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Stained White T-Shirt

I was standing there. 

At the funeral home.

Looking at a display of pictures from my father’s life. 

And I saw it. A picture of my dad’s dad. My papaw.

He was pictured with his two sons. He was wearing a stained white t-shirt. 

This had to be quite a few years before I remember meeting him.

But my memory of Papaw was of a short, strong, thick man with jet black hair and yellowed skin wearing a stained white t-shirt.

His habit was to come home from work and shower. Then put on a white t-shirt and shorts. No matter the weather in his central Ohio town, Papaw was in shorts and a white t-shirt unless he was going to work. 

His teeth were yellow from smoking two packs a day. His eyes dark but sparkling. 

He was always thrilled to see me, it seemed. Always had a gift. He’d have me on his knee and a cigarette in his hand and we’d laugh. 

I wondered how often he bought those shirts. 10 at a time every 6 months, maybe? 

He was 58 and I was 6 when he died. Cancer. The smoking took its toll. 

I hadn’t really thought about him – not in that detail – for a long time. He was the first close relative I had that died. 

So, standing there, at the funeral home to greet mourners of my own father’s death, I thought of Papaw. I saw that shirt and that man, and those huge arms and black hair and I smiled. 

Later, as I was traveling home, I wondered about that picture. The man with his two boys. I wondered if sometime before or after that picture was taken, was he beating them the way he had? With his hands or a belt or a baseball bat? 

Did he wear the stained white t-shirt when he came in drunk and crashed the Christmas tree? 

Did he have one of those shirts on when he’d sit outside the high school football stadium drinking in his car while his boys played ball?

What did my own dad think when he saw his dad holding me at the kitchen table in that stained white t-shirt? 

Why was I brought there, to a home that held such pain for those who’d been raised there? Was it obligation? Fear? 

I didn’t know that man. The one that was the subject of my father’s nightmares. 

The man I knew dressed exactly the same and smelled of the same cigarettes and sweat. 

But this man – this man smiled and laughed and bounced me on his knee. I never saw a glimpse of anger and my memories of those stained white t-shirts are ones that bring me joy. 

Recommended2 Simily SnapsPublished in All Stories, Coming of Age, Memoir, Personal Narrative


  1. Courage to write about the abuse our parents endured, when the grandpa, showed nothing but love to us. Mine was also highly prejudiced. He died at age seventy two of cancer and I was six. My uncle said one time, any extra money “Dad” got, he sent to family in Pittsburgh or spent on clothes, during the Great Depression. Different from your experience, yet, the same feelings. And yes, in memories I wrote for family, I included the abuse my mom and an older brother experienced. It was hard, but that was how my mom told me. For some reason, he left the two younger kids alone. My theory is they didn’t look like my grandmother. She walked out on him and the three remaining children at home, in 1940. My mom was sixteen. The other two, thirteen and eleven. Pieces of stories makes you wonder, but he was very good to me.

    1. Thanks, Molly. It was hard to write just the positive – my own experience was, well, it was good – Sure, Papaw smelled odd (cigarettes, alcohol), but he was kind to me – excited to see me. My dad, of course, had different memories – and that’s part of the experience. It all came back when I saw that picture.