Sunday, May 27, 2012

A True Renaissance Man

Bing in his dancing days

Today would have been my Granddaddy’s birthday.  He was an amazingly awesome man. It was his greatest desire in life to be famous.

The month of May always makes me think of him.  He loved all the various shades of green and all the flowers that are a part of the landscape this time of year.

 He was born the second son of a tobacco farmer/antique dealer on May 27 in the early years of the twentieth century.  He passed on in May of '93, just a week or so prior to his 88th birthday.  Despite the fact that it has been nearly twenty years since his passing, I find myself thinking of him often. He influenced my life in innumerable ways.

In many ways, my Granddaddy defied description.  He was a good ol' farm boy who had educated himself in an amazing number of subjects. He was a real "man's man" but loved and appreciated art and culture.  He was big and strong but yet sensitive to the babblings of a little girl. He was fascinated by science, the possibilities of nutritional supplements and healthy living, but often subsisted on Fig Newtons and Coca-Cola. He was unique.

He never really finished school.  Depending on when you heard the story, he only completed the sixth (…or was it third?) grade. That didn’t stop him from having one of the sharpest minds I have ever encountered.  He could figure out how anything was put together and recreate it (often from memory), he could draw with both hands…at the same time…completing a picture by joining it in the middle. He made wood carvings that looked life-like. He held an impressive number of patents for the odd and random thing.  His lifelong desire to be famous meant that at one point in his early days, he wanted to be a dancer.  A farming accident involving a stump-puller put an end to this dream and quite nearly his life.   As he recovered, he wandered the Wild West for a while, coming back east to settle near family. 
Bing and Pearle 1932

Bing and Pearle 1964
To Granddaddy, there was nothing finer than a trip into the countryside.  As a matter of fact, family legend has it that my grandparents’ courting days included an ancient Model T (or maybe a Model A), a bag of donuts, a dog in the rumble seat…and many, many miles through the countryside. The real story was lost through the passage of time.  My grandparents married on a visit to kin people in Edinburg, VA in the early 30’s. They were a most unlikely pair.  They were opposite in most every way.  His dashing good looks, gregarious nature and carefree spirit were tempered by her practical approach to life.  But, somehow, they made it work until my Grandmother's death in early 1990.

Granddaddy loved the countryside, despite the fact he and my grandmother lived in town, and he would sit on my parent’s back porch for hours as the shadows lengthened, listening to the sounds that go along with the rural landscape.  I remember sitting with him after dark and asking what he was listening to….”just listening” was always his answer. It was not unusual for him to get everyone to hop in the car and drive off into the wild blue yonder, often ending up in the most rural portion of another state just in time for supper.
Construction 1968 Warrenton, VA

The Fountain
He seemed to lack ambition, or any desire for the “finer things” of life.  He worked hard, but enjoyed sitting on his front porch in cut-off shorts and no shirt, sipping Coca-Cola out of a green glass bottle, and calling greetings to all the neighbors.  No one ever passed my grandparents’ house without a greeting and many came for cookies and a cool drink on a hot day to sit by his fountain and talk. He built the fountain and installed its circulation system and colored lights himself.  It was a work of art and the talk of the neighborhood.  Folks would come by just to see it.

My granddaddy was an inventor, a craftsman, a sculptor, an artisan, and more than a little eccentric. When it came to handcrafts, there was nothing he couldn’t do, and do extremely well.  When he was in his mid-seventies, he decided he wanted to become a sculptor and attended classes at the Corcoran Art Gallery.  Never one to do things half way, he soon gave up clay sculpturing for marble. His technique was amazing.  He was a favorite of the instructors and the artists.  His eclectic friend base made my summer visits to my grandparent’s home most interesting to say the least. 

Although never a religious man, he taught me more by his life’s example about the Golden Rule, compassion, love and concern than I ever learned in Sunday school. Whenever he heard of a need, he didn’t ask questions, he did something.  He did something right away.

1st great grandchild
He was there when the Boss and I got married.  He was there to see his first great-grandchild, and then her sister arrive in this world. We all enjoyed his visits and benefitted from his incredible generosity. Over the years, we have all talked about how very much he would love this life adventure of ours.  I can just imagine him down at the Market, laughing his huge laugh, calling everyone “Clem” and discussing the hot topics of the day.

He had a stroke when I was in high school, giving me my first inkling of the possibility of life without the “old folks”.  Despite the scare, he managed to out-live all my other grandparents.  After the stroke, he walked with a cane and thought it was hilarious to keep everyone in line by either hooking them (to slow them down) or poke them (to hurry them).  When his time finally came, I can honestly say that that day in the cemetery, hugging my sister-in-law as we grieved, was one of the saddest (if not THE saddest) days I can remember.

I never thought I shared much with my free-spirited, creative, intriguing Granddaddy…except for my red hair, love of the comics, an appreciation of a good (or bad) play on words and our very rural roots.  But, today, I realized that we were both the same age when we took an amazing, audacious leap of faith in our lives. 

Back when Granddaddy was 33 or 34, he borrowed some money from a friend to start a business.  Keep in mind, this was during the depression era.  At the time, my grandmother was keeping track of every nickel they spent. (LITERALLY) It was a bold and audacious step for a most unambitious seeming man. His upholstery business flourished over the years, providing a much needed service for many in the community and lifetime employment and friendship for his workers. His company did beautiful, durable work.  He took care of all his siblings, his own family, many of my grandmother’s family members, and even sometimes random strangers.  I take that back, he never met a stranger…he considered everyone he ever met some sort of friend. Suffice it to say, LOTS of folks were touched by his generosity and kind heart, not to mention his handiwork.

I was the same age when we took that huge leap of faith that landed us here on the hill. Sometimes I can’t believe we really left our old life behind and started all over again in a new place. It remains an amazing ride and  I can only hope that our adventure will allow us to touch other folks in so many positive ways.

Granddaddy may have never achieved his desired celebrity.  But, despite the fact he was never famous… he will never be forgotten. 

Bingham Fravel Burner 1905-1993

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