It’s hard to believe my grandfather died more than 30 years ago. I was 18; he was 77. In middle age I have come to realize how quickly the characters of our lives recede from memory if their details aren’t jotted down somewhere. Here is a character I wish to remember, and one I wish for my sons and their children to meet.
Pop and me, during a family trip to South Padre Island c. 1977
Some knew him as Horace, others as Harold, some as H.H., and his younger brother, simply as “Brother.” My brothers and cousins and I knew him as “Pop.”
Pop stood an inch or two over six feet. “Rawboned” describes his frame well. He had big hands and feet, boney elbows. I don’t remember him ever wearing anything but size 13 Hush Puppies, and usually a one-piece khaki work outfit, stained with smudges of wood glue or varnish. In many ways — his height, his frame, his round-shouldered posture, his high hairline and straight, silver, combed-back hair, his raspy tenor voice and old-Texas cadence — he resembled the resident of the White House during the year of my birth, Lyndon Johnson, ranch version.
He had light blue eyes that turned down at the outer edges in a way that made his face default to a gentle, friendly expression. I now realize after discovering older family photos that he inherited those blue eyes from his grandmother, whose Irish parents had given them to her. He wore gold-framed aviator glasses when I knew him. Meaty jaws rendered his face oval. He had a thick, proud nose the shape of which I’ve never seen exactly on anyone else, and he had no visible lips, just a short slit below the nose. His forehead looked as if someone had pinged it a half-dozen times with a hammer, dented from some horrible Medieval operation he had had as a boy to remove cysts.
Horace Harold Seale was born farther west than anyone else in my family before him or since — Uvalde, Texas, 1907. His father, Horace Bradford Seale, was a grocer, and, still susceptible to the pioneers’ wanderlust, had moved out there to try to make a go of it. But he extended credit to too many neighbors who never paid up. He went bust and they retreated back to East Texas, where my grandfather grew up near his mother’s family, the Brownings, in Athens.
In the 1930s
After marrying my grandmother, who had their first three children, including my father, in Athens, he moved the family to the big city — Fort Worth. But a cousin of his had moved down to the Rio Grande Valley to farm in Cameron County, and on visits, Pop had liked what he’d seen. The area’s agriculture was all well and good — endless fields of cabbage and onions and sorghum and cotton and especially citrus. But what really got his attention was the fishing.
When my dad reached high school, Pop bought a few acres near the small town of La Feria, built a modest but comfortable house on it, and moved the family to the border. Part of the reason for the move to this unfamiliar region was, again, the pioneer’s imperative he carried in his blood — to do what his great-grandfather had done in 1835: move to the very edge of the English-speaking world and make his fortune as a farmer. His father had failed in his push to the west; maybe he could push to the south. He bought a tractor and planted lemon trees. By the time I came along, the tractor was a rusting hulk that sat behind their house, a novelty my brothers and I would climb on. The farming never took off, but the fishing did.
And so he fell back on the trade he had learned in Fort Worth, repairing air conditioners and refrigerators, and kept right on fishing the flats of South Padre’s Laguna Madre and the brackish mouth of the Arroyo Colorado. He took me fishing alone on several memorable trips. We stayed up past midnight on the muddy banks of the Arroyo, shouting to each other over the roar of the gas-powered generator that ran the flood lights that lured the specks and catfish in. We waded the sandy flats of the Laguna Madre. His 6’2″ frame never looked bigger than when we stopped so he could pop a nitroglycerin tablet to calm his angina, and I, at perhaps 11, pondered the prospect of dragging him a thousand yards back to shore.
In La Feria he would live out his days, and in that pale green house surrounded by palm trees and bougainvilleas and mesquites, we would visit him and my grandmother, whom we called “Nannah,” in the Southern tradition, one Sunday a month, with them making the drive to McAllen to see us as often. Watching him pull up in our driveway and unpacking his big frame from their red VW Bug was something just short of a circus act. I remember him jangling his keys and change in the deep pockets of his high-waisted pants when he would enter our house, excited to see us but unsure what to do with his big bony hands. As soon as we boys would move in for a hug, he would seize us with those massive claws and tickle us mercilessly, his smiling eyes beaming a pseudo-sadistic ecstasy.
Pop displaying the real reason he moved the family to South Texas,
with a red drum and a speckled trout, pipe tucked in shirt pocket.
About those glue-stained coveralls, Pop was a master carpenter, and after retiring from a long career as an air-conditioner and refrigerator repairman, he spent thousands of hours in a cinderblock detached garage that he had built as a shop and that sat on the corner of his property a few feet off the access road of Exp. 83. There he built and refurbished furniture under the name “Sealecraft.” For a long time, I thought that had been his lifelong job, but it was just a sideline and a way to bring in a little spending money in retirement so that he and Nannah could afford long road trips — Nova Scotia, Yosemite — in the Chevy van customized by him for camping.
Pop was especially good at turning, and I inherited a few of his pieces that preserve his lathe-smanship — four candlesticks and a nice little three-legged side table that resides in my son’s room
I spent many hours with him in that shop, not so much watching him work — or I would have learned more — as working in parallel. When the garage door went up, the smell of saw dust and stain and varnish wafted out to us. Inside, the concrete floor of the shop held a table saw, drill press, table sander, a tall workbench with a heavy vice, a lathe, bench-mounted miter box, and my favorite, the band saw. To this day, I could diagram the entire shop floor placing each tool within a couple of feet of its actual station. In the darkened southwest corner stood an unenclosed toilet that no longer worked.
In the northwest corner of the shop stood a large three-tiered lumber rack, and on the floor beneath it, a cardboard refrigerator box laid on its side with the top cut off to hold scraps. The rule was that I could use anything I found in that box to build with. I still have two pieces, a ship and box that I made to hold my beloved Chronicles of Narnia set. Many times, perhaps every time, I was left to work in the shop on my own, I pushed too hard or twisted the work to quickly and snapped his bandsaw blade. Sheepishly, I’d slink into the house to inform him I’d broken the blade. With straight-faced resignation and admirable self control, he’d rise from his recliner, take his leave from Notre Dame vs. Stanford or Dallas vs. Washington, and walk with me out to the shop to put on a new blade.
Two of my particle board scrap masterpieces that have survived the years
Pop watched a lot of football. But he was a reader too. I remember a copy of Michener’s Centennial sitting on the little side-table that held his pipe and ash tray next to his recliner.
He enjoyed telling stories and his cadence and accent make me think that his was the closest to an “old Texas” voice I will ever hear. His exclamations always started with “Why ….” as in, “Why, that dog comes over and starts lickin’ me like he’s known me all my life.” That was another thing — stories were always told in the present tense.
He was born to another time, and that came out now and then, like with the “Why …” or when he called pants “britches” or “trousers.” Other terminology marked the different eras too. Mexican-Americans were “Mexicans” — although in his defense, living only 10 miles from the Rio Grande, often they were in fact Mexicans. African-Americans were cringe-inducing “nigroes.” When I consider that his own grandfather owned slaves, his occasional linguistic shortcuts and shortcomings grow less remarkable, and I appreciate the cultural distance traveled in only two generations. Though I was not a sophisticated observer, I never detected any philosophy in him but live-and-let-live.
Every time we ate at Nannah’s and Pop’s, Pop led grace before we ate, and it was the exact same prayer each and every time. It was heartfelt, but one prayer was identical to the next, both in the text and the inflection. It went:
“Heavenly Father, accept our thanks for these and all thy blessings. Bless this food to the nourishment of our bodies and our hands to Thy service. Pardon our sins and save us. In Christ’s name we pray, Amen”
Nannah was the cook of the family, but when Pop was left to his own devices, he was known to get two pieces of bread, spread them with mayonnaise, then get out a brisket or a ham, trim the fat off the meat, and put the fat on the sandwich and the meat back in the fridge.
Like almost everyone in mid-century, he had smoked cigarettes earlier in life, but he had switched to a pipe by the time we came around. The sweet smell of pipe smoke takes me directly back to that time and place. He died of lung cancer in May 1984.
When I think of Pop, I smell sawdust and pipe smoke. I hear keys jingling in deep pockets, the roar of a table saw or of a light plant generator, and Pat Summerall 30 percent too loud. I feel his enormous, gnarled hands mercilessly digging at my ribs. I see his index finger rubbing glue over a dowel and hear him explaining to me that you have to let it get tacky before you put it together with the other piece. I see his size 13 Hush Puppies, and his blue-gray smiling eyes.