Friday, July 8, 2011
I suspect that a Daddy is always going to be a monumental presence in his children's lives but I can't imagine anybody's father looming larger than mine did. Everything I can possibly think about Daddy has to be prefaced by the bigness of him, although he was not a big man:. 5'7" on his WWII discharge papers and 165 lbs. But my goodness he had a personality that rivaled King Kong - often in more ways than size.
My very earliest memory includes him - though only as That Man in the Front Seat of the old 1940's car I was riding in. I asked mama about that memory once and she said it was Christmas 1953. I was 15 months old. And I don't remember him so much as his voice scant months later, singing Down in the Valley to me and making everything "all fixed". But he was the first man I ever loved and he set my standard for handsome men worthy of my admiration: bald and with glasses. Later, of course, he helped define so many other things for me: energy, courge, a grasp of money, physical activity, love of animals, vibrant participation in life. He even taught me how to drive a car .... with no tears! He was a doer - a man who jumped in and got going - part of that 'can-do' generation who shaped the 20th century and he swept us along in his wake.
We knew he was the Big Boss in the family, though the Little Boss, Mama, kept a more constant eye on us. Like the principal in an elementary school, he was The Man you didn't want to be brought up before. But he could fill your world with magic and often did. He sang dreadfully - tunelessly and without rhythm. I once asked Mama what kind of dancer he was. "He's an arm-pumper" was her reply. Yep. That's how he danced. I saw my cousin dance just this way at his daughter's wedding and such a wave of love washed over me. When I was about 2 I fell and ruptured the artery above my left thigh. Treatment was long and intense and required driving into the city on Monument Avenue, which was quaintly paved with cobblestones once you crossed the county line. Those stones made the car tires hum and as soon as I heard that sound I knew we were going to that giant doctor who was going to tear 40 miles of wickedly sticking tape off my belly. I'd start to cry and Daddy would start to sing Goober Peas, in an attempt to distract me. That road, that song and the sound of tires on cobblestones still make me tear up, almost 60 years later. Memories.
He was the bedtime story reader. Uncle Wiggly, Ozma of Oz, Twinkle-toes the mouse, all of them filled my imagination with the thrill of adventure. I had a hard time learning to read - didn't actually begin reading till I was well into 3rd grade. My sister, who was reading at some prodigious age like 3, had already set his expectations pretty high and here I was not even meeting basic public school standards. I remember bringing him a book and asking for a story. I also remember his answer, "You're in school now. You have to read yourself". It was a devastation. It also didn't last - because he read the next volume of Uncle Wiggly after Santa put it under the tree for me.
We lived in a little starter home off Skipwith Avenue. They all came with unfinished attics and sometime after the 3rd baby was born he bought a Craftsman table saw and finished off a bedroom for my big sister and me. It was all pine paneled and he built window seats and closets. I was so proud of him. This was proof that My Daddy could do ANYthing. His workshop was on one side of the stairwell while my sister and I slept on the other. He would work on these projects at night and the searing sound and the sweet scent of saws cutting through wood were a beloved lullaby accompanying me into Nod. In subsequent houses there were no empty spaces where he could craft our nest and though they were all nice houses, I always thought it was a shame they came already complete. That same table saw restored my older sister's 18th century Deleware home and then built the house I live in now. It's on the back porch still.
As his career prospered and income rose we moved to bigger houses, first into Chesterfield and then into the city proper. We were a part of the great wave of baby boomers who flooded Chesterfield county in the late 50's and early 60's. There weren't schools enough for all us kids nor were there other public services we take for granted today. No library. No rescue squad. No fire department. When I was 9, a stupid woman started a leaf fire in her yard and then went inside to take a nap. That fire got loose and threatened to burn the whole county down. All the daddy's who were working in the city at the time got called home to help fight that fire. Mama was supposed to pick me up after school that day and I waited and waited and waited for ever for her. All the buses had gone and most of the teachers too, when the principal came out and told me about the fire and that my mother was coming. When I got home, Daddy was black with soot and I remember my little 9 year old chest swelling with pride. My daddy was a HERO. More proof that he could do anything.
My daddy also paid $10 for me! Yes. It was Easter of 1960 and we were in Miami FL in some hotel with a swimming pool. It was almost the family joke that I was 'afraid' to learn how to swim and yet that was where all the kids were - where all the fun was. At one end were the big kids, swimming and playing and at the other end were old mothers with babies. I was way too old to stay with the babies so I figured if I could just stand close to the deep end I would at least look like I was playing with the kids my age. Suddenly I slipped and sank to the bottom. A little boy noticed and dove down to pull me up. What a commotion. I am sure there were tears and lots of fluttering adult activity but what I remembered was my daddy pulling out his wallet and selecting a $10 bill, which he handed to that little boy. Immediately I stopped crying, full of wonderful amazement that Daddy thought I was worth a whole ten dollars!!
He also made me learn to swim that summer. There were tears and he was both stern and firm, but at the end of the third day I could swim well enough to pass muster and I have adored swimming ever since. I realize, as I write down this oft' told story, though, that what he also gave me was a huge boost into freedom. Oh Daddy. How many many wonderful tools you gave me. How grand my life has been, for lo these 40 years, all because of you.
And my goodness, I'm glad I am seeing that because ... La, how we fought those last few years of my adolescence. It was so hot and so bitter that we went several years barely speaking to each other. Well. That much personality clashing with this much personality was bound to be hard. And I never thought - till just this moment - about how much grief he was suffering as his children grew up and left home. I certainly remember how hard it was for me to let go of my one chick. He had to let go of 4 of them. No wonder he held on so tightly.
He also taught me how to handle money - a story I'm sure I've told here. It is so funny because it began when he stupidly, clumsily, and with no plan for how to conduct this conversation, asked me if I "knew the facts of life". When I told him I did not and he uttered his first revealing words of "The Conversation" I stopped him immediately, in dismay, sure he had been about to reveal to me the secrets of fixed rate mortgages and how you get a bank loan to buy a car and how would I ever convince someone to hire me for a job that paid real money. On safe and familiar ground then, he did open that Ali-Baba's cave and taught me everything he knew about money. Another fabulous gift that has made it possible for me to choose whatever lifestyle I wanted. Another reason to thank the good Lord for giving me such a daddy.
He was a man of indefatigable energy. He worked countless hours - at his 40 hour a week job with the IRS, in the Army Reserves for 30 years, and as an adjunct professor of tax law at the University of Richmond's night law school. He was so popular that the day students began selecting his class instead of the regular day classes. At some point the university decided that nobody but a lawyer could teach these classes and let him go - although by then he was a G-12 in the appellate division of the IRS and probably knew more about tax law than anybody in Richmond. Just another example of the tyranny of academe. Around the time he retired my brother-in-law gave him an old printing press and he immediately created a little business printing things like t-shirts and hat labels for a local company. By this time he had left the city for the rapidly sub-urbanizing Powhatan County. He had 15 acres where he could keep horses and dogs and small tractors and hay balers. He could be busy all day long doing just what he wanted to. I believe these were the happiest years of his life and there were a lot of them. He retired at 55 and was active until about 23 years. Once he was receiving social security he took up sky diving and had something like 15 jumps. He had his knee replaced twice so he could continue to ride horses into his late 70's. He volunteered on county committees. He taught dog obedience lessons. He gave horse riding lessons to countless numbers of children. He was a substitute grandfather to his great nephews and nieces. He was a stellar grandfather to his own grandchildren. He took LD along on his karate lessons. He told me some of his deepest and darkest WWII stories. He was constantly offering his children money, even when they didn't need it. His dream was to win the lottery so that he could leave his children wealthy. I would laugh at him and quote him "Un insensé et son argent sont bientôt séparés"
Oh La! More memories flood back over me. Daddy is the only man - really, the only person, I would ever have let go out and buy me clothes. Not that he did, mind you, but he did for my little sister and he had the most excellent taste in clothing. He was always dapper. He had superb taste. He knew what made a woman look her best. He had no opinion about size or shape - he admired all women so long as they were well turned out. I always dressed up to go visit him. Even if I was in jeans or shorts, I'd be sure my hair was coiffed, my outfit was accessorized, and my make-up was just right. He loved him some well dressed women.
Could I ever really tell all about Daddy? Probably not - and probably I'll try again and again over the next few days. But this year there have been a few events that hinted the end was near. The feeling that a divine hand was putting things in order for him shivered over my mind several times. He and I went over a pivotal event in our relationship last September - a dark thing that we both thought was behind us. But after a good look, we both saw ... at least, I hope he saw too, that it was not so dark and certainly way way behind us and that it had nothing to do with how much we both loved each other. At Christmas someone with an important connection to his greatest war loss reached out to him, all the way across the country, and stroked his heart. And in May he and mama were both at the same rehab center where they had lots of time together.
But in June his health began to collapse. He had congestive heart failure. He had fibrous lungs. He had a kidney infection. The doctor t'sked and shook his head. The sisters and grandchildren flew in from afar. The people from hospice came to ease the transition. We snuck his dog into the hospital and nurses promised to guard the door. Beloved great nephews and nieces flooded his room with their vibrant energy and passionate love. He slipped into sleep. And then he stepped through that final door.
Oh Daddy. Please. Go build a bedroom for me and I'll see you when it's ready for me.