I was nineteen when I first visited Tennessee, and I felt simultaneously as if I were stepping back into my childhood small-town upbringing and into another world, fifty years past due. Bruce and I drove the twenty-four hours in one stretch under gray Kansas skies, down interstates with gas stations still boasting 99-cent gallons of gas, and through the winding hills of the Smokies east of Nashville.
We went the back way into town, and I remember how excited he was to show me, though it was a dark December night, the Four Corners mart where he’d ridden his bike to on every day of his childhood, the small elementary school, the tiny post office, the grandiose Baptist church, and the cotton rope mill where his father and his grandfather had spent their entire adult lives tirelessly working.
His parents lived in a modest home with the most spectacular view of a golf course and the Smokies, and just like everyone who had worked for the mill for nearly a century, they paid nearly nothing for rent and were allowed to stay there until the day they died.
That little house has rested upon its hill unoccupied for the past two years, its only residents the quilts, pie safes, furniture, photo albums, mementos, and memories of a marriage that lasted fifty-six years and produced four children and seven grandchildren. For the past two years, Don’s eldest, his beloved Donna, has tirelessly committed her life to his care as his mind slipped and his heart broke after losing his wife and the mother of his children.
When I first met Don, or Pappy as everyone was already calling him, he gave me a big hug and welcomed me to the family even though Bruce and I had only been dating for four months. The morning after we arrived, we drove to another town to have breakfast in a small diner. Nanny, Pappy, Aunt June, Bruce and I all piled into Nanny’s van and drove through rounds of curvy roads before settling ourselves into an oval table at the back of the restaurant. When the waitress came, people began ordering the typical southern delights: biscuits and gravy, bacon and eggs, grits salted and buttered, pancakes stacked high.
I ordered one of my favorites, French toast, and Pappy lifted his gray, bushy eyebrows over his metal-framed glasses, his blue eyes twinkling. “I was hoping somebody was gonna order that,” he grinned.
As Bruce suppressed a chuckle, I wondered if there was something special about the French toast at that place. When the food came and Pappy began to dig into his grits, he held up his fork and said, “Gimme one of them pieces of French toast,” in a jovial, but adamant, tone.
“Well I guess you’re part of the family now for sure,” Aunt June joked. “Once Pappy wants something off your plate, he considers you one of his own.”
The next morning, on Christmas Eve, Bruce proposed to me to make it official. We spent that evening in Pappy’s childhood church for the candlelight Christmas Eve ceremony, where everyone from the small town of Rockford seemed to know Pappy, who proudly introduced his airmen youngest, “here all the way from Colorado,” and his new fiancee. I think it must have been half an hour before we even sat down because Pappy knew and loved everyone, and he was so damn proud of his baby joining the military and coming home for Christmas. The congregation flocked around the deacon and his family, cooing over his young granddaughters, praising Pappy for raising such a beautiful family, and he beamed, offering hugs and handshakes and goodwill.
Over the twenty years of our marriage, in every interaction I had with my father-in-law, I never heard a cruel word come out of his mouth. He had a quiet humor, a loving heart, and an unmatched generosity. He and Nanny helped the people in their town, the people at their church, and their children and grandchildren, any time any of us ever needed anything.
“You were going to have a baby at home and you had to go to the hospital and are suddenly faced with a bill you can’t afford?” The check was in the mail before we even brought our youngest home. Whether they had the means or not, with their simple existence and Pappy’s tireless work, they found a way to help others.
Pappy worked at that cotton mill for over forty years. He came home every night and had to “use the bathroom” with his magazines and chewing tobacco. He then settled in to watch whatever sport was playing that season, running the television on mute while he listened to the small wireless radio that he claimed had “much more accurate sportscasters.” He read the whole set of newspapers from all the localities through and through. He played bluegrass music, George Strait, and Alan Jackson when he tired of the sports. And just as he always had, he went to work for all but the weeks of Christmas and Fourth of July, the two weeks out of the year that the mill would shut down to give their employees a break.
That is, until Isabella was born. His fourth granddaughter, all the way in Colorado, inspired him to take a week off of work in May so he and Nanny could fly out and cover the gap between the end of my maternity leave and the end of the school year.
“You know this grandbaby is awful special if she got Pappy to take off work,” Nanny cooed as she held her. “I don’t believe there’s ever been a time he’s done that.”
Pappy LOVED babies. He loved coddling them, feeding them, gurgling over their tiny fat faces. He and Nanny spent a week traveling around Colorado with Bruce and Isabella, just three months old at the time, visiting Rocky Mountain National Park, the Garden of the Gods, the city of Denver. Pappy sat in the back comforting Isabella if she ever got fussy, only commenting with, “She lost her fooler, where’s her fooler?” teaching me another southern colloquialism I’d never heard before that first trip to Tennessee.
“It takes an awful good baby to do all this driving without so much as a fuss,” Pappy pointed out. “You got you a good little girl in this one.”
The years went by, and we continued to make our twenty-four-hour treks to Tennessee, where Pappy and Nanny would spoil us with dinners out, endless toys and clothes for our children, hugs and love.
One Christmas, we discovered surprising news just before we made our trip. I couldn’t quite think of how to share the news with Bruce’s family who gathered at the Vittetoe home for their annual Christmas Eve celebration, where we played dirty bingo and then opened all the family gifts before Santa would come and leave unwrapped presents under the tree for the next morning.
Finally, when all the gifts had been opened and we were running out of time before Bruce’s siblings, nieces and nephew were to leave, I told Bruce to find a bun and put it inside the oven. Bruce searched the whole kitchen snack area that was filled with all kinds of cookies, chips, and breads that Pappy loved to munch on, but he could only find a roll. He put it in the oven and told everyone to go into the kitchen.
“OK, I have one last gift to give you all this Christmas,” I announced as they curiously gawked at me, wondering why on earth we were standing in the kitchen. “Pappy, will you open the oven?”
Pappy bent over and stared at the small roll in the center of the rack. “Is this a preview of the dinner you’re fixing tomorrow?” Nanny wondered as he pulled it out, perplexed.
“Well, it was supposed to be a bun,” Bruce chimed in.
Pappy didn’t waste one second. His blue eyes lit up with joy as he walked across the kitchen and wrapped me in a bear hug. “Another baby! Well, what wonderful news… Now that you’re having three, you know how babies are made, right? So this is the last one, right?” He joked.
He always knew just what to say. He always knew just how far he could go with a joke, with a comment, with a piece of advice. He never thought of himself; he always thought of everyone else in his life first.
Even with his name. After fathering two boys, each of which Ann had wanted to name after him, he insisted that his name wouldn’t be carried on because he didn’t want anyone to ever have to go by Junior or Donny.
It wasn’t until many years later, when the baby, the last baby, made his entrance into the world, that Pappy lost his name battle. Ann went to the hospital and pushed out a nine-pound, blue-eyed, perfect little boy who looked just like his father, just before his father could arrive at the hospital.
When Don entered the room to meet his newest son, Ann looked up at him and said, “His name is Donald Bruce Vittetoe the II, not junior, and we’re calling him Bruce.”
And so my husband, the eighteen-years-after-the-firstborn baby, became his father’s namesake. My husband, the kindest, most caring, quietest human I have ever met, was named after the father who shared those same traits. Named after the hardworking man whose joy was found in the simple pleasures of spoiling his pets and grandchildren, of giving himself to others, of living to please.
When I first visited Tennessee, I entered a bygone era–one of chivalry, simplicity, and a lifetime commitment to a home, a job, a church, a family. This was the world of my father-in-law, Donald Bruce Vittetoe. A world I came to love as we moved from flatlands to green hills, as we barbecued in Cades Cove and on the back patio, as the twangy steel guitars and banjos peppered his southern drawl, as he shared his love with me from the moment we first met.
This was Pappy’s world. The Smoky Mountains, the cotton mill, the steadfastness of working, loving, giving.
When I first visited Tennessee, Pappy shared a piece of French toast from my breakfast plate and gave me one of many small, sweet memories of a man who knew how to take just a tiny bite out of this beautiful life that he spent eighty-four years sharing with everyone he loved.
And I am so lucky to be one of the people he loved. As everyone who was ever blessed to know him can attest to.
Goodbye, Don. May you rest in peace with the angels you surrounded yourself with in life.