My First-Name Grandfather

When you’re a kid, you love your grandparents but I, like a lot of people, didn’t come to truly appreciate them until I was much older. Oh I’ve always loved them, that never wavered, but around the time I started sitting at the “adult’s table” during the holidays, I began to actually understand just how amazing it is to have them around. I realized they weren’t just mom and dad’s moms and dads; they were people who’d lived exciting full lives and had stories to tell that were far more interesting than anything I’d experienced. And no one could tell stories like my grandfather, or as we knew him, Vaughn.

See, I didn’t know him as grandfather or grandpa or papa. I knew him as Vaughn. The story goes that he had no interest in being known as a grandfather because in his mind, that made him sound like an old man. So I, the first grand kid, was to call him by his first name, Vaughn. There’s something bad ass about that but that’s who he was, a bad ass.

When I was very young and stupid, Nana and Vaughn took my brother and me to get dinner—Tex Mex of course. El Chico, Tia’s and Abuelo’s served as the unofficial caterers of any and all Brinson family functions, something that should come as no surprise for a family that has chips and queso at Thanksgiving. We can’t help it. Queso is one of our love languages. Well, over dinner that night, he taught my brother and me the ills of double-dipping. He didn’t just explain that it was a faux pas in terms of table manners, no, he sternly impressed on two boys under the age of 7 that double-dipping was an egregious assault against humanity itself; something that would spread germs and kill us all. I guarantee this was a story he laughed about when he told it later, but I haven’t double-dipped in almost three decades.

But more than table manners, he had a hand in teaching me a valuable lesson about how to treat people. Shortly after our lesson on queso etiquette, he and Nana bore witness to what would be the first of many outbursts when a restaurant brought me incorrectly assembled nachos. My request is simple: beans, cheese and chicken. For 34 years, the request has been the same: beans, cheese and chicken. But on that fateful night, the nachos arrived with extra crap on them and I threw a holy fit. This caught them completely off guard and they scrambled to get a replacement plate to shut me up.

Fast forward to the end of my undergrad experience at Baylor. My dad was supposed to stay tight-lipped about Vaughn’s planned graduation gift for me but he spilled the beans for a very specific reason. Vaughn planned on buying me a nice SLR camera as a graduation gift. Photography was something he and I both loved—a subject he was always eager to talk with me about—so he asked my father to do some reconnaissance to find out which type of camera I’d want to take with me into grad school. Vaughn was emphatic to my father that it be the right camera. Why? “Because,” he said, “I don’t want to get the wrong plate of nachos.”

There’s a 50/50 chance this was simply because I was such a pill when I threw my pint-sized fit, I’d given him PTSD from the experience, but I choose to believe it’s because he cared enough about me to make sure I got what I really wanted. This is the type of care Vaughn put into the things he loved. He loved photography; he was never without his video camera documenting family gatherings. He loved Doris Day; the tribute wall in his house serves as testimony to his devotion. He loved the water from Hot Springs, Arkansas; the annual pilgrimages to stock up were proof of his dedication. He loved playing the piano and though many people don’t know this, he purchased pianos for many of the churches he attended. But more than all of this, he loved his family.

I know he would loudly complain about all of this fuss over him, but I also know that inside, he’d be reveling in the attention. No one knew how to put on a production like Vaughn. At Christmas one year, he asked my father, my sister and I to sing something at the piano because he wanted live music to be a part of our family gathering. When news spread of our miniature talent show, the rest of the family sprang to action, putting together skits and pickle bucket drumming and lip-synced dance routines. That’s the legacy he’s instilled in us; a family of go-getters who’re up for adventure and keep fun at the forefront when we got together. Throughout the years of the Talent Show, we’ve had petting zoos, uncles in drag, hip hop routines, twerking, violin sonatas, culinary demonstrations, and spoken word pieces. We’ve had interactive games and silent films, singalongs and stand-up routines. This is the legacy of free-spirited ridiculousness that began at the top with Vaughn. Each year, he’d try to act bashful and weary of the spotlight but he’d revel in it when it was his turn to perform. He was our ringleader, our master of ceremonies, our storyteller, and to us, the most interesting man in the world.

I love my grandfather. I use the present tense love because I’ll never really be without him. His stories and our own will keep him as alive and irreverent and funny as he ever was. He hobnobbed with Elizabeth Taylor and James Dean on the set of Giant, he spray-painted jack rabbits to turn them into Easter parade mascots, and he stood outside Central High School in Little Rock on the day it was desegregated, covering it for the radio. He helped me get my first car, he gave me the camera that enabled me to start my own digital magazine, and he taught me the ills of double-dipping. But above everything else that can be said about him and all the stories that can and will be told—he loved his family and he gave intently. He remembered the things that we loved and he cared that we loved them. We should all be so lucky as to have someone care about even the obnoxious things about us.

So here’s to Vaughn, my first name grandfather. His story and his legacy will live on—in us and through us—every time we take that “Sentimental Journey” to share his life.


The above was read as a part of my grandfather’s funeral this week. There’s much much more that will be written about him in the future – just the way he’d like it. 

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