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Happy Birthday, PawPaw

Today would have been the 76th birthday of my grandfather, my PawPaw. “Frog,” as he was affectionately called was a spitfire of a man—a lion and a lamb. A man of average height, but built like a tank. He got the nickname Frog from his running days. While he was strong and low to the ground, he moved with grace and speed. Of course, by the time I came around, Frog’s running days were long gone, but he still had that spring in his step that made Frog, Frog.

Something that set my grandfather apart from the crowd was his fashion sense; he was the snazziest man I ever knew. Sometimes I don’t know if it was so much his sense of style as much as how he owned it. PawPaw was not afraid to wear what he felt and he felt what he wore; he had personality. It was nothing for him to wear a striped shirt, checkered pants, shiny shoes, and his signature wide brim hat and pale aviators, which he always wore with such gusto and confidence.

After my youngest brother and cousin were born, PawPaw thought it would be a good idea to begin a new family tradition: a yearly family portrait. His only instruction was to “wear something nice.” Bustling into the studio, my mother was, against the will of my brothers and me, fretting over straightening our ties and brushing our hair. “And y’all better smile in these pictures,” she warned as we tucked in shirts and tightened belts.

“Why do we have to wear this?!” my younger brother wailed out.

“Because this is what your grandfather wants.”

My aunt was at the studio too. “Hold your cousin while I go touch up my makeup.” She, not even two years old, looks just as uncomfortable as my brothers and me only in a poof of tulle, lace, and ribbons.

“Your grandfather should be here soon,” my grandmother says, tugging at the waistband of her pantyhose. And soon enough, PawPaw enters in grand regalia. “Frog!” my grandmother exclaims, “What are you wearing?”

“Oh, Daddy,” my mother sighs in exasperation.

“What? I should be asking y’all that. I said wear something nice. Now, this is nice.” Frog gives a braggadocio spin to showcase a rust-colored wool blend suit with a peach sateen wide-lapelled shirt buttoned only halfway. He had a fabric boutonniere and, of course, his signature hat and glasses. “Y’all see what I added, huh?” as he pointed to the matching strip of fabric around his hat.

“Daddy, you not--”

“Hillards!” the photographer calls out into the lobby.

“We’re here,” PawPaw says as he takes a seat next to me and takes the baby. “Y’all got my babies in all this. You know they not comfortable.”

As the women fret and fuss amongst themselves, PawPaw looks at me genuinely. “Son, listen. I want you to always be you. No matter who likes it or not, who agrees or not. No matter who’s got anything to say, you be you. Your mama might not like it. Hell, I might not even like it, but you be you, son. You hear me? You remember that. ”

“I hear you, PawPaw. I’ll remember.” He leaned over and kissed me on the temple. He gave the baby a big kiss and handed her back to me.

“Now, let’s get take these pictures!” He jumped up and headed to the photo room. As he walked, I caught a glimpse of cow print socks.

“Oh, Frog,” my grandmother exhaled. He looked back at me and winked.

A 13-year-old boy coming into his own, attempting to find his voice and identity found just the validation and permission I needed. That conversation was just one of many with my grandfather, but even still I find such strength in the words and memory of my PawPaw. I remember that to this day.

Over the last nearly 20 years, there have been times where I have been challenged—my character, my thoughts, my own fashion sense, even my very sense of self. But I remember those times; I remember my grandfather’s wherewithal to be himself despite opposition and that has inspired me beyond words. I remember Frog. I will never forget…

Thank you, PawPaw. I love you.

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