(Note: This month marks the 20th anniversary of Dink NeSmith Sr.’s death. In his memory, I am publishing a book: “The Last Man to Ever Let You Down, My Daddy the Undertaker.” This is one of the dozens of stories.)
There’s no way for me to count the number of funerals that I’ve attended, but I can remember my first. Just before Christmas in 1952, my mother’s father died. Howell Vines was just 58. We called him Big Daddy.
I was barely 4, but I remember going to his funeral in rural Baker County. Our children and grandchildren have visited his and my grandmother’s grave many times at Pilgrim Home Primitive Baptist Church on Hwy. 97.
Because I was so young, I remember only three other things about Big Daddy. I recall standing on my tiptoes, peeking into his casket. He was a tall, sinewy farmer, and he looked asleep in his Sunday suit. I think I got my big hands, oversized ears and long nose from him.
And there was the day that I sat in his lap while he platted a leather whip for me, just like Lash LaRue’s on TV. That was special, but my favorite memory was told and retold by his wife, Essie, who was Nanny to me.
One day, Big Daddy invited me to ride around the farm with him. We had not gone too far before he was at the back gate, honking the horn on his Ford pickup. His wife stuck her head out the door and hollered, “What is it, Howell?
“Come get this boy!”
“Because, Essie, he asks too many ding-bob questions!”
There’s something else I remember about going to his funeral. It was cccccccold that December. Big Dink had bought his first new car in 1950. It was a dark-green, two-door Dodge, but it had no heater.
Our next-door neighbor, County School Superintendent Aubrey Hires—who wore starched white shirts and a tie, just as my dad did—walked over with a solution. Big Dink and Aubrey called each other “Neighbor.”
Thrusting out a set of keys, Mr. Hires said, “Neighbor, take your family to Margie’s daddy’s funeral in my new Buick. You’ll be warm.”
And we were.
Years later, I was asked to be a pallbearer at Neighbor’s funeral. With every step to the grave, I whispered words of gratitude for his random act of kindness.
Sixty-five years later, I can almost hear his size-12 Florsheim wingtips crunching across the frostbitten St. Augustine grass on his way to our back door. You don’t forget some things. And I am still grateful for that warm ride to my first funeral—Big Daddy’s funeral—in December of 1952.