Kenneth L. Hardin: Grandpa had strong shoulders, but they were soft

Published 12:00 am Sunday, March 5, 2023

I didn’t like lima beans as a child, and I can thank my late paternal grandfather for them never being served in my house as an adult. I detest them at the same level of fear I have for squirrels. I’ll cross the street and take a different path to avoid one. If  I mistakenly pick up a can in the store, I experience  the same sensation Superman does when he touches Kryptonite. As I lean my head back and gaze up lovingly at the Heavens where he’s been resting for over two decades, I say jokingly to him, “Thanks a lot Grandpa Pete.”

I smile as I look back at that Saturday evening at the dinner table as my grandma’s hands had cooked a delicious meal. I devoured everything on my plate but couldn’t successfully climb lima bean mountain. I got up to leave but my grandpa said I wasn’t excused until I cleaned my plate. I knew I would emerge victorious, so I bravely said to myself, “challenge accepted.”  Two hours later, the chess match continued and I knew it was time to play the grandma card.  She stepped in and called it a draw allowing me to leave the table.  Victory was mine!

The next morning, I strode into the kitchen with full peacock feathers. I could smell the pancakes, biscuits, ham, grits and other delights wafting throughout the room guiding me to the table like a GPS.  As I sat down, there was my plate of reheated lima beans. My grandpa was sitting there, not with a smile, but a stern look of “don’t play with me today boy.” Looking back, I would call it a draw, because after I took the first bite, I vomited all over the table and ruined breakfast for everyone.

My grandpa was a strong man. He did everything a real man was supposed to do to take care of his family as the head of household. I never saw him complain or a break in his character. He was a man in an era when there was a concerted effort to strip Black men of their dignity, humanity and disallow them to recognize their manhood. He found strength through peace and brotherhood, and gained the respect of skinfolk and those who didn’t look like him from his strong work ethic, integrity and ability to build relationships.  I remember my father telling me he was able to get a home loan and many other things based on a handshake and his word.

He’s the architect of the man I am today. I drew strength from his last years of life when diabetes took over his body. The disease never impacted his strong spirit. He was a man until he took his last breath. He was no longer the physically strapping man who would put on a harness and forgo a tractor to dig the rows of dirt for his massive garden.  He was nearly blind and had both legs amputated at the knee. But every morning, he strapped on his prosthetics and said he was going for a walk.  He only went as far as the end of the driveway, but to me, he walked a mile every morning.  He would come back in the house, sit down in his wheelchair, and roll around that same kitchen and make himself breakfast on the stove.

In a high school track meet at Knox Middle my senior year,  as I knelt down in position waiting for the gun to sound, I looked over at the fence and there was my grandpa.  I ran extra hard that day and knew no one would beat me in that race. When I looked back over to the fence after winning, he was gone, but his presence that day has never left me. He was a serious man and commanded respect. He would correct us if conversations didn’t contain a “yes or no sir.” Inside his hard outer core, he was soft and fun. I enjoyed sitting on his front porch watching him take out his small folding pocket knife and cutting off a chunk of tobacco or pulling strands from the pouch of Redman he kept in his front shirt pocket. After bugging him for a taste, he gave a too young me a few fingers full. I promptly chewed it, swallowed, and threw up all over myself.  I can still hear his guttural laughter at the sad site.

I have wonderful memories of my grandpa and miss his strong but soft shoulders. I was alone in the ICU with him when they turned off the breathing machine. I stroked his cold face as the beeping quieted and the life line on the monitor stopped. I told my grandpa, “Thank you for being the man I needed in my life.”

Kenneth L. (Kenny Hardin) is a member of the National Association of Black Journalists.