Learning What Matters
By Terry Jones
I stood on the lawn outside the kitchen door and listened to the voices that chopped through the air inside the crowded house on Kaviland Ave.. Those singular and familiar voices of relatives and friends who made up that Sunday’s company at the Jones house—-there was, to my memory, always company at the Jones house on Sundays afternoons, with Papa at his usual seat of honor on one side of the porcelain-topped table, and Uncle Ed and Aunt Ann, Hylton and Alma, sometimes my parents—-always an odd collection of others who Papa brought into his house during the Depression, and never seemed to spot a door long enough to leave!
On this day I could hear Aunt Ann’s sharp and husky voice seeping through the house walls, and telling one of her off-color jokes to the eager audience still dressed up in their Sunday best. I couldn’t make out the words, and I’m sure I wasn’t supposed to, because this was the only time of the day that a person could hear our grandmother’s voice as she pierced the roaring laughter of the crowd, and always with the same admonition: “Oh, Charlie! Get your mind out of the gutter!” And then she was silent again, as Papa’s long and undulating laugh rattled the knick-knacks on the shelf above. Nanny was already back in her place by the stove, when the oversized crowd would pretend to muffle their laughter, and Aunt Ann grimaced in her coy way of “just knowing things.” Uncle Ed, in the latter half of his sixties, could be seen beaming with pride at his handsome and clever new bride.
After dinner on Sunday nights the entire Jones brood would gather outside on the lawn to play a game of croquet—a tradition as long as I could remember. Papa Jones was King and Master of croquet, his favorite sport. He could hit a ball from one end of the yard to another, smiling with glee as he teased his favorite players by knocking them out of bounds, his own croquet ball always sailing through the wickets unimpaired. It was much like watching Minnesota Fats clear the billiard table without ever letting his opponent have a single turn at play.
And that’s what found me outdoors instead of inside the kitchen on that particular Sunday. It was my time to practice croquet, so I could learn to be a good as Papa——someday. After last week’s game, Papa, railroad man that he was, had suspended his blue streak of curses long enough to show me how to swing a mallet, and instructed me to practice if I wanted to get as good as he was. Outside, I went, then, long before the crowd would leave the kitchen to start that week’s game, and found the croquet set in its place under the patio eaves. I was proud to be following my Papa’s advice, and selected the green mallet to be my practice tool.
Sure, I was proud of myself. As others gossiped inside the house, I was out on the lawn——swing, swing, swing, just like Papa showed me. Swing, swing, swat! Distracted as only a five year old can be, I had stopped concentrating on my technique just long enough for the mallet to hit the ground, and—–oh-my-god-I’m-going-to-hell—-it broke. Suddenly not so proud of myself, I could not imagine being the one who broke one of Papa’s favorite toys. I wanted to die rather than face the temper that I had heard unleash itself on little, tiny, petty things. Things like the car not starting, or a glass of spilled juice. Never before had I been the doer of the deed and the one responsible for the anger and rage that I knew would be coming my way. My heart pounded so fast, I didn’t know if I could survive the punishment for my carelessness. Scared to death, scared to death, scared to death! This was worse than a mortal sin.
Little man that I was, I remember looking up and into the vast blue sky. Indigent birds were lined up on the telephone wires suspended above, and I was quick to remember that this enormous and all powerful man, my grandfather Papa, also had a son……someone with a lifetime of experience in facing troublesome situations with my Papa, and was still alive, which was no small thing to me at that moment in time. I speak, of course, of my father, Keith, and was probing my imagination for what my dad would have done if he were the one standing outside Papa’s door with Papa’s million dollar croquet mallet which he used in the “game” to show no mercy to anyone. My mind raced through a thousand tiny incidences between my father and me, and I hastened to conclude that my only chance was to get to him first, and then let him handle the temper of the raging dragon who as yet was uninformed about my transgression. But I stopped short of acting on this, for my own father had told me stories of his childhood, and how the only thing that really mattered to Papa when my father did something bad was that his children told him the truth. Like George Washington with the cherry tree, Papa’s children were safe from harm and slow to be punished when they were the first to tell him the truth.
You can imagine how I felt as these words of my own father echoed through my mind, and wouldn’t let go. Even so, I simply could not picture myself holding this broken treasure in my hand, and telling Papa what I had done. I could not picture it, and I just wanted to run away, or maybe hide. Instead, I waited for what seemed like forever just outside the kitchen door, and blanked my mind as best I could. Finally, the door to the house opened and out stepped my grandfather, Papa Jones. No sooner had he taken the one step down to the grass than he looked over at me standing there with the croquet mallet. Before he could speak, I remember saying upward to the hat that he always wore when outside: “I broke it!” and handed the old man the evidence of my guilt. I’m sure I said something more and tried to explain how the mallet came to be broken, but it is now far too long ago to remember such trivia. The communication that I do remember, and has rested in my heart throughout my entire life since, was the silent kindness in his eyes as he looked to where I stood and said with a smile, “Well, we’ll have to ask your Uncle Ed to fix it.” And then he continued his trek across the lawn and to the driveway, where he started the car and drove away.
I remember as well my first feeling of disbelief at not being punished, and then the kindness in my grandfather’s eyes—the first time I felt his undeniable love for me in my happenstance of pain and indescribable fear. As he walked away, my mind and body seemed to stretch in height at least five inches or more, and I felt a surge of self-respect and perhaps my first awareness that the Joneses were a good family to belong to. And then, of course, that my father was a pretty smart man. Later that day I spotted the once-broken mallet standing tall among the others with only a slight blemish of black tape along the handle. It seemed to me that everyone loved me. And for my part, I had learned the lesson of a lifetime.
Later in life I was a school administrator, and required by my profession to attend weekly school board meetings. I remember a particular man who was a retired high school Speech teacher, only to become a self-described “board watcher.” His complaints about district matters during public communications became legion. After several years of doing nothing about this, the school board brain-stormed ways to win him over, and their first strategy was to invite him to give the board a workshop on “speaking in public.”
I attended the workshop, as I did all board meetings, and remember hearing from this effective troublemaker (my description) his number one rule for elected officials when speaking to members of the public. “Always tell the truth,” he preached in his most didactic tone of voice, “it is disarming to anyone with a personal agenda.” I had to chuckle as I thought of my long-ago childhood experience with the broken croquet mallet. “Of course, I thought,” and for a brief moment I saw my white-haired grandfather with a third grade education standing there at the podium, teaching what matters most whoever we are.