Posted by: Lawrence D. Elliott | November 16, 2009

Sweet Potato Pie


My grandfather in the US Navy during World War II

My grandfather, L Hawthorne.

This past Veterans Day gave me a bit of an escape. No thinking of medical appointments or complicated medical procedures. The wonderful parades, the moving speeches and the beautiful ceremonies allowed Lisa and me to focus my attention on and remember those who have sacrificed for this great country of ours. I had the privilege of serving in the United States Air Force as a Security Policeman from 1980 to 1984. But I’ve always felt there was a special status for those who have faced battle in service of our country. They are true heroes.

And as the flags waved, I thought of my grandfather—a World War II veteran—who died in 1992. This year, my story about my grandfather’s influence on my life, titled “Well, I’ve Had A Plenty” was published in the book My Dad is My Hero: Tributes to the Men Who Gave Us Life, Love, and Driving Lessons.

When I was young, my father abandoned the family and we were left without a place to stay. My grandfather would be that all-important positive male role-model that helped salvage my childhood. My story was a tribute to him.

He was born in the small Louisiana town of Lillie in 1922 as L Hawthorne. He was the only person I’d ever known who had a single letter for a name. When I was young, I asked him where it came from.

When he was born, a man in the parish decided on his name. And even though his parents may not have liked it, the times would not allow them to object or change it. It was the segregated South. His parents were black. The man was white.

“Larry,” he said calmly, “in those days, when a white man named you, you stayed named.”

I was in my militant teen years at the time, so I found it infuriating. He, on the on the other hand, seemed devoid of anger or bitterness.

“Baby,” he said calmly, “that’s just the way things was.” Noticing his demeanor had calmed me.

During the war, he served in the United States Navy in the Pacific. When it ended, he moved to San Diego with my grandmother—Moma—and my six-month old mother. He worked a variety of odd jobs—including janitorial—to support his family.

“If you’re going to have a family,” he would say about that period, “you do whatever you have to do to take care of your family.”

Finally, he landed a job with the City of San Diego in 1947—not an easy feat back in those days. He was never late and rarely sick. He faithfully did his part to repair the worn streets of the city for thirty-one years.

When I left the Air Force, I lived with them as I transitioned back to civilian life. Not only did I get my fill of those delicious sweet potato pies he baked so well, I also got to see my grandparents’ relationship up-close. After so many decades, they still seemed to have the love and respect for one another that was as strong as any I’d seen. Even after he retired—and Moma continued to work—he would get up early in the morning and make her a pot of coffee just so it would be ready when she needed it. I was amazed at his thoughtfulness.

But my grandfather always cautioned me that he was not a perfect man. He never let me forget that he had made his share of mistakes. As a kid, I never believed him. He always seemed to me to be as square as they came.

But having lived life, I understand what he meant. No, he wasn’t perfect. Yes, he probably had made his mistakes. But that only made me admire him even more. As a writer, I know a character with flaws who overcomes adversity is much fuller than one without them. It also let me know that just because you find yourself in a tough situation doesn’t mean you just give in to the dark side. It doesn’t mean you just quit or give up. It means you have to work even harder. It amplifies the necessity for doing the right thing.

For him, his faith was his guiding light. He wasn’t one to recite scriptures or preach you sermons. His life was his sermon. Whether you needed a ride to church or the doctor, he was there. There was many a time when we had to scoot over to make room for a needy traveler. And no matter how many times they offered my grandparents money, it was politely waved off. They felt their pay would come at a later time.

He was a member of his church for over fifty years, where he eventually served on the Board of Trustees and was instrumental in helping the church acquire land in the surrounding inner city neighborhood to expand its old facilities. It became a cornerstone in the community.

In his later years, he developed heart problems. I remember him telling me during one of his many hospital stays, that he didn’t want to waste away in the bed. He said, “I want the Lord to take me at church.”

God must have of felt him worthy of such an honor because he granted him his wish. He died at the church he had served so faithfully and loved so much. It was at a church celebration. Fittingly, he was singing one of his favorite hymns.

At his funeral—which lasted almost five hours—condolences came in from all parts of the country. I heard stories that went back to childhood. Even then-Governor Pete Wilson’s office, who was mayor of San Diego when I was a kid, showed their respects. My grandfather spent the better part of his seventy years on this Earth helping folks and they traveled from all over the country to pay their respects to this simple working class man.

And of course, my grandmother was presented with the flag of this country that he so proudly defended.

So on Veterans Day—as I do on so many other days—I thought of my grandfather. I contemplated what he might think of me. Would he be proud of what I’ve accomplished in my life? Would he be satisfied with how I’ve faced the adversities in my life? Would he be proud of how I was taking care of my wife when she can’t always take care of herself?

If I could be half the man he was, I would truly be a great man. Of course, I’d better brush up on my sweet potato pie baking skills.


  1. Lawrence,

    What a great story! I will go back in to my post and add a link for this. Your grandfather would be proud.


  2. […] to publish this photo. Lawrence published his own blog story about his grandfather, called “Sweet Potato Pie.” It’s a great read; check it […]

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