We called him Papolie. It was simply what we called him, us, the young ones. The little ones. The third generation that had sprung from his loins. They didn’t bother to correct us, he was Papa Willie. Mr William Jacobs.
He was our great grandfather, he was old. Older than old, he was the beginning of time as far as we knew. Because there was no one older than he in our surroundings, and nobody told us about where or who had spawned him. But we were the fruit of the trees that had sprung from the trees he had planted. He was Papolie and we, the young ones had to respect him.
We knew him as the drunken man, who’s senility only let him float in and out of our reality. You see, there were days when he knew us, days when he would greet us warmly and robustly. Then there were days when he looked at my mother and saw Mem’ his wife, long gone to the here after before him. On those days we would here in real time how they interacted, how he spoke to her and how she would respond to him. We would get a sense of the women he had married. A strong woman, a determined woman, the kind of woman who tamed the world around her by the force of her will. The kind of woman who had tamed him in his prime. She was legend.
She was the mother of the old ones, the one who had raised and tamed and loved and whooped the leathery skinned juggernauts whom even our mighty parents dared not challenge. Let alone us? The children or the children of the day.
But those days were also the days when he let himself be taken, by the drink. And we were never sure, us children, if his delusions were just because he was old, and that was what old people did. Being from the time before time and all, or if they were the kind that the rum bought. We weren’t sure if the stories he told, heavily scented by rum were real. They were so fantastic.
Stories of great locomotives and village matters not for childish ears. But still ones that anyone worth their salt would want to hear. He spoke of his daughters and sons and their shenanigans. Them, the old ones, our parents’ parents could never do the things he said, not when we would face a tongue lashing then a real one if we ever dared. His stories could not have been truth, stories of ghosts and Jack-o-lantan , of Sukuna and Jables doing battle with this man in his youth, in the late of night in the time before electrical lights to guide his way home. Him and his donkey after a hard day in his fields. What seems like half a world away, a few villages over.
We knew it was pride in his eyes on his clear days when he looked at us though. He told us as much. He told us tales of the people we would become. He infused us with his hopes, and his dreams. All built on his understanding of the difference between then and now. He saw us with the opportunities hard won by the sweat of his brows, and praised in us the manners, and ingenuity he had sowed into the ones he had fathered directly.
He was Papolie, and a woman of 31 looks back at her 8 year old self and wishes she had listened more closely to his account of how things had been. Listen and heard about the late night adventures, about the legend of Mem, about the Old ones who had be born just after the beginning of time as I knew it. I wish I had taken to heart his hopes and understood that his prophesies came not from the bottom of a bottle, but from the knowledge of watching the three generations before me grow and evolve, watching then thrive, and become a foundation that if I chose to, I could build on.
I wonder what Papolie, Papa Willie, Mr. William Jacobs would say to the times I face. I wonder if he would think that his sweat had been well spent. I wonder if time had given him more than his 97 years if he would look about at his great family, or what’s left of it and still feel proud and hopeful. I wonder what he would think of me, and my little tribe. I think some days I miss Papolie, what little there is of him left in the memory of an 8 year old girl.
Amazing the things we remember. And a wonder why this specter of my youth would come to haunt me now. Do you have an old one? Did you know well enough to cherish them when you had the chance? What were they like? What did they teach you?