I was a little girl absolutely in love with her granddaddy. He was a mahogany-complexioned man with high, rounded cheekbones and an ornery smile that, in his hep cat youth, had been accented by an absurdly shiny gold tooth. His easy, heh-heh-heh laugh made the rounded belly he’d sprouted by the time he became my grandfather surge underneath his signature plaid, button-down shirts. His tall frame seemed to stretch so high that I had to tilt my chin up to take him all in. He loved boxing, family barbecues and Charlie Parker. He was average and amazing at the same time.
In his life, Wayman Harris, Sr., had been a decorated World War II veteran, an amateur saxophone player, a steelworker, a father of five and, by the time I came along, a loving and dutiful husband for more than 30 years. I am the fifth of the seven grandchildren that he and my Nana fussed over and doted on. My mama says she can only remember seeing my granddaddy cry two times: once at the funeral for his closest sister, in both age and emotional ties, and once when he got misty-eyed talking about how proud he was of me. I regularly return the sentiment.
My cousins tease me about being my grandparents’ favorite and as much as it makes me feel more than a little guilty and awkward, it’s probably true. I can’t explain why except that we just really enjoyed spending time together and we loved extra hard on one another, collectively and individually. Like all great love affairs, my granddaddy and I had a special song, which was Willis Jackson’s “Gatorade.” I haven’t heard it with my ears in decades, but I can call up the melody on demand inside my head. It was an uptempo jazz tune and whenever it cut on, Granddaddy would get to jiggin’ like I’m sure he did back when he was trying to get the attention of the gorgeous young thang who would ultimately become his wife.
I love the story of them and the characters they were. Nana, the super-shy, super-sheltered church girl whose first major act of rebellion was to sneak into a backwoods schoolhouse-turned-juke joint, only to be so paralyzed by fear and introversion that she couldn’t do anything but hold up the bar and gawk into her glass of pop. Granddaddy, the funny, boisterous, slightly tipsy life of the party who sidled up to her with what could’ve probably been his smoothest come-on yet if he hadn’t fallen off his bar stool and splattered himself across the floor behind him. Fortunately for the offspring of this African-American love story, he redeemed himself and his cool.
Historically, my grandfather wasn’t the first to do anything. He didn’t make it into anybody’s history book and if you Google his name, you won’t be wowed by any well-documented milestone or accomplishment. He didn’t march, he didn’t sit in, he didn’t invent anything, he didn’t make speeches. But he’s a piece of my Black history. He was a man who adored his family so much he worked 8, 10, sometimes 12-hour, manual labor-filled days to provide for them. He built a house, literally from the ground up, that still stands some 60 years later as a monument to his craftsmanship and intelligence, even though he didn’t finish high school. He listened to every story I plunked out as a kid, ran with one hand under the seat of my wobbly two-wheeler and didn’t scold me when I flashed him and his friends in my excitement to show off my first training bra. Good man, that grandfather of mine.
Last summer, a guy I was dating told me he had something for me. I was hype—I love surprises anyway—but when I opened the box, I boo-hoo hollered. He bought me an album copy of “Gatorade,” easily the most beautifully thoughtful gift anyone has ever given me. I couldn’t show it to my favorite dance partner. He went on to be with the Lord when I was 11, just as I stepped into preteen-dom. Seems like a long time ago chronologically but emotionally, his memory is bright and vivid and alive. If I sit still, I can hear the change jingling in his pocket as he camel-walked and jitterbugged across the hardwood dining room floor. Without a lot of instruction and hoopla, my grandfather gave me Black pride by example. He made me proud to be a Harris, proud of the community he held in such high esteem and proud to be the granddaughter of a man who, just by being himself, demonstrated the qualities I admire in our most venerated historical figures and leaders. He just makes me proud period.