You could smell the pipe tobacco mixed with sawdust before you got within a few feet of my Grandpa Irvin. He was a short, stocky man, built like a small meat freezer with bow legs, and his face showed the effects of a life spent out in the weather with wrinkles so deep they could be measured. He wore a dirty ball cap for work which kept the glare and sun off his bifocals. His hands were thick and strong, veined deeply and scarred with cuts from over fifty years of woodworking and carpentry tools. His fingernails were torn and callousy, beyond a manicurist’s hope. But he’d been a workingman all his life and had no care about his appearance for church on Sunday. Then he sported his best suit and tie from Sayres, Sheid, and Sweeton, a brown fedora, and slightly scuffed shoes. He sang the hymns off key with gusto and snoozed during the sermons. My sister or I would bump him on the arm if he began to snore, and then he’d let out a little jump on the pew and shake his head, and if the sermon continued for too much longer, we’d be placed on sentry duty by Grandma to keep him awake. Even as youngsters, we were keenly aware of the embarrassment of him letting out a loud snort that would easily echo across the balcony and down to the Amen pews beside the minister’s perch at the sermon podium.
The only time I saw him stay awake during a sermon was one July when a family of five sat across from us and passed around sections of the Sunday newspaper to occupy themselves during the talk. I thought it was a grand idea, but Grandpa squirmed and glared laser holes through the sports and comic sections the people were reading and rustling. My sister Deanna got a case of the giggles, but Grandma shushed her with a peppermint and a look. Grandpa stared so long, I began to think he had gone to sleep with his eyes open, but then his hard jaw began to work, and I knew those visitors had better get out of the church fast when the service ended. Finally, one of the ushers crept up the stairs and using some tricky finger motions, got the visitors to at least lower their papers. Grandpa Irvin let out a deep grunt with his mouth closed that sounded like “humpf,” but the crisis was averted.
We always sat upstairs in the church’s long white pews, on the west side front row. That way, Irvin said, “We can watch everything, but not everyone can watch us.” I wondered about who he meant, so Deanna and I leaned as closely to the railing as we could in crackly crinoline dresses and looked at the congregation downstairs. He was right, of course. The people sitting under the balcony couldn’t see us, but since we were sitting between our grandparents, we each felt an arm jerk us back. Grandma hissed at me to sit back like a lady, but Grandpa whispered something to Deanna that made her eyes pop out, and I nudged her until she told me what he said.
She cupped her hand to my left ear and said, “He said, if I lean over too far, I’ll fall down and people will see my underpants!”
I frowned, but before this information could sink in, Grandpa leaned across Deanna and said to me in a Homer Simpson whisper-that-wasn’t-a-whisper, “If you drop a hymnal over the edge, you’ll hit someone on the head and kill ‘em!”
By then, Grandma had heard enough of these shenanigans and hissed, “Irvin!” He leaned back in his seat, but he had a tight-lipped smile that showed up as many small crinkles around his eyes. He patted Deanna lightly on the leg and winked at me which meant everything was okay.