His name is Claude Miller and he was married to Juanita, my mother’s oldest sister. Sadly, Big Momma died in 2000. She was 10 years younger than Big Daddy and she married him at a young age. They were inseparable. Big Momma often told me that she ran away from home to marry him and even as late as 1980, my grandmother still did not smile about it. However, my grandmother did love Big Daddy.
Big Daddy turned 100 years old on September 14. He is amazing. He still drives. He still walks every day. He still likes pretty girls. He is still the biggest flirt on the planet. “Well, aren’t you a pretty thing?” is the refrain heard whenever an attractive young woman speaks to him. He is a charming devil.
Reflecting back on the years that I have known him—and I have known him my whole life—I think about the things I learned from him. He didn’t instruct with slogans or clichés or platitudes. He instructed by the way he comported himself. He was dignified but never haughty, flirtatious but never offensive, respectful but never pandering. When he said “yes” or “no” he meant exactly that.
He taught me what hard work meant. I used to spend summers with them and we (my cousin and I) were always put to work. We painted the barn one summer with paint that he had gotten on sale. He was frugal. There was not enough paint of the same color on sale so he bought another color of sale paint. The result was a barn that was yellow on the north and east sides, red on the south and west sides. Two years later, we did it again but all maroon this time.
I remember being there for the addition to be built onto the house and was privileged to dig footers at the ripe age of nine. Sure, I complained about the work but I was with him and that made all the difference.
I watched the relationship between him and Big Momma. There was a dignified tenderness between them. They were not touchy in public but, if one listened to their conversation, there was gentleness and a playfulness that was adorable. It was the respect between them, however, that I remember so much.
They kept each other’s confidences. No one knows why but she used to call him “Johnny” and it always made him smile. My cousin Linda, my mother and I all tried to get it out of them but always to no avail. They would not reveal their secrets.
My aunt had been put into a nursing home due to advanced Parkinson’s Disease. I would visit her almost every day for the time she was there. She began to lose her clarity of speech but one day I decided to ask her one more time about the nickname.
“Big Momma,” I began, “will you please tell me why you call Big Daddy ‘Johnny’?” She smiled and motioned me to come closer so I could hear her. I bent down by her as she lay in the bed, thinking that this was finally it, and she smiled sweetly as I got nearer. “NO,” she whispered and bit me on the cheek. She passed without ever revealing the secret and Big Daddy has not spoken of it, either.
He did not speak of his experiences in WWII, either. However, on the occasion of his 100th birthday, he was re-awarded his medals and ribbons from Congressman Bartlett of Maryland. In the photo of him standing amidst the Honor Guard, he is as ramrod straight as any of the military personnel alongside who are one-quarter of his age.
He was an example of being a gentleman. Everyone was addressed as “sir” or “ma’am” despite their age of station in society. He did not overwhelm others with his opinion. He steered clear of incendiary discussion topics because they did not lead to peaceful discourse. He exemplified the virtue of maintaining silence regarding his accomplishments and of letting others speak well on his behalf.
This is what I am doing for his 100th birthday.