Grandaddy Long Legs
Updated: Apr 10, 2019
Jerry F Gray was born in 1901. He died at age 84 of Alzheimer's Disease.
In the years between, Jim Gray's dad, my Grandaddy, was one of the best men you might ever have the chance to meet. When Jim painted the Joy of Life Parade, he paid special tribute to this man by making him the only person who appeared on all three canvases. I believe this stands as a testament to not only the love Jim has for the man, but also the respect and admiration. As I have come to realize, Jim Gray
thought deeply about just how he would paint an image that would capture his own impressions of his Dad. I believe he also wanted to give, to those who took the time to really look at these paintings, the opportunity to discover more about JFG, especially when paired with the hand written back stories he left tucked away in his studio. The decision to paint him as the tall man was not just because we called him Grandaddy Long Legs. It was also because Jim looked up to him. And both he and his Dad being born in Tennessee almost required that this particular tall man would be wearing a Big Orange suit! The painter is granted artistic license to interpret in ways that the photographer may not. So also must the writer, who undertakes the challenge of interpreting these paintings. Since setting my mind to this challenge, this writer has repeatedly talked with the artist, seeking to draw out Jim's actual recollections of why he made the choices he made in these paintings. Like "the World on a String", sometimes I was blessed with an actual revelation from my Dad. Other times, you will see his brush strokes and read my words, which are based on my 59 years of life as his son, my own recollections of the family stories I grew up with, and my own gut instinct as to just how Jim would have come to the decisions he did. For example, no where in our conversations or in the handwritten notes was there reference to the red arrow with JFG printed on it. Like my interpretation that Jerry was cast as the tall man because Jim looked up to him, the red arrow points the way ahead and suggest that Jim would follow his Dad. Early lesson that Jerry taught Jim would lead him through his life, and some of those life lessons, like work ethic and kindness to others, would be passed along to kids and grand kids. Following JFG also raised the specter of one day walking his same path through life with Dementia; a haunt that does not go unnoticed by this writer and son.
Below, in the story "My Dad and the Whistle" are the words that Jim Gray wrote in a spiral notebook that was found with the other keys that have unlocked more meaning to these images. Again, I had looked at these paintings for years, and I had seen the "stick", but somehow never recognized the music notes as such.
When I found this story and read about the whistle, I was convinced that no stroke from his brush was laid down without significant thought beforehand. Just this moment, in challenging myself about that statement, that no brush stroke was simply for effect, I was studying the image above. I looked at the street surface, and the reflections upon it. This is the only one of the three that the street is wet. It is also the one that features the building in the Old City in Knoxville, know as Sullivan's Saloon. He painted a full sheet watercolor that focused on this building at the height of his painting career.
It was titled "Central Avenue Rainy Day".
There is actually a forth reference to his Dad in these paintings. The JFG Coffee Company in Knoxville, still has a lighted sign on the side of the building. Jim added this in the background of the middle image on this page.
Walking along with JFG is Mamie Pearl Gray, his wife since 1925. For years, when I looked at this painting, I had seen the banana on top of the pie plate she is carrying. Grandaddy had told how, early
in their marriage, she had baked him a banana cream pie and placed it in the window to cool. When he arrived home one evening, tired from a day of work at the garage, he had gone into the living room and sat down to rest a bit before supper. Wanting to do something special for her new husband, she was bringing the pie out of the kitchen to show him, when she caught her toe and fell flat out across the floor. She was unhurt, but more importantly to her, that pie was still balance perfectly in her hand. Grandaddy chuckled every time he told that story. In preparing to retell the story, I discovered something that sparked another memory of a story I had heard my Dad tell once, long ago.
It was finding the hidden treasures, within these paintings, that really sparked my enthusiasm to share with all, these images that Jim Gray had initially painted for his own Joy, and the family stories that backed them up. Jim captured his memories in the best way he could, with his paint brushes. Yet each of us likely carries a cell phone that is capable of capturing memories of our loved ones that can be shared time and again, even as minds begin to loose the details. It is our hope that sharing Jim's paintings of the Joy of Life Parade will encourage you to use what ever means you have to preserve your own family's memories and stories.
It was the recollection of one of Jim's most poignant moments that helped me help him through a particularly tough day. Back around 1980 Dad and Grandaddy were taking an afternoon walk near their home in Mobile, AL. My Dad knew that his Dad was having real difficulty recalling the details of what had occurred recently, but he still had vivid memories of earlier years. As they walked along in easy conversation, his Dad stopped, looked over at him, and asked him "What is your name?" Dad told him, Jim. Grandaddy thought about that for a moment, then he smiled and nodded as he said, "I have a son named Jim."
When I was with my Dad in Nashville Indiana this past autumn, he was having a rough day and was just not being able to make sense at all of what was happening with his mind. He was distressed most by the thought that he was causing his family too much trouble, and he just kept apologizing. I took him in a bear hug, laid my head up beside his head and held him. Then I asked him if he remembered when his Dad asked what his name was. He was still tense and agitated, but he said, "Yes I do, that was a hard day." I hugged him closer and asked him if he loved his Dad any less when he forgot his name. Dad said that he still loved him just the same. I kept my arms around him, but pulled my head back to look him in the eye. Then I told him that I was now in his place, and he was now in his Dad's place, and that I still loved him just the same. His shoulders relaxed and he reached around and hugged me in understanding.
Caring for someone with advanced Dementia is not about getting them well. It is about helping them find a rock to stand on in a rushing river, and standing there with them in the warm sunshine when you get the chance. The water will still be there, and the challenge of getting on across will undoubtedly have to be faced over and over till we get to the other side. But feeling that love shining down on your shoulders can sure make a difference at that particular moment. And when it is all said and done, our loved ones are living in each particular moment.
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Wishing you Peace,