortunately missed the boat on getting myself a physical copy of the article, but seeing this one bookmarked on my computer brings me great comfort.
Before I first introduced my husband to my grandfather 18 years ago, I prepared him with a little info, most notably that Pop was a retired Dallas police officer. I don’t remember his police days, but I do remember that in retirement, he served as a low-key security guy for a prominent Dallas lawyer, a gig that wasn’t uncommon for retired Dallas cops. I’m not sure exactly what his duties entailed, but for me it meant I got to ride in the lawyer’s fancy car and play with his dog when he was out of town.
When my husband heard this, he said, “Are you sure you grandpa wasn’t a hitman?”
He was big and imposing, loud even before he started losing his hearing. And while I’m pretty sure he wasn’t a contract criminal, I can tell you a lot of what he was.
He was a doting husband. A loving father. A devoted friend, A friendly neighbor. A provider. A protector. A Christian. A caretaker. A proud grandfather and great-grandfather. A melt-in-your-mouth sugar cookie maker. And those are just the things I know about.
He was also a master storyteller. My favorite tales are some of the ones I wasn’t even around to remember: When he took the family on a vacation to Lake Pontchartrain in Louisiana and they all got sunburned to a crisp. Or the afternoon of November 22, 1963, when he sat in a parking lot at a Dallas street corner and listened to the mayhem of the Kennedy assassination on the radio, the only cop for miles, he said, with everyone else tending to the chaos downtown. And maybe one of my favorites, suffering the hot Texas summer in a long-sleeved police uniform and an un-air-conditioned patrol car. “A story about a hat,” he called it. Dripping sweat from the heat, Pop pulled over for a few minutes, removed his hat – an action strictly forbidden in the Dallas police force – to get some air and mop his brow. Sure enough, his commanding officer came driving up.
“Jim, what in the hell are you doing?” asked the officer.
“I’m mopping my brow, sir,” answered my grandpa.
The commanding officer stared at him. “Put your hat back on, Jim.” And he drove off. Back at the station he delivered a yellow slip to my grandpa, writing him up for the offending action.
“This was someone I’d had over to my home for dinner, introduced to my family!” Pop exclaimed. He was able to laugh about it years later but was still clearly incredulous about the whole ordeal. Someone asked if he crumpled it up and threw it in the trash as an act of defiance.
“Nope,” he answered. Then he laughed. “But they gave it back to me in my file when I retired!”
My grandpa’s neighborhood was brand new when they moved in. Now decades later, older generations have passed on and new, younger families have taken their place. On a nice day, Pop could be found in the front yard with his dog, Feller, a stray he found and from whom he soon became inseparable. Families with their strollers, wagons, and bikes would pass, often stopping at the end of the driveway for a chat. He had a warm, booming hello for everyone he saw and a story for anyone willing to listen, and we were all willing.
As a writer myself, I sometimes lament my lack of adventures that would give me the stories to tell to future generations. But Pop wasn’t necessarily adventurous. He mined his life for the stories that were already there. That’s what a storyteller does.
From Ernest Hemingway:
“Every man’s life ends the same way. It is only the details of how he lived and how he died that distinguish one man from another.”
I’ve learned that life is not what happens to us, but how we see it. Life is in the details and finding the magic in the adventures that are right before our eyes.