When I was kid growing up in southern Guilford County, North Carolina, going to Grandma and Grandpa’s house was an event. Ir didn’t matter that we went all the time or that they lived just up the road; their place was a different world. My family lived in a rather plain jane, brick ranch with the requisite 3 bedrooms and 2 baths (actually 1 and half baths) situated on a half-acre of land. We had the occasional dog, plenty of woods to play in, but that was about it. We did have a garden and while I liked to eat what came out of it, it didn’t hold any further interest for me.
Grandma and Grandpa, however, lived on 15 acres with a cow, some chickens, tons places to explore and it was absolute heaven for a seven-year old boy. There were always cousins around, so we never lacked for company. Grandma was the most amazing cook that ever walked on God’s earth and the aroma that came from her kitchen is what Heaven smells like. She would lay out a spread for dinner that I swear made the table groan under its weight and every morsel was delicious. But as much as I loved Grandma and her dinners, my favorite thing was hanging around with Grandpa.
He had retired from Cone Mills right about the time I was born, but he wasn’t the kind of person to sit around and get old. He was always doing something, usually working on someone’s lawnmower. And, I was his Number One helper. Not too long after I could walk and talk, I could point out the parts on a Briggs and Stratton engine, tell you how to change the points and condenser and get you the right tools to do the job. He took me with him when he ran errands and I followed him everywhere. To the storage room beside the garage, to the barn and the shed where his garden tractor was stored (which was quite an adventure when he had a cow. Inevitably, I’d step in something nasty). We also spent a lot of time in the freezer house. The freezer house was a small cinder block building right next to the spring and it held, of all things, the freezer. It was where Grandma kept all the things from the garden she had canned. Grandpa never threw anything away, so it was also full or tools, gadgets; even a chicken brooder. But, one memory about this spot stands out above the rest; it was where Grandpa went to sing.
My grandfather loved music. He loved listening and he loved singing. If he had played an instrument, he would have loved that too. Not just any music, though. He loved gospel music. His mother, known to my great-grandfather as “The Madam” and to everyone else as Grandma Steele, was a formidable woman who went at everything she did with a vengeance. Salvation was no different. Some of that must have rubbed off on Grandpa, because he was always very intent about his faith. About the only music I ever heard him listen to that wasn’t a sacred song was on TV; he did enjoy Lawrence Welk. But, he never sang anything but gospel music. He spent many an hour down in the freezer house, just him and his tape recorder. He sang in the choir and maybe some of his recording was to help him learn new songs. Maybe he just wanted to hear what he sounded like; I don’t know. His favorite song was “Keep on the Sunnyside” by the Carter Family, but I don’t remember him singing that one. One I do remember is “His Eye is on the Sparrow”. I can’t listen to that song anymore; it’s Grandpa’s and no one else can do it justice.
We lost Grandpa to cancer about 35 years ago and I still miss him. If he were here, I doubt we’d be having any deep theological conversations; my beliefs about following Jesus are a little different from his. But, if there was ever a man on this earth that loved God more than James Ronald Steele, I’ve never met him. And, to be honest, I don’t expect I will.