Pop Sprinkle and the Bag of Walnuts
by L. Stewart Marsden
I first met Pop Sprinkle when I was about seven years old. At the time he was courting my grandmother, Gommy, who had been widowed for a little longer than I was old. Her husband, my grandfather, had died suddenly from a stroke a few months before I was born.
Pop reminded me of a combination of Fred MacMurray and Andy Griffith. Like MacMurray, he was a pipe smoker, and like Griffith, he oozed of gentle aphorisms. His voice was gravely with just the right amount of emphasis whenever he talked or told a story.
He kept his thinning silver hair combed back, and never clipped his eyebrows, which dominated his face. He wore thick black rimmed glasses, but only when he read. Like Santa, his eyes twinkled, and he always bore a wry turn at the corners of his mouth. He had an unusual scar or birthmark — I never knew which — on his right temple. It looked like a flat, smooth rock had seared its outline there years before. I never asked, because you didn’t talk of things like that back then.
Pop and Gommy got married. He wore a simple black suit, and she a pastel dress with a round, cake-like hat and veil. Gommy was short and plump-like. Pop was a bit bent from the years, and moved slowly and carefully. She moved into his one-story brick house from her brick apartment, and they set up housekeeping together for years.
Pop Sprinkle made his living as a title lawyer, and every day drove his sedan to work, and drove back home to Gommy at the end of the day.
They had a son — Jim Sprinkle — whom Pop and his first wife had adopted. Jim looked nothing like his adoptive father. He was tall and thin with curly black hair and a large hook nose. I think he had American Indian heritage. Jim looked like Daniel Day Lewis. When Pop was dating Gommy, Jim took a shine to my older sister, Kim — but the whole relationship grew really weird after the wedding. Jim left college and enlisted in the Navy, where, even at his height, he was commissioned as a pilot, and flew the big bottle-nosed C-140 cargo planes.
Pop settled into our family as easy as maple syrup on a stack of pancakes. He became an indispensable part of holidays and summer vacations. And he and Gommy began trips and cruises around the world — to Egypt and Europe and other exotic destinations. No matter where, the pictures were always the same: he and Gommy, side by side, with the Eiffel Tower or the Great Pyramids or whatever scenic tourist spot in the background.
Along the years, legends began to build around Pop. They were always true, so I suppose the word “legend” is a bit much. Like the time my brother and his bride-to-be were toasted by Pop on the eve of their wedding. The rehearsal dinner was at the local country club, which had lost its brown bagging license.
A brief explanation is required. The county was dry, meaning the sale of any alcohol was against the law. Clubs and some restaurants got around the laws by offering booze lockers to its patrons. When you went to that club or restaurant, you could order a drink, and you paid for the mixer. This was referred to as brown bagging. So for my brother’s rehearsal dinner, there was no wine, nor champagne, or other alcoholic drink present since the club lost its brown bagging license.
Pop stood and tinked his water glass with his spoon. He took the glass and raised it to the couple-to-be.
“Tonight reminds me of fornication.”
A gasp of shock from the party.
“For an occasion like this, we ought to be drinking champagne!”
Pop and Gommy came down to the beach with the family one summer. At the time, my oldest sister, Kim, was at the top of her social game, and had invited a boy to join the family as well. His name was Alan, and Alan was from the manor born. A fair-skinned, plumpish redhead, it was obvious that Alan knew nothing of picking up after himself, hanging up towels, making his bed, or helping either with the preparation or cleanup of meals. All Alan was capable of doing was running circles around my sister with his tongue handing out.
Kim was a beach bunny, and she posed, sitting on her beach towel, greased up with baby oil (skin cancer was unheard of at that time), and puffed on her slim cigarettes (lung cancer was unheard of at that time) as she browned from mid morning to mid afternoon, while the AM/FM transistor radio blared bee bop tunes (iPods and earphones were unheard of at that time).
Kim was born to tan. Alan was not.
So, Alan turned a bright red.
With long hours on the beach comes dehydration. Our family kept a large cooler in the cottage filled with iced sodas for the kids and beer for the adults. The rule was, if you take out a cold one, replace it with a hot one. Simple. But not simple enough for Alan.
And so, in addition to Alan’s other not-so-great attributes, he never replaced his beers. And, he was very dehydrated, very thirsty. And he drank a lot of beers.
Normally easy-going and passive, this particularly irked Pop, and he determined that Alan was not the calibre of boy Kim should be courting.That night, after a searing sun session that left Alan unable even to put on a light T-shirt (and a bare-chested Alan was something no one in the family wanted to be subjected to), Pop called Alan over.
“You are as red as a lobster, Alan,” he remarked to the privileged one, who sipped on yet another unreplaced bottle of beer.
“I think I’ll stay inside tomorrow and avoid the sun,” he agreed.
“When do you have to go home?”
“Not for a few days.”
Pop reached and picked up a blue plastic bottle with the word ALOE printed in soothing green.
“Let me put some aloe on your burn and rub it in. It really should help with the pain,” Pop offered sympathetically.
Alan flinched at the first drops of aloe as Pop squeezed it from the bottle onto the lobster’s back.
“That’s COLD! But it feels great!”
Everyone’s eyes were on Pop as he squeezed out more aloe onto Alan. Then, like a concert pianist prepared to begin to play, Pop raised his hands above Alan’s back, fingers spread, and then brought them down hard on the tender flesh as if he were pounding out Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue.
“Ahhhh-oooooooooo!!!” screamed Alan in agony, jumping up and running out of the cottage into the night air, Kim close at his heels.
Next morning we found a note from Alan thanking us for our hospitality but that he got called home unexpectedly. Still not sure how that happened on account of there were no cell phones back then, and the cottage phone was quiet all night.
Pop was a hero to us all. Except to Kim, of course.
Which brings us to the bag of walnuts.
On Christmas Eve our tradition was to go to Pop and Gommy’s house for dinner and presents. It was generally a zoo. My brother and I generally sat at the card table while all of the grownups, which somehow included my two older sisters, plus Mom and Dad and Pop and Gommy, sat at the main table.
The tables were festooned with Gommy’s finest china and silverware, thin crystal glasses, trays of olives and pickles and relishes and cheeses and crackers. Bowls of steaming whipped potatoes, steaming green beans, platters of sliced turkey and ham. Salad plates with individual blocks of wobbly green jello, filled with fruit and nuts. Stuffing and gravy and rolls and cinnamon buns and butter molded into small balls. Sliced beets and cranberry sauce. Wine for the adults and sparkling grape juice for my brother and me.
Prior to digging in, Pop said the blessing in his warm way, talking to and thanking God as though He was seated among us.
Conversation sparked as all consumed, and when the din of voice and utensils began to abate, Gommy and Mom would disappear to the kitchen to emerge carrying apple and mincemeat and pecan pies topped with mounds of freshly whipped cream. And finally, cups of hot, fresh coffee.
After the meal, all sated and vowing off never to eat again, the company poured into the living room. Pop lit the pre-stacked logs and kindling, and soon the room was aglow in the warmth and light of the fireplace.
Presents were passed and felt and shaken, all adorned with Christmas wrapping and ribbons and bows. Some very large, others very small.
Mine was always the same. Wrapped in aluminum foil with a red store-bought bow. A tag scotch taped to the foil read “To Skipper, from Pop Sprinkle.” It was a plastic bag of unshelled walnuts.
While the oohs and ahs caused by other gifts bared in the stripping of wrapping paper popped up around me, I would squeeze the plastic bag of walnuts and look down, disappointed. I never looked Pop in the eyes after receiving his gift, because I really didn’t want him to see my face.
He could afford more. But he never gave me anything other than a bag of unshelled walnuts throughout the years. I never understood why he never gave me a shiny toy. Just that same bag of walnuts.
I never understood until the first Christmas after Pop died, and I did not get my bag of unshelled walnuts.