Stained White T-Shirt

A complicated memory

Andy Spears

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Photo by Brendan Stephens on Unsplash

I was standing there.

At the funeral home.

Looking at a display of pictures from my father’s life.

And I saw it. A picture of my dad’s dad. My papaw.

He was pictured with his two sons. He was wearing a stained white t-shirt.

This had to be quite a few years before I remember meeting him.

But my memory of Papaw was of a short, strong, thick man with jet black hair and yellowed skin wearing a stained white t-shirt.

His habit was to come home from work and shower. Then put on a white t-shirt and shorts. No matter the weather in his central Ohio town, Papaw was in shorts and a white t-shirt unless he was going to work.

His teeth were yellow from smoking two packs a day. His eyes dark but sparkling.

He was always thrilled to see me, it seemed. Always had a gift. He’d have me on his knee and a cigarette in his hand and we’d laugh.

I wondered how often he bought those shirts. 10 at a time every 6 months, maybe?

He was 58 and I was 6 when he died. Cancer. The smoking took its toll.

I hadn’t really thought about him — not in that detail — for a long time. He was the first close relative I had that died.

So, standing there, at the funeral home to greet mourners of my own father’s death, I thought of Papaw. I saw that shirt and that man, and those huge arms and black hair and I smiled.

Later, as I was traveling home, I wondered about that picture. The man with his two boys. I wondered if sometime before or after that picture was taken, was he beating them the way he had? With his hands or a belt or a baseball bat?

Did he wear the stained white t-shirt when he came in drunk and crashed the Christmas tree?

Did he have one of those shirts on when he’d sit outside the high school football stadium drinking in his car while his boys played ball?

What did my own dad think when he saw his dad holding me at the kitchen table in that stained white t-shirt?

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Andy Spears

Writer and policy advocate living in Nashville, TN —Public Policy Ph.D. — writes on education policy, consumer affairs, and more . . .