My Grandfather: Horace Burriss

Editor Note –This story was first written in 1998 by one of Horace Burriss’ granddaughters, Tina Carbaugh of Norcross GA. I have recieved permission to republish this story in my blog, because Horace Burriss is my Grandpa too.

My maternal grandfather turns ninety years old this year. Ninety! When grandpa was born, Theodore Roosevelt was President of the United States. This is the same President who fought in the Spanish American War and the same man who became president because of William McKinley’s assassination. I think back to my school days, the long history classes where I yawned at anything that happened before I was born. Now, thanks to my Grandfather, what I once perceived as ancient history I now see as current events.

Being the patriarch of the family is a big responsibility. He carries memories of our family history that he can share or take to his grave never to be expresses. When my grandmother, his first wife, was alive she was full of life and memories that she was more than willing to share with anyone who would listen. My Grandfather on the other hand takes a little cajoling to get a story out of him, so people want to listen.

I remember my grandmother telling me the story how she and Grandpa met. She was fifteen and he was twenty-one. She told me they were neighbors and he would sit with her under this big apple tree she had in her yard. The Andrew Sister’s “Don’t Sit under the Apple Tree” became their song. When Grandpa tells the story he can only remember that Grandma was cute with curly hair and how he would throw stones into her yard to get her attention and “Oh yea, I think our song was “Don’t sit under the Apple Tree”. There should be more details to this love story. After all they were married for fifty-three years. I was twenty-one when Grandma died. I guess I just was not at the age to appreciate family history or I would have asked more questions when she told her stories. I have no doubt he loved Grandma. I remember when Grandma died, Grandpa went into his bedroom shut his door and called his sister in South Carolina and cried. I had never heard my Grandfather cry before and I have not seen him cry since.

Grandpa has always lived a practical life. I think he chooses to live his life frill free because he knows no other. He comes from an era where he lived life as it came. There were no fantasies of growing up to become a doctor or lawyer or even winning the lottery; there was no time because keeping the family fed and clothed took all the energy and time of the whole family. When asked if he has any regrets in his life he responds with a quick and gruff “no”. I asked if he regretted only receiving a seventh grade education or perhaps not going to college and he says he feels he had enough education to do what needed to be done and he did not have any use for any more.

He grew up in South Carolina on a cotton farm. The farmhouse void of the sounds of a television or telephone and to read the evening newspaper took the light of a kerosene lamp. It was Grandpa’s job to light the kerosene lamps at dusk and to light the wood stove at dawn. Their first family car was a 1917 Model T Ford, prior to that they depended upon a team of horses for transportation. He had three older brothers, one older sister, and two younger sisters. When asked about his parents he remembers his mother as sweet and gentle and his father, to quote Grandpa “oh, he was OK”. Then he proceeded to tell me how he received three “whoopins” from his father. Once he was punished for smoking, actually not for the act of smoking, but for lying about it, another time for not watering the horses, and one more time for throwing something at a “colored person”.

Entertainment consisted of making whistles out of tree limbs and trying to stay out of trouble. He still laughs when he thinks of the times he and his cousin used to place old shoes in boxes and throw them in the street and go hide in the woods so they could watch people pick up the box and run thinking they found a treasure. Baseball was another pass time. In fact he brags about how he was invited to pitch for the City of Anderson but did not have the transportation so he had to pass up the offer. Baseball is still his passion and he watches it today on his television and reads the sports pages every day.

For reasons he cannot remember they lost the family farm and they moved to “town” when he was sixteen or seventeen. He took a job for the State Highway Administration counting cars. He would sit along the road and count the vehicles that passed by. In town, he lived across the street from my Grandmother. He married her when she was fifteen and they moved to Maryland. I asked my Grandmother what her mother said about her marrying at such a young age and Great Grandma said “Eva, you made your bed and now you have to lay in it.” Six children and fifty-three years she lay in that bed she made. Marriage was another one of those things that their generation had taught them to deal with the hand they were given. No use to complain or go to a marriage counselor. Now, they had a family that needed to be fed and housed, and each family member played an important role to keep the family going. Once again there was not time for frivolous “what if” fantasies. Divorce was never an option. It was legal and it happened but in was never an option for them. They did not look at life as an array of opportunity. You were born, married had children, grand children, and then died.

I am intrigued with society’s growth in technology and behavior in his lifetime. When he was born the world seemed so huge and out of reach but with the inventions of jets, fast cars, telephones and televisions, the world became smaller. He grew up in a time where only the elite or rich had things that the average person takes for granted today. Others may beg to differ but I do not remember him ever starting a conversation with “When I was a kid we had to walk six miles to school in our bare feet.” The closest thing he came to a story like that is “When I was a kid my folks would not let me watch television for a week to punish me for any ill behavior.” It wasn’t until I was older that I realized the joke in what he was saying. I am sure in a circuitous way that was his way of telling younger generations not to take for granted what they have.

Our behavioral growth shows in the thought that if he was born fifty years later society would not have let a twenty-one year old marry a fifteen year old girl. Today they call it statutory rape. He would not have been allowed to drop out of school with only a seventh grade education and today people frown upon parents “whoopin” their kids. Any of these offenses could have landed him in jail or a booking on the Ricki Lake Show.

My Grandfather is a sharp man. His memory has not declined with age but, because of his lack of education and self-centered ways I don’t think he realizes the history that has gone on around him in the past 90 years. He has lived through two World Wars, Vietnam, Korea, and Desert Storm, the Stock Market Crash of 1929 and 1987. The Depression, and seventeen presidents. When I say self-centered, I don’t mean to imply he is only thinking of himself but that he was raised in a time where taking care of the family was the paramount reason for living. What was going on in the rest of the country was of no concern of his unless it affected feeding his family. When I asked him how the Depression affected him his only response was “Sugar was hard to find.” I reminded him of the wars he lived through and he only brought up one – the “German War”. His favorite President was Franklin Roosevelt because he remembers people getting jobs and help through food stamps.

I asked many people to tell me about Horace Burriss. I asked his kids, brother In-law and even grandchildren and everyone had the impression of him; They see him as a harsh and opinioned man. They all had stories of him being short tempered over something minor or being the butt of one of his jokes. My aunt thru marriage, remembers Grandpa teasing her because she was Catholic, she ran upstairs crying and when she came back down he apologized for his behavior. Later, my Grandmother told Aunt Pat to consider herself Lucky because he has never apologized to anyone. My Mother told me that when she would come home from school she would go find her Mother and ask her what kind of mood he father was in so she could prepare herself for the afternoon ahead.

MY image of Grandpa is kinder. I remember as a child the corny jokes he used to tell us. “What did one tomatoe say to the other Tomato? – Nothing because tomatoes can’t talk.” His laugh will always stay with me especially after telling one of his jokes. I always dreaded sitting next to him during mealtimes because I could always count on him to play the same joke. He would always point out a window and say, “What is that?” Silly me, I would always look and when I discovered there was nothing to see I would go back to eating and my plate would always be missing.

It goes without saying, Grandpa is a survivor. Anyone to live ninety years has the right to be called that. I think he is the strongest man I know. I am proud of him and feel sad when I allow myself to think about him dying. In his lifetime he has buried two wives and one child. He has survived prostate cancer and skin cancer. He still has his impish sense of humor, he still laughs at his own jokes, and he still snaps at people when his patience wears thin. I think he has earned the right to be opinionated and impatient.

Happy Birthday Grandpa!

Editors Note – PawPaw passed away on Dec 7, 1999, 11 days shy of his 93 birthday, nearly 3 years after the author wrote this story.