Paul Prather

Insight: It takes one to know one

I thank all of you who have e-mailed or sent cards to congratulate me on the birth of my granddaughter, Harper. She and her mom and dad are doing fine.

A lot of the folks who've written me are grandparents themselves. Many are under the impression (explicitly stated) that their grandbabies are the most beautiful kids on earth. They're mistaken, obviously.

But I appreciate how they could feel that way.

Since Nov. 3, I've discovered a previously untapped dimension of my personality. I can sit and hold Harper for an hour, even two hours, and never get bored. I just gaze at her and grin like a fool.

Every time she yawns or stretches or blinks, I turn to whoever's nearby and say, "Look! Did you see that? Is that precious or what?"

Becoming a grandfather has got me reminiscing about my own grandfathers, Oscar Chestnut and Fred Prather, both of whom lived in Pulaski County, both of whom have been dead a long time.

Papa Chestnut, for instance, was a farmer in the Oak Hill community. When I was a small boy, the clapboard house he and my grandmother lived in still didn't have an indoor bathroom or central heat.

One winter, my parents and I traveled to the farm in the midst of a blizzard. It must have been around Christmas, because otherwise we wouldn't have been making the journey from Berea, where we lived then, through weather like that.

I was 4 or 5 years old.

My dad had put chains on our car's tires, but we got bogged down anyway in the rough, narrow lane that led to Papa's house. We were stuck for quite a while.

I pulled off a mitten so I could grip my cap pistol. Against my mother's protests, I clambered out of the car to tromp around in snow that reached to my knees.

Papa and my dad tried to rock the car loose. They dug around the wheels with shovels. As they labored, they expelled puffs of steam from their mouths. Snowflakes stuck to their caps and coats. They debated whether to tow the car out with Papa's tractor.

"I'll shoot the snow off the tires," I said, waving my six-gun.

Papa leaned on his shovel. "Give her a try, cowpoke. It sure beats this digging."

That night, my mother tucked me into a feather bed. The pillowcase and sheets were cold, but the down mattress enveloped me. Mom covered me with several homemade quilts. The whole bed smelled musty. My parents climbed into another bed in the same room. In minutes, I was snug and sound asleep.

I was awakened in the dark by a shuffling sound, someone moving. I raised my head and felt the room's frigid air nip my ears.

I saw Papa, in silhouette, on one knee before the fireplace, which had nearly burned out. He dropped chunks of coal onto the grate, then jabbed the coal with a poker. Sparks raced up the chimney. He added more coal. In moments, the fire roared red and yellow. Strange shadows danced off the walls.

The last thing I saw before my eyes closed again was him still crouched by the fireplace, guarding the blaze.

The next morning, my parents, my grandparents and I sat down at a claw-foot table to the huge farmer's breakfast my grandmother fixed every day: eggs and sausage and biscuits and gravy and coffee and tall glasses of milk from Papa's cows. The milk had bits of cream floating on it. A coal-burning stove warmed the kitchen.

"Papa, I saw you in our room last night," I said.

"He was building the fire," my mom said.

"I know. Why did you do that?"

Papa ladled gravy onto his biscuits. "I got to thinking that you're a town boy, and you're used to a house with a good furnace. I was afraid you'd get cold. Maybe get sick."

He said this casually, offhandedly. We went on with our breakfast.

As far as I can recall, nobody ever mentioned this tiny incident again.

It puzzled me, though. I knew how cold it was in that old house in the middle of the night. I knew I'd been toasty in my feather bed and that, across the room, my parents had been equally cozy in theirs. They hadn't gotten up to stoke the fire.

But Papa had. He'd interrupted his sleep, left his own warm bed and felt his way down a frigid, black hall. For me.

That image of him kneeling by the fireplace remains with me nearly a half-century later.

Now that I'm a grandfather myself, I finally understand why he was there.