An Affair to Remember

Recently, I’ve been sorting through some of my grandmother’s old photos. I ran across a small photo album full of pictures of her and her boyfriend, a man I knew as Papa Cleon. It forced me to slow down on my sorting and take a minute to reflect on forty years of memories as well as controversy.

My grandmother and grandfather divorced sometime in the early 70’s. My grandmother ended up raising all four of her children on a meager bakers salary. It was sometime during this period in her life that she met the man who she called the love of her life, Cleon.

Growing up, I never analyzed her relationship with Cleon. I spent a lot of time with my grandmother and he seemed to make her very happy. He wasn’t around all the time, but we’d see him every few weeks for a night or two. He’d come take us out to dinner and then be on his way. He was also very gentle and kind, and was always handing out $20 bills to my brother and me. And in the 90’s, if you wanted the affection of some children, hand them a $20 bill.

He took my grandmother on mini weekend trips and vacations and pictures of him could be found throughout her apartment. It was a good, healthy relationship, maybe the only one I ever saw as a child. He treated her well, they never fought, and they seem to have genuine love and compassion for one another. But there was just one hiccup, he was married.

Yup, Papa Cleon was not my grandfather, but he was somebody else’s. He was married, with children, and grandchildren. His wife, knew of the affair, and while I’m not sure if she approved, she tolerated it for decades. I found out when I was around ten years old. My other grandmother dropped the bombshell on me when I called him Papa. She was still a bit sour that he asked her, “How is it living out in the sticks” when she ran into him at the hospital when I was born. She was a proud, poor, Southern woman and she didn’t take too well to having her home referred to as “the sticks.”

So, she let the family secret slip that everyone was already aware of. I guess, my mind was just too narrow, naive, and young to realize that the relationship didn’t really add up. I do recall once asking her if they were going to get married, but that was the extent of my questioning prior to this revelation.

Once I became an adult, my grandmother was very open about her relationship and never once showed an ounce of shame from it. As she got older, Cleon decided he needed to stick closer to his wife, and I believe he had a child die as a young adult and that made him recommit to his family. He didn’t stop loving my grandmother, he still called her almost daily and sent her money to help with the bills. They didn’t see each other like they used to but she never stopped loving him. Even up until her death, she said he was the only man she truly ever loved and could have been happy with. She talked about how she treasured every moment she had spent with him and how they seemed to fulfill each others lives. It was just bad timing or situations that kept them apart.

I haven’t seen Cleon since I was a teenager, but he is still alive. At least, he was two years ago. He kept in touch as my grandmother was slowly overtaken by her cancer, and I actually looked forward to seeing him at her funeral. Sadly, he did not make it. I believe her death was just too hard on him and that’s a shame.

As I look back through this carefully curated photo album, I see smiles, happiness, and love between these two adults. It wasn’t a moral relationship, but I do not doubt that they both made each other happy. I just wish my grandmother would have had an opportunity to experience the love and companionship that Cleon gave her, on a full-time basis and not as the other woman.

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