Why you should care
Because languages of meaning and emotion are dying out with our elders.
OZY was first to this story, putting you ahead of the curve. View More OZY Originals
It was the summer of 1969 in Hemphill, Texas, population … unknown. The Hamilton family came together for the weekend of July 4, as we did most summers; we would listen to music while our aunts and uncles carried on and gyrated to the songs of old. Our surroundings: a shotgun shack, seven wild hogs, two cows and a jackass — and red dirt everywhere. My grandfather had an old Chevy truck — beat-up, but it ran tough as the Texas soil.
That’s how I remember my grandfather, amid all those relatives, talking up a storm and living as the center of attention. Even from an early age, I loved listening to my elders carry on. Most of the elders I knew coming up never had a verbal filter; only sleep could prevent them from saying what was on their mind. And my grandfather — he was the master of unadulterated one-liners. We all called him Daddy Elgin, and he had what our parents called the gift of gab. Those lines stuck with me, some of them embellishments on stuff you’d heard before, others entirely his own. There were lessons and chastisements and nuggets of wisdom: “Be proud of who you are no matter how dark you get, because the blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice.” Or “What’s done in the dark will one day come to light.” Or “Don’t act like I won’t come over there and show you that a hit dog will holler.” When he saw folks standing around, waiting impatiently for dinner to be cooked, he’d say, “A watched pot will never boil — it’s best y’all leave that pot be and find you something to do.”
People applauded him, even over the stuff they’d heard before. When he had your attention, Daddy Elgin would take off and say one after the other. Daddy Elgin stood about 6-foot-4; he was a big teddy bear who loved to hear himself speak. And he never turned off the quips. Even when you thought he was sleeping in his rocking chair to the left side of the porch, which sat shaded by the old oak tree. “Don’t think I’m asleep; don’t ya think I’m asleep,” he’d call out. “’cause every shut eye ain’t sleep.”
He chastised everyone, young or old; he just had that authority. Like when he looked at my father and said, “Son, I brought you into this world and I can take you out.” He had long, winding advice about finance and parenting all at once: “A penny saved is a penny earned, and quit grabbing that boy by the arm, treating him like he’s a baby — let him grow up … ’cause the more he cries the less he will pee.” He wasn’t afraid to embarrass my daddy in front of me. “Anthony, look at your daddy, Chester, over there — thinks he smart, running his mouth, talking loud and ain’t sayin’ nothing. He ain’t learned yet that you can’t always let your right hand know what your left hand is doing.”
He told us to stay away from my showboat uncle, the one all the kids were drawn to. Daddy Elgin warned: “All y’all get off from around that boy — he ain’t nothing but a big old show off. One day y’all gon’ learn that all that glitters ain’t gold.” Or his thoughts on my Uncle Curtis, who wasn’t much Daddy Elgin’s favorite: “You ain’t gon’ learn nothing being around that boy,” he’d say dismissively, “because an empty wagon makes a whole lot of noise.” Or Uncle Donald Ray, who he wasn’t afraid to dub “the black sheep of the family”: “He’s blind in one eye and can’t see out the other.” In the end though, he was all loyal to the family, “’cause blood is thicker than mud.”
And he had my back, always. He would say, “Come here child, what you crying for? You look like you caught between a rock and a hard place. Speak up and tell me what you thinking, ’cause a closed mouth won’t get fed.” He wanted to protect me from my mama: “She ain’t gon’ do nothing to you as long as you’re by me ’cause I will give her a cold shoulder, and come hell or high water … I will protect you.” And that was really the bottom line.