Remembering Poppy Collins

by Eric Ginsburg

Most people knew him as DK, but to me he was just “Poppy.” I can’t claim to be close with too many people who are more than 50 years my senior, but then again few people have such striking personalities.

I don’t think I’ve even met any of my friends’ grandparents before, but I came to know my girlfriend’s grandfather well.

Poppy welcomed me into two of his homes, in Raleigh and the small island of Chincoteague, Va. Before his health deteriorated we planned to visit him at his third home in the Florida Keys, to spend afternoons lounging outside with fresh orange juice or learning to fish with him and spending hours being cradled by the sea.

He loved to show me things ‘­— some more interesting than others — but his enthusiastic, spirited nature always made it worthwhile to listen. The last time I saw him he handed me part of an old diary from someone in his church. He was always telling stories that, even if I couldn’t keep up with the cast of characters, kept me laughing.

He and his wife, who I know as Memom, introduced me to Southern staples. A Yankee transplant, they helped me finally understand Southern hospitality. Greensboro natives had taken me to Southern food joints and offered sips of their Cheerwine floats, but I fully experienced Southern cuisine sitting around Memom and Poppy’s kitchen table. I didn’t even really like seafood until I started eating Memom’s home cooking.

I spent a number of nights and afternoons sitting in their living room watching UNC TV with them, especially nature programs. Poppy loved to fish and hunt, but he was enamored with these nature shows and I was happy to watch with him.

Their old camper sits in the driveway alongside their house, and once when they had guests in town I stayed out there instead of the guest room. I forgot to bring my shoes out and in the morning tried to walk cautiously across the gravel driveway into the house, where a French toast breakfast was waiting.

One November weekend we drove up to visit them in Chincoteague, where Poppy grew up. After a day biking the island, visiting an unofficial peacock reserve and exploring the docks, we came home to eat dinner together. Afterwards, Poppy and his friends sat around discussing the Bible and sanctification while we drifted in and out of sleep. Far from where I grew up, somehow I still felt the comforts of home.

We had visited Poppy in the hospital before, listening as he bantered with the nurse. This time, I awkwardly shifted my weight as I stood in the hallway outside his room. Before we arrived on April 13, as it became clear he wouldn’t make it, I’m told the nurses were bawling alongside his close family. I just stood there dumbfounded.

It started to hit me later when Memom walked into the room, even though she seemed to be holding up well. But it still wasn’t real. How could it be?

After tissues that seemed too thin, a prayer and complimentary hot chocolate, we drove back to Raleigh. I sat with my girlfriend to help write his obituary, and still it wasn’t real. I remember losing my grandfather when I was in eighth grade, but his death didn’t hit me until the first shovelful of dirt hit his coffin after it was lowered into the ground.

When I think about my grandfather “Papa” Sidney I don’t think about him laying sick in his living room or about the funeral service. I think about how he loved crossword puzzles, or about digging holes long enough for my whole arm on the beach, or the Playmobil castle set he gave me or about sitting on his lap.

I know in a few years when I think about Poppy, my mind won’t be filled with thoughts of the memorial service or how much weight I saw him lose.

Instead I’ll remember him coming into the house after a day of duck hunting, laughing as he took off his waders. I’ll recall him smiling out the window at birds flitting around a feeder, telling stories in his Chincoteague accent that took me a while to understand.

I’ll remember his unceasing positive attitude and open heart, sitting with him reading Our State and sipping sweet tea, or how he always had an amusing story or anecdote to offer, after which he would smile wide and chuckle loudly.

Friends and family at the hospital tried to recall exactly how old he was — they knew it was 74 or 75… or was it 76? Someone remarked, “But he seemed so young!” and everyone agreed, because his playful demeanor was a defining characteristic.

It was hard not to love that man, and I think nearly everyone that met him did. I know I certainly did, and still do. It still isn’t real to me, but I guess I can’t expect it to be yet.