My Grandpa’s Billfold

It’s a genuine leather Rand’s Quality Billfold with an identification card filled out and tucked inside: H. H. West, Route 6, Lafayette, Tenn. The card’s illustration of a polo player mid-stroke boosts Rand’s claim of quality. Along the edge of the worn leather wallet, a broken zipper dangles vestigially.

I found this treasured artifact in my mother’s things after she died. She adored the man she called Papa, a garrulous, hard-working sawmill operator who loved to square dance, to follow politics and baseball, to play dominoes, checkers and Rook.

Inside the cloudy, brittle windows of Grandpa West’s billfold are the small documents that validate good citizenship: driver’s license, Selective Service and voter registration cards, and several membership certificates for the Independent Order of Odd Fellows.

Being an Odd Fellow mattered to him. Folded into a pocket is a tattered clipping from a Nashville newspaper that shows H.H. West of Lafayette received a “past grand degree” from the centuries-old British fraternity dedicated to helping others.

My mother told stories about her father’s imprudent charity, a quality likely balanced by practicality, as evidenced by the Hermitage Health & Life Insurance identification card (policy #409) stacked in his wallet’s thin deck.

Family photos reveal my Grandpa was a thin, narrow-shouldered man with long arms and big ears. A redhead in youth, his last driver’s license (issued 22 June 1955) offers a terse description: hair light, eyes gray, height 5'10", weight 140.

The only two photos in his billfold share a single space, back-to-back. In one, my grandparents pose in their Sunday best against what is likely their home in Galen. It’s not the last photo taken of Grandpa West; someone snapped dozens of him in his coffin in 1956, pictures I unhappily discovered as a child.

H.H. and Annie West

The other photo in the wallet is of my mother, a blond schoolgirl of 16. She was 24 when her Papa died, and instinctively, she claimed one of his most intimate possessions, something carried close to his body, a tiny attaché for his most important papers.

For more than 60 years, my mother safeguarded her Papa’s billfold. An Army wife, she packed and unpacked it countless times, in cities, states and countries her father never saw, treasuring the memory of her father that resided within its aging folds.

I was only two when Grandpa West died. I don’t remember him, but thanks to my mother, I know him.