When I was 5 years old, I was allowed to dial exactly two telephone
numbers: the automated recording that gave our local time and temperature,
and my grandmother.
Hey, Honey Mama, Id say, still in my nightgown
in the early morning, gripping the heavy receiver importantly.
Oh, nothing much. (That, of course, was never true.)
At this point I would be quite at a loss for anything more to say,
but I fervently wished to keep her on the phone. So Id stall
for time. She still delights in recounting how, one of those mornings,
I went on to ask politely: Has your bossy old husband gone
to work yet?
It is not surprising that, as a little girl, I considered my grandfather
bossy. Maybe it was his medical training, maybe it was too many
nights on emergency duty, maybe he just had a remarkably cautious
nature, but to our Honey Paul, the world was little more than a
minefield of hazards for me and my cousins. Standing tippy-toe high
on a chair to reach the cookies was just asking for a nasty fall.
Eating hard candy would choke us. Running with a stick or pencilwell,
every kid knows where that leads. Stop that! Honey Paul
would bark. Youll poke an eye out!
Testing the ice on our neighbors pond, climbing trees, tearing
around the house with wet hair after a bathsuch shenanigans
kept Honey Paul in a constant state of agitation.
At his memorial service in February, Honey Pauls boyhood
friend Lyle Smith said that, as a doctor, my grandfather was almost
compulsive in his need to care for others.
Lyle, a fellow physician, told of running into Honey Paul at the
hospital one icy night at around 2 a.m. When they went to see my
grandfathers patient, the man grasped Honey Pauls hand
and said gratefully, I called every doctor in town, and I
finally got you!
Paul Alexander Ervin Jr. was born in 1920 and grew up in Pleasant
Hill, Tenn., a rural but relatively progressive pocket of Cumberland
County. His father taught vocational agriculture at the local academy.
As kids, Paul and Lyle were expert at squirting fresh cows
milk straight into the mouths of barn cats, leaving their whiskers
Summers were spent fishing, playing Tarzan and hiding behind bushes,
trying to overhear the bad words a neighboring farmer shouted at
his stubborn mule. When the farmer caught on, he changed his tack:
Lyle swears the poor man would actually stomp up to the mules
head and whisper furiously into the cursed animals ear.
My grandfather graduated from Cumberland County High School in
1937 and went to the University of Tennessee, hitchhiking 60 miles
home each weekend. In 1941, he entered medical school at UT-Memphis.
There he roomed with another lifelong friend, Donathan Ivey, and
also met my grandmother, Hazel, a name I never once heard him use.
(Their habit of calling each other honey later inspired
their funny family names)
To facilitate the courting of their future wives, the roommates
pooled their resources and purchased a rusty 1928 Nashwhich
doubled as a mobile greenhouse for various mushrooms and fernsfor
$45 and a fifth of whiskey.
After finishing his M.D. and serving two years in the Army Medical
Corps, Honey Paul returned to Cumberland County in 1948 with his
family. He was home to stay. In 1950 he helped open the new Cumberland
Medical Center and served on its first board of directors. He and
Dr. Ivey also founded Crossville Medical Group, a respected handful
of doctors with whom he would work for more than 30 years.
I got to visit him in their clinic building each week when my mom
went for her allergy shots. In summer, my bare legs stuck to the
sleek black leather furniture in his thickly carpeted office as
I read Highlights magazine and ate lollipops. One wall was
mirrored, surely the pinnacle of elegance in the 1970s. There, in
his white coat, Dr. Ervin was stern and purposeful and a little
scary. At home, he mellowed in the glow of family and a glass of
Sometimes he would take me on Saturday morning hospital rounds
with him. I was both frightened and fascinated by his patients
sickness, their surgery scars, their vulnerability as they spooned
up Jell-O like little kids. Their ages and ailments ranged far and
Honey Paul was an old-school country doctor at heart: He removed
tonsils, set broken bones, dispensed antibiotics, made house calls.
Yet he was also an early proponent of womens equality, civil
rights and abortionpositions I suspect had more to do with
his practical nature than his progressive politics.
Dr. Ervin wasnt known for his soothing bedside manner, but
what he lacked in sympathy he made up in skill.
Without high-tech machines to pinpoint problems, his diagnostic
talent was uncanny. He could locate a bad appendix with one well-placed
thump to the abdomen. Our veterinarians wife used to tell
about the time Honey Paul showed up unannounced at her door in his
snow boots, the drifts piling high behind him, and calmly asked
to see the baby hed been treating. To her surprise, they found
her infant son dangerously dehydrated.
Honey Paul earned the communitys devotion with his care.
For many years he received a dozen red roses each Valentines
Day from the Davis family, a token of appreciation for his efforts
on behalf of their oldest son, who arrived in the world on year
on Feb. 14 after a particularly protracted and difficult delivery.
He retired in 1986, but leisure didnt suit him. Within six
months he went back to work for the Tennessee Department of Public
Health, traveling to clinics in surrounding counties. He retired
for good at 81, a year before his death.
The practice of medicine has changed dramatically in the half-century
since my grandfather hung his M.D. on his office wall. Now there
is little place for a doctor who might begin his day with a hysterectomy
and end it stitching up a gashed finger. Surely medical specialization,
new technologies and advanced treatments have made health care more
efficient; certainly they have increased our collective chances
for a full life. I do wonder, though, how many doctors today can
find an infected appendix by touch.
I wonder how many get roses on Valentines day from a family
whose children are long grown.
All through the holidays, Honey Paul did spirited battle with a
rare bone cancer. He had spent his life trying to outsmart disease,
and he was acutely aware of each stage of his illness, could predict
the progression of his bodys betrayal. In the final weeks
he at last allowed himself to be cared for, a gift on his part that
was both wonderful and wrenching to see.
When he gave up the fight on the last day of January, my grandmothers
home swelled effortlessly with food and people. Squash casserole,
ham, pound cake, all made their way to us in tins and Tupperware
neatly marked with the familiar names of a community. At his memorial
service, stragglers had to stand in the back of the packed church.
There were country folk in overalls and nurses still in uniform
from their hospital shifts. Honey Pauls cousin Joe, an Episcopal
This is Pauls death, he said. It is a significant
happening. Each of us has only one life to live and one death to
die. This is Pauls deaththe only one he will ever have,
and therefore it is just as significant as his life.
And that is significant indeed.